USAA employee Jessica Allison (foreground) at the company’s boot camp-style event
USAA employee Jessica Allison (foreground) at the company’s boot camp-style event - 

It's around 4 a.m., and a yellow school bus slowly rolls down a deserted street. The bus is packed with nervous-looking bankers in black shirts and shorts. Once they reach a muddy field in Texas, they and hundreds others face hours of hellish training, all before the sun rises.

The bus rounds a corner and comes to a stop in a dark parking lot. The bus doors open with a hiss. USAA training day has begun.

“MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”

A number of drill instructors dressed in military uniform jump aboard the bus and scream at the people inside to get out. Others bang on the sides of the vehicle, then yell at the bankers as they sprint across the lot in the darkness towards the empty field. The noise of gunfire roars through loudspeakers, and smoke machines and strobe lights simulate combat conditions.

The trainees form up and the drill instructors immediately get right in their faces.

“YOU THINK I’M PLAYING WITH YOU?”

Those whose posture isn’t perfect are "corrected:" they're told to hit the dirt, to do push-ups. And they're yelled at some more.

“PUSH! PUSH! PUSH! THAT’S TOO SLOW!”

It is not like this at Citibank, but these bankers work for USAA, which serves military clients and their families, and demands that its employees know what their special clientele goes through. This well-attended early morning boot camp is part of these USAA staffers' educational process.

“Just a small glimpse of this is eye-opening,” says Jessica Allison, who works in USAA's real estate division.

A few minutes later she gets more than a glimpse. A trainer orders her to name the Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s top officer. The answer doesn’t come fast enough, so she’s directed earthwards, where she's instructed to do a push-up as she yells out each word of the correct answer, twice.

Down, up. “ADMIRAL!” Down, up. “JONATHAN!” Down, up. “GREENERT!”

This isn't just a gimmick. A USAA client might call customer service for help having just gone through a morning like this. USAA wants to make sure the banker picking up the phone understands the unusual struggles the customer on the other end faces.

A singular focus on the military community is a key difference between USAA and other banks. Another is how USAA customers feel about the bank. In an age where griping about banks is the norm, USAA’s customers -- which the company calls members -- like the organization, a lot. It regularly shows up at or near the top of various customer service rankings.

That connection manifests itself in surprising ways. Between interviews with USAA employees, I noticed an older couple slowly looking through some of the artifacts and pictures the company has on display for tourists. Yes, tourists. The company says members visit headquarters often, to the point where it spent some money to put up a proper museum-like display.

I’d never heard of anyone wanting to tour a bank or insurance company headquarters. In fact, when I called some other banks to ask if they offered smiliar courtesies, the response went along the lines of, "You want to tour our corporate headquarters? Really?"

I asked the couple why they wanted to visit.

“We have a lot of confidence in them, and so we thought it would be just a neat idea to come by and see. And I’m very impressed. This is very, very impressive,” says Ron Fuller, a veteran and longtime USAA member.

It may sound like a little cultish to tour a bank building, but I kind of get it. Both my parents were in the military, so I’m a member and I’ve seen people get emotional about the company. Often when I swipe my USAA credit card, people see the rippled eagle logo and they strike up a conversation about how happy they are to be members. That just doesn’t happen with my Discover card.

Customer experience consultant Bruce Temkin says USAA’s customers appreciate the banks's singular focus.

“If you serve just one type of customer, it’s easy to understand their needs and serve them better,” Temkin says.

USAA's focus, and its customers' loyalty, helped the financial services company thrive, even in the downturn. But the megabanks are looking at that loyal, stable client base with envious eyes, and they're attacking USAA's turf. The big banks want to shed less profitable customers and replace them with steady earners that could generate solid profits over time.

“Military jobs are typically long term, very secure, very little risk of a person going out and losing that job,” says Morningstar bank analyst Jim Sinegal. “It’s steady pay; it’s generally direct deposited.”

Military Money:
Behind the front lines of banking and financial services for service members, families and vets. Marketplace's Mark Garrison reports on the surprising ties between our nation's military and the banking sector.

USAA is an odd player in the financial world: it's basically an insurance company that got into banking 30 years ago. So the bank is relatively young and tiny compared to America’s financial giants. They're using their size advantage to offer some attractive deals to servicemen and women and their families. And they’re stealing pages from USAA’s playbook, crowing about hiring veterans.

USAA is fighting back. It launched a national advertising campaign recently, having eschewed almost all advertising throughout its history. Its marketing efforts look puny when compared to the competition's. But it has a secret weapon: that unique understanding of the military customer.

“From a pride standpoint, we think we do it better than anybody and that we want to make sure that the competitors don’t get a foothold in this group,” says bank president David Bohne.

Which brings us back to that early morning boot camp experience, which ends in a run. I jog along, getting called out once by a drill instructor for messing up their formation as I weave in and out of the lines interviewing people.

“I’m hanging in there,” banker Jessica Allison pants as we near the end.

She’s being modest, as she’s no stranger to a tough workout and run. But she’s not used to such an early start. Or the torrent of drill instructor abuse.

The men and women in uniform applaud the sweaty bankers as they finish up. After Allison guzzled water, I’m curious if the information she suffered for earlier stuck with her. I ask her who the Chief of Naval Operations is.

“Admiral Jonathan Greenert,” she answers correctly and without hesitation.

Armed with new knowledge of the stress and strain of military life, Allison says she’s now better able to serve clients. That’s vital to USAA’s future, defending its military territory by knowing it best.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark