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PAY SNAFU PLACES GUARDSMEN IN A BIND

The final insult for Chris Folckemer came when an American Red Cross official handed him a $400 check.

It wasn't supposed to be that way, and besides being upset and desperate for cash, he was embarrassed he had to take a handout.

Folckemer, a National Guardsman from Cheektowaga who volunteered immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was assigned to duty for 19 days just a couple of blocks from ground zero, did not think he'd be taking financial help from the Red Cross disaster relief fund.

But money became a big worry for Folckemer and other National Guard troops from Western New York, who told of runarounds and dismissive attitudes from some officials when it came to getting the $100 per day they were entitled to as soldiers activated by the state to help in an emergency.

The soldiers -- all of whom have served in the Army and Navy before joining the National Guard -- said the pay situation got so bad (their civilian jobs stopped paying them while at ground zero) that they were forced to stop helping with relief efforts in Manhattan.

Instead, they came home Saturday to resume their jobs. "I couldn't afford to stay any longer," Folckemer said.

The pay delay, it turns out, occurred when Folckemer and others were switched to another unit when deployed Sept. 11 to a National Guard air base north of New York City.

And some National Guard members said delayed paydays have happened before -- it happened when they were deployed following a major ice storm in northern New York a few years ago.

They said the pay issue affected morale in the ranks.

"If this were the first time it'd happened, we could understand it. The state is being pulled in 10 different directions after the attack. But it's not the first time," said Michael Wearne, a member of the 42nd Infantry Division out of the Masten Avenue Armory.

Wednesday -- a week after calls by The Buffalo News were first made to officials in Albany at the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which oversees the National Guard -- the first installments of the soldiers' paychecks began flowing.

Thursday, National Guard sources said, the state's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Maguire, called a payroll master in Buffalo to try to get the paychecks to the soldiers.

Employers give National Guard members time off when they are activated.

But unlike National Guard soldiers employed by government agencies who are permitted to double-dip by continuing to collect their government paycheck plus their Guard pay, those in the private sector often see their regular paychecks stopped. Replacing the salary is the Guard pay, which -- in the case of several National Guard members -- amounts to $100 per day.

The first check for Folckemer and Wearne was for three days' work -- $300.

It turns out a mistake at some level of command occurred and the two men, as well as two others in their unit, were not paid because they were switched to another unit when they were deployed on September 11 to an Guard air base north of New York City.

The Guard members talked of the physical and emotional drain working on the trade center efforts took on them. They said it was bad enough they were sent into a combat-like zone without weapons. They talked of sleeping in tents in Battery Park city for two weeks. But they said all that was to be expected. They did not, however, expect their finances at home to take a beating from their volunteer work.

Folckemer said that after trying to get information about the paychecks, he was forced to take the $400 from the Red Cross.

"It should have been taken care of before it got to that. I felt horrible doing it because there were more people who needed the money than I do, but I had to do what I did so I didn't go broke," Folckemer said.

After working to improve his credit rating and being the new owner of a house purchased in January, Folckemer said he couldn't risk missing a mortgage payment.

Folckemer said that before he left Buffalo for New York, his commander told him and the hundreds of other local troops who volunteered that there would be three things not to worry about: food, shelter and money.

Scott Sandman, a spokesman for the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which oversees the state's National Guard, called the pay delay an "isolated case."

He said the agency is "acting quickly to determine why and where this apparent miscommunication took place" and that "getting our soldiers properly paid during a deployment is of paramount importance."

Sandman said the agency has issued 16,000 paychecks to National Guard members since Sept. 11.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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