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Dealing with finances before going to war

A U.S. Marine of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment patrols in Garmser, Afghanistan.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: It is really easy to put off dealing with financial issues around death. Wills, powers of attorney. But sometimes you don't have a choice, like when you're about to be shipped off to war. That's the case for 160 Marine Reservists in New England who recently went through a financial boot camp of sorts. Officers leaned on them to take care of business before they deploy to Afghanistan later this year. At a time when it's easier than ever for a Marine to have his identity stolen or a sailor lose to her home to foreclosure, the military wants to make sure troops have their affairs in order before they ship out.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein has our story.


Dan Gorenstein: Captain Andrew Lee understands what could happen when he and his infantry unit land in Afghanistan.

Andrew Lee: I've never done a tour with an infantry unit that we weren't in a gunfight, that we weren't hit with a bomb, that mortars weren't fired at us. Death's real. Dying's real. Dying's, I am not going to say likely, I'm not going to say it's gonna happen. But it is very real... this isn't for the faint of heart.

This will be Captain Lee's fourth tour since he enlisted more than 15 years ago. The 37-year-old company commander says in theatre a Marine shouldn't be distracted. That said, Lee's dealt with men in Iraq who were seriously absorbed with their mortgages and personal finances.

Lee: "Hey sir, I got this, can I get to a phone?" "No stud, you can't get to a phone. I'm sorry I can't help you right now. The nearest phone is 10 miles away. I'm sorry you're going through this. I'm sorry that you got that letter. But our little personal problems aren't as important as U.S. operations in theatre. Our problems get put on the back burner."

The majority of the 160 troops in Bravo Company's 1st Battalion of the 25th Marine Regiment are young, 18 to 21. Many live at home and have few possessions. Lots of young Marines shrug off the idea that wills and power of attorney directives are even necessary.

But not 22-year-old Corporal Joseph DePietro. Three years ago, DePietro found himself stationed in Iraq at Christmas time.

Joseph DePietro: I probably spent $2,000 on my whole family just getting them everything I've always wanted to get them.

Soon after, DePietro went to the PX to buy himself some socks.

DePietro: And when I swiped my card, it said I didn't have enough money on it. So I went to the phone center and looked up my statements. And it was funny, because the three days I am outside the wire in Iraq, there was mysteriously, my credit card was being charged.

Gorenstein: And so what did you do?

DePietro: That was the best thing about the power of attorney. I told my mother and she was like, "Alright." She went to the bank. She's like, "My son's overseas. I have his power of attorney." And they let her handle everything. I didn't have to deal with any of the bull****. And it's been fine ever since.

Senior Officers in Bravo Company have stressed the Marines can't control what's going to happen to them in Afghanistan. They say it's easy to sit down with a lawyer, who's working pro bono, and get their affairs in order now. But actually doing it -- which evokes images of 21-gun salutes, folded flags and breathing machines -- isn't easy at all.

Thirty-year-old Lance Corporal Luke Wanami lives with his girlfriend. Wanami says Marines have been trained to think they're invincible. Up until now, the danger he'll likely face hasn't really come up.

Luke Wanami: It forces me to stop and think about stuff versus if we just kept training. A lot of times when we're just training, you just never get a chance to think about anything, which you almost live in denial.

Wanami sighs. He and his girlfriend have some very difficult conversations ahead.

Wanami: Now I am thinking, if I got maimed, for example, as much as she loves me, would she have the tolerance to be with me, as somebody who's permanently injured. Is it fair to her that I'm putting her in that position?

Before Corporal DePietro met with lawyers, he was hanging around with friends he's had since he was two years old. DePietro asked his buddies, Brad and Pat, who wanted his motorcycle and who wanted his paintball gun.

DePietro: They both wanted both of 'em, so they did rock, paper, scissors shoot. Brad got the motorcycle and Pat got the paintball gun. And it's funny, because Brad doesn't know how to ride a motorcycle and Pat never plays paintball.

But by having that conversation -- as light as it may have been -- DePietro says Pat and Brad have a better sense where their friend is headed.

In Concord, N.H., I'm Dan Gorenstein for Marketplace Money.

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