THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Juliette Kayyem

A soldier’s money

From health care to finances, we should protect those who protected us

Sergeant Jared Doohen, left, and Staff Sergeant Thomas Stanley return home to Vermont last year after nine months in Afghanistan. Sergeant Jared Doohen, left, and Staff Sergeant Thomas Stanley return home to Vermont last year after nine months in Afghanistan. (Associated Press)
By Juliette Kayyem
July 25, 2011

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LAST WEEK, 650 troops quietly left Afghanistan, beginning the long slog home as part of President Obama’s drawdown. At the same time, General David Petraeus, the architect of the surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan, formally resigned from the military to take over as director of the CIA. The timing was coincidental, but not without meaning: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now simultaneously moving to a close.

Petraeus handed his Afghanistan command to Marine Lieutenant General John Allen, who will oversee further troop departures. He also symbolically handed over some measure of responsibility for those troops’ future well-being to his wife, Holly Petraeus, who represents a rare growth industry in government: protecting and providing to our returning service members and veterans.

As a nation, we are simply unprepared for the numbers of returning troops we now face. The wars of the last ten years have created over 1.1 million veterans; another 2.4 million men and women are on active, National Guard, or reserve duty. This class includes soldiers who have served in combat longer than any in US history. Of the nearly 400,000 who have seen combat duty, more than 13,000 have spent at least 45 months - nearly four cumulative years - in combat.

We know so little about the magnitude and the depth of the issues they will be facing in health care, employment, and education. All they want is to go back to normal lives. And that too is a challenge.

Holly Petraeus will help wage a small piece of this upcoming war. She runs the Office of Service member Affairs for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the entity conceived and established (but not to be run) by Elizabeth Warren. Her statutory mission, authorized to begin just last week, is to provide financial education for service members. Many are “young and inexperienced, with twice-a-month guaranteed paychecks, who move to areas in the country where they have never lived before and try to make ends meet,’’ she told me in an interview. Outside many military installations in the United States are strips of storefronts offering too-good-to-be-true deals: buy this, buy that, pawn this, cash that.

Service members are stressed, in difficult situations, and money is often tight. A survey of US military personnel showed that 25 percent have over $10,000 in credit-card debt; only 50 percent have any sort of rainy day fund for financial emergencies.

Today, the number one reason for a service member to lose security clearance is not loose lips, or drugs, or espionage. It is failure to show good financial standing because they simply can’t get ahead of their bills.

The blame isn’t just with shifty car dealers and pawn brokers. Earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase violated the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act, which gives mortgage relief to deployed personnel, by overcharging thousands of clients and even foreclosing on 14 houses.

Financial woes may turn out to be the least of returning service members’ problems. At the highest levels of the Pentagon, there is a dawning recognition that we as a nation have no idea how the impact of excessive redeployments and the guerrilla nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will affect soldiers and their families. The end of war has been marked by celebration in the streets, as in World War II, or a hurried helicopter ride, as in Vietnam. This time, it must be marked by a much greater effort to adapt to the needs and aspirations of those returning home.

We are now ending the longest volunteer-only military effort since the American Revolution. And because there has been no draft, the divide between the US military and citizens who were asked to sacrifice little has grown. “Supporting our troops’’ has become a cliché with no meaning. We have learned to love our troops - often for selfish reasons, such as avoiding a draft - without really knowing them. Service members represent just 0.8 percent of the population.

In the months and years to come, we will be welcoming home and into society a population the likes we have not seen in our lifetime; the sheer numbers who have seen combat over and over will change the nature of the moral duty we owe those who fought voluntarily. And it will begin to change us. Ask Petraeus. Either one.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @juliettekayyem.