By Mr. Patrick Buffett (IMCOM)April 17, 2009
FORT MONROE, Va. - A PCSing Soldier can't sell his house and struggles with mortgage payments in addition to the costs of setting up a home at his new duty station.
An Army spouse is a victim of job cuts and the sudden loss of income leaves the family unable to pay their bills.
With the economy in a slump, scenarios like these are becoming more prevalent across the force, and service leaders are more than a little concerned about the dilemma. Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, recently issued a message that encouraged every military community to place heavy emphasis on the financial assistance and training programs available to Soldiers and their families.
"We need to understand how this problem (is impacting our community)," the memo read. "We need to make sure we are doing everything we can to help our families. We need to be proactive and communicate with Soldiers, and be prepared to address not only this issue, but other stressors that might be affecting them during these challenging times."
Serious and/or prolonged personal problems, financial or otherwise, can diminish a service member's quality of life and his or her ability to focus on the mission at hand, the general emphasized. "It has a huge impact on overall unit readiness. As leaders, we must always remember our primary responsibility is to take care of Soldiers and their families," he wrote.
Senior commanders at Fort Monroe expressed similar concerns earlier this year, and they asked Army Community Services to monitor the situation. Thus far, there's not much to report, according to Beverly Nicholson, the lead financial counselor for ACS. There are second-hand stories about community members not being able to sell their homes, but nobody has stepped forward to ask for help with financial difficulties related to the economy.
"You can look at the situation a few different ways ... there aren't any problems, community members are hesitant about asking for assistance, or they're unaware of the financial education and support network that's available to them at no cost," Nicholson said. "I think we can safely rule out the first thought, which leaves us with a serious challenge. We need to push that Soldier and family support piece and increase the overall awareness of what's available to community members."
Gen. Chiarelli agrees. He said the Army is developing a training package for commanders and an information packet for Soldiers that will promote available programs like Army Emergency Relief, ACS financial counseling, relocation assistance through the Housing Office, crisis counseling offered by post chaplains, and more. The service also is working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to develop a Housing Assistance Plan in accordance with the provisions set forth by the recent Economic Stimulus Act (Public Law 111-5).
"I think our first hurdle is convincing Soldiers and their family members that it's okay to seek help," Nicholson said. "Some believe that asking for financial assistance is a sign of weakness, and it will hurt a service member's career. Actually the opposite is true - having a money problem and not taking any action to fix it is the least favorable option.
"The vice chief said it best. We need that Soldier and even that government civilian employee to be focused on the mission at hand, not worried about the financial problems his or her family is facing. It's just smarter to choose counseling and assistance over bill collectors knocking down the door."
Turning her focus to the financial support programs managed by ACS, Nicholson said AER is getting a lot of attention these days. The campaign that raises funds for the program is ongoing through May 15, and a quarter of the installation's $20,000 goal has been raised.
"I truly hope that more community members will contribute if they have the money available," she noted. "This is a program that has helped many Soldiers (since 1994, not one applicant at Fort Monroe has been denied financial assistance if they met AER guidelines Nicholson said in a March 20 Casemate article), and I'm certain that it will become even more important during this long economic recovery period."
Some of the most common types of AER support include loans for car repairs when a family has no other means of transportation, financial assistance for travel or other expenses when an immediate family member becomes critically ill or passes away, and help with food, rent and utilities for Soldiers who experience pay problems or find themselves struggling with excess debt.
Free financial counseling is offered through ACS as well. The service is far more than a lifeline for families with serious budget shortfalls, Nicholson noted. It can be used as an information tool for effective checkbook management, developing a savings plan, and more.
"Again, it's a matter of getting over the stereotypes," she continued. "If an individual sought the guidance of a 'financial counselor' off post, it's typically assumed that he or she is setting up a smart investment or retirement strategy. To get to that point, the client and counselor have to establish a budget and savings plan that is manageable with a given income.
"We offer the same thing, but we're not going to push investment products and we're not going to charge you membership or consultation fees. Our goal is the financial wellness of military families, whether it involves better spending habits, identifying a strategy for getting out of debt or helping to communicate budget difficulties to debtors and others in the community who may be able to provide assistance."
Education is another ACS offering that's particularly beneficial during these languid economic times. Through a regularly scheduled series of workshops, the agency provides a wealth of "how-to" information in the areas of job relocation, investments, buying real estate, finding employment in the federal workforce, and more.
"A good example is the free Military Spouse Employment Conference we're hosting on May 1," Nicholson said. "It will include a presentation about new DoD programs that put military spouses to work, a career assessment and portfolio building session, classes on resume writing and interviewing skills, and a whole lot more. It's a great opportunity for any military spouse or (employment-eligible) dependent who is looking for work."
Other money-related training on the horizon includes an investment strategies workshop on May 17 and a Home Buying 101 class on June 17. All sessions are facilitated by experienced subject matter experts, Nicholson noted. The only requirement for signup is a phone call.
"From classes to counseling, we just want everyone in our community to know that we're here to help," said Eva Granville, ACS director. "The economy is a serious issue right now, and our service leaders have called for active involvement. So, our message to every Soldier and military family member is: 'we have the programs and we're ready to help; the rest is up to you.'"