The military spends billions training service members to survive the deadliest of attacks, from roadside improvised explosive devices to Taliban jihadists. Yet everyday financial problems land some of them in mortal peril.

Money woes are among the top precipitating factors in most suicides of active-duty service members, according to the military. It’s a link that has been little studied by academics or the military itself, which has been struggling for years to understand and reduce the high rate of suicides among active-duty service members and veterans.

More than 8,000 veterans and active-duty troops take their own lives every year, according to the Veterans Administration. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says bringing down these numbers is among the military’s top priorities. More than a dozen financial planners interviewed by Financial Planning who work with service members and veterans say the military could do more to help soldiers in financial straits. Their recommendations include the following:

1. Allow financial planning for service members, but with controls.

Service members need more than cursory educational sessions with planners; they need holistic financial planning. The military expressly forbids the hundreds of planners it hires from providing financial planning. Its policy dictates that these professionals provide no advice, only education. The main reason is out of a concern that planners will sell service members unsuitable financial products.

“The more impact we can have on people’s financial lives and financial management, the less instances there will be with people who have difficulty with their spouses, lose their homes or abuse drugs,” says Dylan Ross, a planner who works under military contract in New Jersey. “I gotta believe it would make a positive impact on suicide prevention.”

2. Give service members more than 15 minutes with planners.

The extremely brief time allotted to meetings allows enough time to convey a “tidbit” of information, says Cathie Purdon, a San Diego planner on family leave from overseeing a network of 100 planners for the large military contractor Zeiders. Deep-seated issues are “not going to come out in a 15-minute session or even in two, two-hour sessions, coupled with everything else they are dealing with,” she says.

As Washington, D.C.-based Army Capt. Colin Bitterfield puts it: “Soldiers aren’t going to disclose their situation to [planners] they’ve known for 15 minutes. ‘Why would I trust you? You screw up, I lose my job.’ ”

3. Allow planners to stay in touch with service members.

Service members with complex financial problems that require time to unravel typically can’t remain in ongoing contact with planners. Many military contracts for planners last a matter of months and require planners to move frequently to different locations and branches of the military.

4. Empower and train planners to help soldiers negotiate with creditors.

Planners themselves need to be educated in debt reduction strategies as they apply to service members so that they can effectively negotiate with and for them, or teach them how to do so for themselves. They need to learn both technical and emotional skills.

When a service member or veteran says, “‘I have $40,000 in debt,’ if you have a reaction, you can shut them down completely,” Purdon says she tells planners-in-training. “You don’t even realize you are judging. It comes across in the words you use and your facial expressions.”

“For every one [planner] I meet like me,” Ross adds, “I meet another 20 who just don’t get it.” Ross says he is unusual in that he has worked directly on debt negotiation strategies with service members, sometimes helping them to write letters to creditors. Directly helping soldiers address creditors typically is considered “out of scope” for military planners.

This is a critical issue for many service members because the military considers those with high debt to be security risks. Most security clearances are lost in part because of financial problems, according to the military.

5. Don’t classify suicide solely as a mental health issue.

The military may miss opportunities to help by routinely treating service members with suicide risks primarily for mental health issues, when other factors, including finances, are often a major source of the crisis.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program knitted financial planners tightly into the support system for service members, says Craig Bryan, an expert in military suicide and executive director of the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies.

The fact that the Air Force still has the lowest suicide rate of any of the branches of the military may be due to that program’s early years, he says. It was associated with a startling 33% reduction in an established suicide risk rate during that time, according to The War Within, a 2009 military suicide study conducted by the Rand Corp.

However, in recent years, Bryan says, the military migrated all its branches to computer-based learning for many of its educational programs, undermining much of the program’s effectiveness in the process. Lt. Col. Kathleen Crimmins, who manages the program, says the Air Force is doing as much with financial planners as ever.

Yet over time, the rate of suicide in the Air Force has risen, along with the rates in other branches of the military. “If you look at the trend lines over all branches of service, they are all going up, so nobody is immune to this,” Bryan says.

6. Review ‘duty-to-warn’ policies.

Persuading service members it’s wise to confide their problems during sessions with a financial planner is a tough sell. In 2011, nearly 74% of soldiers who killed themselves were not known to have spoken of their intentions to anyone, according to the Pentagon.

“It’s a vexing problem trying to convey that message and have it be believed,” says Holly Petraeus, assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and head of its office of service member affairs (and the wife of former Gen. David Petraeus). “Obviously, we in the military put a premium on being strong. To ask for help goes directly counter to that.”

Service members who express a suicidal thought trigger a mandatory “duty to warn” from planners automatically. When this happens in otherwise confidential sessions, planners must inform a service member’s chain of command. In some cases, a superior officer is physically assigned to follow that service member’s every step for the next few days or weeks. While this program almost certainly saves lives, planners say it also may prevent many soldiers from opening up before it is too late. Those who do confide their feelings can find their careers sidetracked, they say.

“You could get judged. You could get kicked out of the Army, period,” says another active-duty soldier who asked to remain anonymous. “If you seek any kind of counseling help or anything, there’s a belief that you are no longer effective.”

7. Provide ongoing financial literacy instruction.

The military provides classes in financial literacy during times of transition when service members are severely distracted: during basic training, when soldiers are preparing to deploy or are returning to civilian life. But they need instruction in financial planning throughout the course of their service, say planners like Ross, who has taught courses to new recruits in many branches of the military.

“My big beef with all of these programs [during basic training] is they try to cover everything in seven hours,” he says. “It’s just insane. They have these big manuals. It should take an instructor maybe 50 hours to cover this material. To expect people to pick this up in seven hours in the midst of all this other stuff is completely unrealistic.”

8. Show service members the aftermath.

The military needs to let new recruits know that, if they don’t take care of their finances, they may put themselves at a very real risk for suicide, Purdon says.

Drivers’ education classes often show pictures of cars after accidents to illustrate the importance of safe driving. The military should consider doing something similar regarding its suicide problem, she says. The most common forms of suicide for active-duty service members are by hanging or gunshot wound.

“You have to show soldiers the aftermath,” she says. “That’s the public service announcement that is needed.”

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Note: Advisors dealing with military clients or family members in crisis are asked to recommend they call the Military Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 for 24/7 confidential support.

 

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