View Full Version : Financial hardships can force a family dilemma

02-20-09, 08:02 AM
Published: Friday, February 20, 2009

Financial hardships can force a family dilemma

By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist
Walls are covered with family pictures in the home Donna French shares with her four children and -- too infrequently -- her husband Mike.

It's a house filled with the ordinary stuff of life. There are toys and books, juice boxes and a diaper bag.

Unseen in the south Everett home are this country's most pressing problems. War, health care, economic worries, all the big issues reside under this one roof in south Everett.

"They're right in our house every single day," Donna French said Thursday.

Michael French, 29, would love to be home, his wife said. Instead, he's in Afghanistan. Since the fall of 2006, he has worked for one of several private contractors involved in U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The money is good, about $90,000 a year, Donna French said. There are tax breaks, too, but she said her husband is home fewer than 30 days each year. With four children, that's precious little time.

I called Donna French following news this week that President Barack Obama authorized sending 17,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, where there are now about 38,000 U.S. troops. Obama said during his presidential campaign that Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, was the crucial front in countering Islamic extremists.

"It's maybe more dangerous than Iraq right now. We don't talk about it, or else I'd be a wreck," said Donna French, who is pleased by the renewed attention on Afghanistan.

Without any worries of war, she'd still have her hands full. The Frenches have three daughters, 6-month-old Autumn; 3-year-old Paige; and Chloe, 5; Mike French has also raised Donna's son, 14-year-old Forrest, from the time he was small. Both from the Lynnwood area, they've been married seven years.

Spending life mostly apart isn't about greed. It's about medical bills.

For six years, Mike French worked as a crab fisherman out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. He was on the boat Sea Ern and was filmed for the documentary series "Deadliest Catch," his wife said.

On that perilous job he was hit in the head by a crab pot and later fell and hurt his neck. The family had high-deductible health insurance. With Mike's injuries and the children's health needs, they were left with thousands of dollars in bills.

With young children, Donna said, she couldn't afford to work. Bankruptcy was an unpalatable option. Lured by a high salary, Mike French accepted work with the contracting company as a generator mechanic in Afghanistan.

Donna French, 33, is in awe of her husband's work ethic. He had paper routes as a boy. By 19, he was a crab boat deckhand. He's been in Afghanistan more than two years, becoming a supervisor, his wife said. They have paid off more than $36,000 in medical bills.

They rent their house, but hope someday to buy a home and some property.

"Michael wants to come home, but he can't. There are no jobs," Donna French said. "He sends out about 20 resumes a day. It's really hard, we've been doing this a long time."

As she shoulders responsibilities at home, Donna French said her heart goes out to military families. They, too, endure long separations. "Their income is so much lower," she said. "Do you really know how much so many people do for $1,200 a month?"

Her husband's pay is better, but in Afghanistan he sleeps on a cot and sometimes eats military field rations. He was home for Christmas but won't be back again until May for Chloe's sixth birthday.

When he is home, they savor every second. He loves Saturday mornings, with a pancake breakfast and the kids' cartoons.

"People complain about an hour in traffic," Donna French said. "He says, 'Do you know what I'd give for that?' We pray every day for an opportunity, a different job."

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.