New York National Guardsmen PFC Hector Mendez a member of...

New York National Guardsmen PFC Hector Mendez a member of the 442 Military Police and a resident of Shirley, along with his girlfriend Kathryn Curry of Massapequa, attend a gathering at the Marriot Hotel where the National Guard prepares the soldiers and their families, along with other units in the region, for what they need to know to survive there -- and at home. (December 5, 2009) Credit: Freelance/Photo by Charles Eckert

Pfc. Hector Mendez, a National Guard soldier preparing to deploy to Iraq, held his fiancee gently to him through the afternoon Saturday, excited by their impending parenthood.

But as things stand now, his mother - not his fiancee - would receive his military insurance should a fatal tragedy befall him. And because he has not yet designated his fiancee as his next-of-kin, military rules would bar the Pentagon from even telling her if Mendez were seriously injured or missing in action.

"Everyone is telling me to get married, because the military takes care of your family," said Mendez, 21, of Shirley, who said he intends to tie the knot and organize his affairs, including changes to protect his future wife, before he leaves for Iraq in April. "We're trying to get information on all this stuff."

Mendez was one of about 500 soldiers who with their loved ones attended a first-ever predeployment seminar designed to help members of the 442nd Military Police Company and their families get their lives in order before the soldiers leave for war. The five-hour event was held at a Tarrytown hotel.

Gov. David A. Paterson, who addressed those attending the seminar, said offering predeployment orientations is now a requirement of the New York Army National Guard to help soldiers and family members avoid being distracted by money worries and psychological stresses while soldiers are deployed.

"If you have loved ones overseas, you are serving right along with them," Paterson told the audience.

The stresses can reduce the military's effectiveness, military leaders have said, while producing more post-traumatic stress disorder, divorces and anxiety among children.

Soldiers and their family members were offered face-to-face advice on tax-free combat pay, financial planning, child care, psychological services, the military's TRICARE health insurance plan for spouses and children, legal advice, and other things they might need to get squared away before saying their goodbyes.

The 442nd, which is based at the armory in Jamaica, Queens, also deployed during the first months of the Iraq war in 2003.

But the unit received no orientation then, and military leaders acknowledged that some soldiers were confronted with various problems they had left back home.

One soldier faced financial ruin after leaving his finances to a girlfriend who ended the relationship while he was away, said 1st Lt. Tara Dawe, the 442nd's company commander.

"A lot of young kids leave without setting themselves financially," she said. "They're dating someone and leave everything up to them."

Staff Sgt. Jason Diaz, 32, of Hicksville, attended the seminar with his wife and three children. He said he intended to correct the military's record of his wife's birth date to avoid potential problems with any claims.

He also planned to visit a booth staffed by representatives of Military OneSource, a Defense Department program that soldiers and family members can go to for help 24 hours a day.

"When I deployed, we didn't have anything like this," said his wife, Nisha Diaz, 31, a former Army reservist sent to Bosnia in 1997. "This is incredible."

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