Rosemary Williams is a specialist executive at Deloitte Consulting LLP. She previously served as assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy at the Department of Defense. Her work with military families and veterans follows a broadcast journalism career, during which she received numerous awards, including an Emmy Award for her coverage of 9/11 on MSNBC.
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In 2014, a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant stationed in Okinawa, Japan, contacted the Defense Department's Military OneSource contact center seeking help for two of his corporals, each of whom had outstanding loans for $500 from a predatory lender. Both had met their payments, totaling $1,500, and yet each still owed another $500.
This sort of thing is sadly common, despite it being illegal to charge more than 6% for any financial loan to a service member, thanks to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). As deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy (DASD MC&FP), I knew help was available to extract the corporals from the debacle, albeit after the damage was done.
While various iterations of the SCRA date back to the Civil War, many of those it seeks to protect continue to struggle with poor financial health due to a lack of awareness of resources, persistent predatory lending and, in the past 10 to 15 years, the relentless peer and near-peer pressure from social media's so-called "highlight reels" of others' alleged personal wealth.
Resources Are Available
Military OneSource has a number of specialty consults, such as relocation support for military families, who move every two to four years; a robust spouse employment program that seeks to unstick the unemployment rate of military spouses, which has hovered around 24% for more than a decade; and financial counseling with a Certified Financial Counselor (CFC).
The centerpiece of the 24/7 contact center is confidential counseling -- also known as nonmedical counseling, a behavioral health resource that is one of the largest in the nation, providing 12 confidential counseling sessions per person, per issue, with a counselor with a Master in Social Work (MSW) or above, for any problem that prevents a military service member or their family from living their best lives, whether related to relationships, work, general anxiety or worry. All challenges are welcome, specifically so the issues do not become bigger, with far more negative outcomes. The appointments are available by phone, text, email and in-person 15 miles or 30 minutes from where the caller lives. Military OneSource is equal parts support and prevention.
This remarkably generous program offered by the DoD ensures it is as easy as possible for service members and their families to seek and get help. Calls are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in under 6 seconds, and callers are never to be put on hold. In addition to the CFCs at Military OneSource, there are also personal financial counselors available on most installations and even more are available through DoD partners, namely military banks and defense credit unions.
This network of so-called "inside the gate" resources is augmented by the myriad non-federal entities such as American Military Bank Association, the legal aid societies, and other not-for-profit organizations.
Financial Education and Wellness
Military OneSource financial counseling falls under non-medical counseling because financial health is intrinsically tied to a person's mental health and well-being. Allow me to repeat that: Financial health is intrinsically tied to a person's mental health and well-being.
Specifically, when a service member or their family member calls Military OneSource and talks about their sleep deprivation, anxiety, melancholy, low self-esteem or hopelessness, the average person could think of these as signs of poor mental health. While accurate, these feelings are also prevalent indications of poor financial health.
Some outward signs that financial stress is affecting mental well-being include but are not limited to: arguments about money with loved ones, having trouble sleeping, feeling angry or anxious, experiencing mood swings, fatigue, loss of appetite or withdrawing from others. Addressing financial problems early on can, in turn, reduce their impact on mental health.
This is what many already know, but it isn't obvious to everyone that financial health and mental health go hand-in-hand. Either one can start the cycle, but they feed off each other and, if not kept in check, mental and financial health can both spiral out of control. And it is further complicated by the shame that is associated with financial distress, which makes it much more difficult to seek help.
If financial worry or distress goes unchecked, it can get far worse from there -- what experts call maladaptive coping strategies, including drinking too much, domestic violence, infidelity or even suicidal ideations. While there are as many reasons why people die by suicide as there are people who do, we know that relationships and financial issues generally fall in the top two factors around suicide. Addressing financial problems early on can reduce their negative impact on mental health and, in the case of the military, their military readiness.
Financial insecurity and the need for financial education is not a military issue -- it crosses military and civilian populations alike. For the military, we call it "financial readiness," but it is the same issue outside the gates. We avoid the term financial "literacy," as it denotes anyone uninformed as "illiterate," which can exacerbate the stigma already associated with help-seeking behaviors.
The civilian population is also relevant because that's where today's military families live. Specifically, 72% of military families and 68% of single service members live outside installation gates. Additionally, we find an increasing number of military spouses may not self-identify primarily as military spouses but rather as mom, banker, teacher or church volunteer, to name just a few examples.
Financial Readiness Is Military Readiness
There is science behind the shop-worn adage that the No. 1 distraction to a service member down range is family issues. If we had a way to measure it accurately, financial stress may be at the same level. Simply put, service members' lethality and safety depend on being clear-headed and free of generalized anxiety that comes with personal finance issues.
There are some studies out there that shed light on the prevalence and danger of financial insecurity across all populations, including a recent survey from the Military Family Advisory Network. We cannot accurately measure the problem inside the military community, however, because in some of the worst-case scenarios doing so can create significant risk to members of the community, with penalties such as losing a promotion or security clearance -- or even getting kicked out of the military. This means loss of potential long-term benefits, retirement options and/or no-cost health care. These possible consequences and the significant stigma about financial distress make it less likely that a service member or military family member will go to DoD resources like Military OneSource for help, even though it is safe and they are encouraged to do so.
Community-Based and Contemporary Financial Readiness Support
Enter the non-federal entities (NFE) -- relevant nonprofits and associations and aid societies. These are critical partners in the health and readiness of the entire military connected-community: service members, veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors. Because so many troops and their families will not risk the DoD knowing they are in financial trouble, they must have independent -- and DoD approved -- resources to turn to.
To meet the requirements for financial readiness of the entire military community where they live, all entities must collaborate and coordinate. And impactful NFEs should be included under the DoD's tent to be part of the solution. Agencies such as the VA are thriving with public-private partnerships in service to veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors -- including a great financial wellness program for veterans called Veterans Benefits Banking Program.
Contemporary approaches such as FinTech are critical tools for financial education, since 85% of enlisted service members are under 35 years old, so it's right at their thumbs where they live and thrive on social and digital media. Additionally, paid digital advertising that promotes the tools online and other resources is now mandatory to break through the noise that has become the 24/7 news cycle.
It's worth noting that social and digital avenues can also work against our best efforts. Social media is a nonstop so-called highlight reel that assails service members and their families with images of peers and near-peers seemingly living the high life without always understanding the basic context of the person's true financial picture or that a person's financial life is best left personal and private.
Some of the best work on this is aimed at kids, starting them early with basics to build a solid foundation of financial wellness. DoD Education Activity (DoDEA) offers courses such as Financial Algebra and Business and Personal Finance. There are some NFEs that have remarkable FinRed programs for kids as young as preschool. Consider this: What would happen if we modeled financial education for kids like was done decades ago with seatbelt safety and the danger of smoking. The kids owned it and took it home to their parents, who were faced with making their own change in attitude and habit.
Mental health and money problems do not have to be permanently intertwined. All of us have the power to change a service member and their family's financial situation, by letting them know they don't have to undertake that task alone. By helping them make small changes, to rely on available resources for support, and in a way only true professionals can -- helping them appreciate every step of the journey as they work toward becoming healthier financially and, yes, mentally.
An earlier version of this op-ed was edited to incorrectly state the location of the Military OneSource center and the unit of the Marine Corps Sergeant.