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Semper Fi-nance: Marines and money

Marines at Camp Pendleton talk finance.

Helicopters at Camp Pendleton.

Tess Vigeland: On this Memorial weekend, we're going to take some time to talk about the military. We actually get quite a bit of mail from service members and their families, giving us a glimpse into some of the financial issues they face that the rest of us don't.

Several months back we got an e-mail from Lt. Col. Wade Hasle. He's commanding officer for the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367. They're stationed at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego.

Couple of years back, he heard a story we did about the U.S. Navy's financial readiness program. I thought that was a great idea, he wrote. So he came up with his own program for his Marines. And we decided that was worth a trip to the base.

The HMLA-367 squadron, aka Scarface, has served multiple tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But while they're back stateside, on base, it is drill after drill after drill, as pilots practice takeoffs and landings.

Marine: Quick walk around the bird, make sure everything is finalized and buttoned up, nothing's hanging off.

These are multi-million dollar aircraft, with complex machinery used in battle. And the last thing Hasle can afford is a distracted pilot.

Lt. Col. Wade Hasle: If you are financially stable, that means that OK, that aspect of your life is squared away, there's less things detracting you from your mission in the squadron. Anything that keeps you focused on your job of fixing, flying, maintaining aircraft is what we want.

Capt. John R. Stange: I don't know if any of you have received this class already from your division financial representatives...

So the commanding officer requires his entire squadron to learn the basics of finance.

Stange: My name's Captain John R. Stange, United States Marine Corps.

Captain Stange is one of the officers Hasle recruited to teach younger, newer Marines how to manage their finances. Their makeshift classroom was actually a locker room attached to the helicopter hangar.

Stange: So we're starting with your basic pay, pay and allowances. OK, we have two types of pay: We have our basic pay, our base pay, and then we have special pay...

Stange talked a group of a dozen or so squad members through the military's somewhat byzantine pay structure. Other topics have included everything from car loans to saving for retirement from active duty. All of this because of concerns Hasle had for his Marines in the wake of the financial crisis.

Hasle: When the market crashed in late '09, I was having a discussion with the commanding officer. And I was saying, "You know, the Marine Corps, when I was brought up through it -- I've been in 24 years now -- I'd never had anyone sit down and explain certain fundamentals about financial readiness to me. And somewhere in that conversation, either I volunteered or he volun-told-me, why don't we get a class going?

Vigeland: Money is not a subject that pretty much anybody wants or likes to talk about. The military is, shall we say, not a touchy-feely place. How do you get people to talk about money here, when civilians won't even talk about it?

Hasle: It's not that we want them to necessarily talk about their particular situation. It's that we want to make sure they have the opportunities to either improve upon their situation, or fix a bad one. We need to know if someone's in financial troubles, because that can affect our operational readiness. The other aspect of military service is, if you declare bankruptcy or something along those lines, you can use your security clearance. So, it is a fine line that we tread, because in this process here, we can't necessarily recommend, say, credit unions over banks, because that gets us into trouble. We can show them the difference and the strengths and the pros and cons of a bank and a credit union. Those types of things, so that Marine and their spouse can make an informed decision.

In addition to their regular military duties, several members of HMLA-367 serve as command financial specialists. They're the ones who teach the classes and provide any financial counseling that squad members might ask for.

Staff Sgt. Luke Schemenauer is one of them.

Staff Sgt. Luke Schemenauer: The biggest problems that I get when Marines come into my office, a lot of the Marines don't even understand all their pay, and they don't look at their leave-in earnings statements to actually see how much money is coming in. They can't keep track of their spending. Also, some don't have access to their bank accounts. Their parents have control of it. And a lot of them get creditors calling command. And they don't know how to handle that.

Capt. AJ Ferrone is another command financial specialist. He also just happens to have a degree in economics.

Capt. AJ Ferrone: Think you brought up the question before of how do you discuss this out in the open with your Marines. Obviously, you can't order 'em to talk about it, but you can gather up the shop and say, "All right guys, for our afternoon, what do you want to talk about? Are you thinking about buying a car? How's that going to work into your budget?" And then you get that response of "What budget?" So you can kind of gauge, I kinda see where we're starting out with now: This is a budget, this is why debt's bad. And you can kind of go through some of these basic tents.

And to that end, Hasle and his finance team have made it just about as easy as possible for their Marines to learn basic money lessons. Those lessons come in the form of something called a "Stall Wall," an eight-by-11 sheet of paper filled with all kinds of fun facts about money management.

Hasle: And we put those in the stalls of the bathrooms.

Well of course they do.

Hasle: So when a Marine is going about their business, they get to have something to read. So we will put out once a week, a Stall Wall talking about some sort of finance aspect. But before we put it up, the Marines have a discussion within their division about that week's topic. So, say we're going to discuss opportunity cost or dollar-cost averaging, so they get a little five-minute blurb, before they go home for the weekend on it. And then it sits up on the wall, and they can read about it in a little bit great detail as time goes on.

Hasle:This is Lance Cpl. Brown, one of our maintainers...

Out in the hangar, on a tour of the squadron's SuperCobra, Viper and Venom helicopters, it's easy to see why Hasle wants his people focused amid the complex machinery.

Hasle: What're you workin' on today?

Brown: Doing the daily, sir.

Hasle: Bird going on the flight schedule later on?

Brown: Not today, sir.

Hasle: So here's the, obviously, the hangar. This is a Whiskey Cobra that we have going through phase maintenance right now. Step up. So this is the back of the Whiskey cockpit. You can see all what we call the steam gauges.

Vigeland: So you look at something this complicated and it's obvious that you don't anything distracting.

Hasle: Exactly. When you get in here, and you're flying on the low-light level, and you're wearing night-vision goggles and you have to fly low through terrain, operating something like this takes a lot of effort. And financial readiness might be one of those little extra steps that keeps our pilots from doing something bad with the aircraft, and it keeps our maintainers focused on doin' what they need to do.

Most of this advice is targeted at getting Marines financially fit before they ever deploy. But Hasle says what the military is dealing with now are Marines coming back stateside with what he says is something akin to financial PTSD.

Hasle: There can be issues, and for me personally, it was I do have friends who do come back... They don't have to pay for anything while they're deployed. Their chow is free -- not necessarily good, but it was free. The only thing I paid for on my deployments was really a hair cut. So I spent $5 a week. That was it.

When you do come back, I've heard people tell stories related to post-traumatic stress disorder. That's part of the problem coming back, and now having to deal with a different type of reality, to them it is less: "Why am I concerned about this bill, when just a couple weeks ago, I was concerned about my buddy? A home owner's fee doesn't make sense to me." And just getting back into that rigamarole, you know, you gotta pay. "It's the first of the month, oh shoot, I forgot to put out the trash, I forgot to pay my bills."

Vigeland: I know this is a brand new program, but would you like to at some point see this kind of effort mandatory as part of training?

Hasle: As a commander, commanders don't necessarily like a mandatory thing; commanders like to command. If this works out -- I expect we will learn something and the program will be modified, it'll be maintained, and then I think the best way for this is through ownership. As Marines go through other units and they spread it that way. There are tons of courses that the military has out there that people can go get counseling. I've just never seen anything on a unit level.

You really have to see some examples of those stall walls, might even want to copy the idea at home. Check them out to your left. You can also see photos from our trip to Camp Pendleton. And if you're in the military and looking for more resources, we have links from the Department of Defense.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

Marines at Camp Pendleton talk finance.

Helicopters at Camp Pendleton.

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This is an awesome idea. We have several family members in the armed forces and they could sure benefit from this type of program. Thank you.

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