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Financial basic training for our troops

U.S. soldier in Iraq

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Tess Vigeland: Happy Fourth of July weekend everybody. For many of us, it's a chance to relax and enjoy the outdoors, hot dog in hand.

But soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world don't have it so easy. As if they don't have enough to deal with fighting wars, many service members also face personal finance challenges that threaten their economic security.

Some of it is due to ignorance about managing a budget, but other hurdles could trip up even the savviest financial planner.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler takes us to a California National Guard base.


Jeff Tyler: Helicopter pilots practice taking off and landing here at the Joint Forces Training Base at Los Alamitos. The military is all about specialization. But while young recruits learn to aim missiles with pinpoint accuracy, they suffer from too little practice keeping their personal finances on target. That was the case for Marco Velez.

Marco Velez: When I first joined the Army, I didn't know how to write a check. I got my first bank account when I joined. So I'm in line at basic training at the PX. The lady had to tell me at the cash register how to write out a check.

Now he's a contractor with the California National Guard, where he educates service members about available benefits.

Cheryl Courtright works with him at the Family Readiness Program. She says some obstacles are cultural. For example, if the male bread-winner exclusively handles the finances, Courtright says the family can be lost when he ships overseas.

Cheryl Courtright: We've had it where we've literally had to walk a family through "This is what a check is. There's money in a bank. This is where your bank is. This is the balance. This is how you read your bank statements."

Courtright also counsels young enlisted guys, offering a boot camp for budgeting.

Courtright: You have a new baby. What's the priorities here? Do you need that flat-screen TV? Or do you need to make sure that the baby's got a crib, formula, diapers and food?

The personal finance challenges are very different for reservists and National Guard. These folks are typically older. And many have good paying civilian jobs. Courtright knows from experience. She had to reassess her own financial priorities when her husband was activated.

Courtright: He made more money at that point in the civilian world than he did in the National Guard.

Jerry Newberry with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or VFW, says it's a common challenge for National Guard and reservists.

Jerry Newberry: That steady stream of income falls dramatically. Someone who's earning $50,000 or $60,000 a year is all of a sudden earning less than $20,000.

The situation can be especially tough on small-business owners. Again, Marco Velez.

Velez: My friend, Scott, he used to be part of an air-conditioning company. And he got activated. And he ended up losing half his business because of that. He was making six figures a year. And then when he got activated he was only making, uh, maybe 45.

On top of that, service members face various bureaucratic black holes. Paperwork might not get processed, so new troops could go a month or two without a paycheck. The VFW's Jerry Newberry cites one particularly egregious catch-22. It happened to a National Guard unit from Minnesota, which had been deployed overseas longer than any other unit.

Newberry: In the entire military. These people were deployed for just short of two years. And one day short of being able to obtain education benefits from the military, from the government. One day short.

Other times, troops may be eligible for certain benefits, but they don't know it. Marco Velez touts an Army program.

Velez: Active duty Army has a savings program, where if a soldier saves $10,000, they'll match 10 percent. That's a free grand.

Other grass-roots organizations also offer help. The VFW got more than a million bucks from tool company Vermont American to fund a financial assistance program called Unmet Needs.

In Orange County, Habitat for Humanity is testing a pilot program. Cheryl Courtright says Habitat is building 13 homes specifically designed for disabled vets, and available with zero-percent loans.

Courtright: I don't know wherever else they can find a zero-percent-interest loan to help disabled soldiers and veterans. It's an amazing program.

Despite these opportunities, soldiers can be their own worst financial enemies. They're often too proud to ask for help, or wait until it's too late. Plus, unsophisticated service members face dangerous domestic predators, falling prey to expensive life insurance rip-offs and other scams.

Coming off a helicopter and dodging bullets, the last thing a soldier needs is the added stress of worrying about bankruptcy.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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