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Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

Tales of Service: Sharon McNary, Army

Marketplace Staff Feb 20, 2009


It was the late 1970s, I was 18, broke, not quite homeless and working an overnight waitress shift at a crummy diner. That’s when I enlisted in the California Army National Guard.

I thought I might learn skills that would keep me out of the restaurant jobs from which I kept getting fired. I also wanted to earn money for college tuition. I succeeded on both counts, sort of.

At basic training on Fort Jackson, S.C., I learned how to stand at attention while large people yelled at me. I learned to melt black polish by lighting it on fire in the tin so it goes on boots in a thinner coat and shines up more brilliantly. I learned that the girl at the top of the stairwell (me) will do better in a hallway fight than the girl halfway down the stairs who started it. I can set a Claymore mine. All helpful skills in my later work life.

I trained to be a Finance Specialist at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. It wasn’t me, but it could have been, so I apologize to soldiers everywhere for your screwed-up leave pay, per-diem, combat pay, relocation pay, etc. The boxes we had to write in were very, very small and our pencils were dull.

After training, I was back home in Southern California attending college. Once a month, dressed in green fatigues, boots and a field jacket, I’d ride the bus from Northridge to Inglewood for a weekend drill with the 40th Finance Co. Often, some Vietnam veteran would see my uniform and make me a captive audience for his memories or rants about the war.

One weekend of drills counted as four days’ pay. After taxes, I’d get a monthly check of about $118. That money, along with my $109 Social Security survivor benefit from my late mother, $25 per week from donating blood plasma, and a part-time bookkeeping job paid my rent and college tuition.

Each summer, the 40th Finance Co. would go on a two-week drill. We got sent to Camp Roberts, near Paso Robles, Calif., to be the finance unit for the tank warfare soldiers. It was over 100 degrees during the day. I was an officer’s driver. Nice work, automatic transmission, air conditioning, and lots of down time to read a book or chat with other soldiers.

The night before payday (our big reason for being there) the First Sergeant and his brother, the camp’s paymaster, asked me to go with them to the local bar in tiny San Miguel. I was 19. They were in their 60s, at least. Legal drinking age in California was 21. We took the company half-ton truck to this dive bar and started drinking. While they were in the restroom, I told the bartender to water down my drinks please, because they were going at it pretty hard.

When we started driving back to camp, a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over our military truck before we got a half-block. I’m guessing the bartender turned us in.

The paymaster was driving. He failed the sobriety test and was arrested on the spot. His brother, the first sergeant, also failed the sobriety test, but wasn’t arrested. I passed the sobriety test, and because I didn’t have my driver’s license on me but had memorized the number, didn’t get busted for underage drinking. So I had to drive the big truck back to the base, punching in the clutch with my foot while the first sergeant shifted the clunky gears.

Anyway, it was a big mystery at camp the next day where the paymaster was and why nobody was getting paid that morning as they had expected. I sure as hell wasn’t telling my story around camp. And I guess they appreciated it.

At the end of our two weeks, they gave me a medal for special service.

Sharon McNary
Analyst, Public Insight Journalism

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