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For troops, mixed financial homecoming

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The war in Iraq is revealing an uneven financial landscape for those who serve in America's armed forces.

Hazardous-duty pay is a boon, allowing single personnel such as airman Steven Creek to splurge. After four months on a desert air base with little to do and nowhere to shop, Mr. Creek returned here to Langley Air Force Base and added $2,200 silver rims to the wheels of his Lexus ES 300 - a car he bought after a previous deployment.

But for many military families, the windfall doesn't outweigh the added costs of deployment, such as childcare. And for reservists and those in the National Guard, extended deployments in the age of a war on terrorism can mean long-term pay cuts.

When Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Clarence Savage was called to duty here at Langley Air Force Base in January, his earning power fell by about $15,000.

That's because, although his employer covered the difference between his private-sector salary and his military pay, he no longer earned overtime. He cut back on savings and asked creditors for some leeway.

Such is the mixed financial picture for those who defend America.

Washington policymakers have already begun grappling with ways to improve pay and benefits, especially for those most likely to leave. All service members deployed in or near Iraq benefited from combat bonuses that fattened their paychecks by as much as 50 percent. The Bush administration and Congress have moved to further expand pay, and are now considering moves such as improving health benefits for reservists. The recent tax cut, too, is coming under scrutiny this week as some lawmakers object that about 200,000 military families won't see their child tax credits expand.

Consider Jason Kayla: After seven years in the Air Force, he plans to double his $19,000 military salary by leaving the service to become a civilian police officer.

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