Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

Paying a big price for military service

Janet Babin Feb 20, 2009
Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

Paying a big price for military service

Janet Babin Feb 20, 2009


Bob Moon: It seems appropriate on this Memorial Day to give some thought to the plight of many who serve and sacrifice — above and beyond the call of duty.
There’s a federal law that says soldiers, Marines, airman and sailors shouldn’t have to worry about losing their jobs when they deploy.

But that promise can ring hollow for reservists who also own small businesses. It’s hard to find a fill-in boss for a 16-month tour, especially if it happens two or three times. For the National Guardsman we’re about to meet, war meant closing up shop — for good. Marketplace’s Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.

Janet Babin: Colonel Daniel Bordelon faced death while serving in the National Guard. His battlefield wasn’t Afghanistan, but New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The storm turned his 100-acre post into a torrent of flood water, 20-feet deep in some places.

Daniel Bordelon: Well, we started walking, me and one other guy. By the time we got to right about here, it was already, it was already over our heads. We swam the rest of the way.

Now Bordelon’s in charge of rebuilding the same barracks where he almost drowned.

Bordelon: Ten o’clock staff meeting.

Soldier: Roger, sir.

He oversees a budget of $170 million and 80 staffers.

Bordelon: A quick program update. If we could just go around the horn. What’s going on in your projects — up, down, sideways. Go ahead, Nick.

It’s been more than four years, and Bordelon remains on active duty in New Orleans. The extended activation has put an end to his old life, as a small business owner.

Bordelon: Before Katrina I was a chiropractor. Before the mobilization I was a chiropractor, with offices in two different cities, about 30, 40 miles apart.

Bordelon’s practice represented two decades of work. The offices had finally started to turn a profit, and he had hundreds of patients. But then came National Guard deployment. When that happens, the Guard is no longer voluntary weekend duty. It’s full-time work, and resigning is not an option.

When he was mobilized, Bordelon tried to sell his practice, but the offer fell through the day he left for duty. He had no other choice but to liquidate.

Bordelon: I didn’t have two or three other chiropractors working for me that could carry the load for me to be gone a year. I was the only guy. So, I mean, as a chiropractor, when your hands leave, you know, your feet leave the building, you stop making money. You stop having a business.

The 46-year-old lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when the deal collapsed. Bordelon’s still navigating the financial hardship and his new fixed income from the military. That smaller salary has to stretch pretty far too. Bordelon’s a divorced father, and supports sons Jake and Nick and dog Cocoa.

Bordelon: Come on, Nick!

Most weekdays he races home from work to pick them all up at his grandmother’s house.

Bordelon: So what went on in school today?

After a day of rebuilding the barracks, Bordelon has to worry about rebuilding his own house. It’s in Lakeview, a New Orleans neighborhood that was flooded during Katrina. So on the way home, father, sons and dog stop at Home Depot for a plumbing connection they’ve been needing.

Bordelon: We’re going to turn our water on tonight. You all get to take baths.

Before bath time, though, Bordelon gathers up the boys for pizza at his best friend’s house in New Orleans.

Bordelon: He’s got the largest title transfer company in Louisiana.

Even though Bordelon lost his chiropractic offices, he still gives adjustments to family and friends. Bordelon’s high school buddy, Bob Bergeron is face down on the coffee table in the living room, a bit stressed.

Bordelon: Bob, we’re not wrestling, let it go. Got it!

It was Bob Bergeron who talked Bordelon into joining the National Guard after high school. Bergeron says they both needed help for college.

Robert Bergeron: I got in because I couldn’t afford the tuition, and the National Guard offered a scholarship to pay for two years.

Bergeron got out of the Guard in 2003, just after he’d started his own law firm, Crescent Title Company. The Iraq war was underway. Bergeron knew there was a good chance his unit would be activated. Unlike his best friend, he chose his business over the Guard.

Robert Bergeron: So my option was stay in and risk being activated or get out. And I’d started a company with five employees, and if I was activated, that was it, my law firm was one lawyer. So if the lawyer’s gone, the law firm dismantles. So, it was really because of my job.

With a new Administration and a new defense secretary, deployment length could shrink. But the change, if it happens, comes too late for Colonel Daniel Bordelon. He thinks about rebuilding his own business some day, but not right now.

Bordelon: Right now as a battalion commander I would feel really bad that I’d be bailing on my soldiers when we’re facing deployment. Here’s the commander leaving facing deployment . . . you know, “Why should I go?”

That same sense of duty is probably what led Bordelon to make the choice to stay in the Guard in the first place, no matter the cost to him personally.

In New Orleans, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace Money.

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