In an unprecedented effort to stem the alarming rate of military suicide through better financial planning remedies, lawmakers approved a proposal that could more readily help troops overwhelmed by money troubles.
In a unanimous vote, the U.S. House on Wednesday directed the military to study how to ensure soldiers and veterans at risk of suicide over severe money woes get more effective financial planning. The legislation was based largely on an investigation by Financial Planning last month that found the majority of military suicides involved troops who had never even deployed.
“In truth, suicide is often the desperate act of a soldier or veteran in a desperate situation – and one important component of that desperation is financial stress,” Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), author of the proposal, said on the House floor. “We err if we think suicide is only a mental health problem.”
During the month of March, Holt said, the U.S. had no combat deaths, while 700 soldiers and veterans died by their own hands.
In arguing for passage of his bill, Holt repeated the central anecdote from Financial Planning’s investigation: “A few years ago, Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens was living with $100,000 in debt,” Holt said. “He had just been told that, because of his deteriorating finances, he was at risk of losing his security clearance. If he lost his clearance, he would lose his job – which would make his debt even more unmanageable.
“Sgt. Stevens met with a military financial planner” – briefly, since 15-minute meetings are typically all that’s allowed. Holt continued: “He left feeling hopeless and humiliated. He told a reporter, ‘I walked out thinking, ‘If I’m dead, my family can get $500,000 in life insurance, but I have to kill myself.’ ”
A few moments after mentioning those wrenching details, a ranking House member interrupted Holt to express his support for the measure and the vote was called.
The House approved an initial $1 million allocation to study the role finances play as a leading precipitating factor to the military suicide epidemic. Supporters believe it will be a first step before broader changes can be made. If the Senate approves and President Obama signs the bill into law, the study could begin Oct. 1, Holt said.
“We need to understand how effectively the Defense Department is providing adequate, unbiased, comprehensive financial planning and financial counseling – and we need to understand the obstacles that prevent military personnel from seeking these services,” Holt argued in his full statement in the Congressional Record. The Defense Department hires hundreds of financial advisors to assist troops, but military policy does not allow the advisors to provide any planning guidance, including on debt management, a vital issue for service members.
In Holt’s statement, he added: “We need to build connections between the mental health professionals and the financial planning professionals who serve our soldiers. Mental health problems and financial problems both contribute to suicide, and we should explore ways to treat these problems together, rather than separately.”
That idea was one of eight strategies that planners interviewed in the Financial Planning investigation had recommended.
In an interview following the vote, Holt was optimistic about passage in the Senate. He notes that the connection between troops who take their own lives and anguish over severe money troubles “has not had any piece of the attention that has been paid to suicide in the military.” Holt has been a leader of a bipartisan coalition that’s succeeded in allocating $120 million since 2011 to efforts intended to reduce the high rate of military suicide.
Two former top military leaders expressed their support for Holt’s legislation.
“We are obligated to do this – it makes sense,” says former Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, who’s also a psychiatrist who’s counseled suicidal service members.
Former Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett said the proposal bridges the divide between addressing deep emotional problems and severe financial concerns. “Over here is mental health and over here it’s financial counseling and [the attitude is], ‘Well, they don’t have anything to do with each other,’ ” Barnett says. “What I think may be lacking is this type of research that shows that there are more avenues of counseling programs and that you have to go beyond that to pick up the factors that are acting on military members and their families. We have to significantly up our game and widen the search for root causes and solutions,” Barnett adds.
At the end of his argument for passage of his proposal, Holt noted that a financial planner – Anapolis, Md.-based Jan Chapman, who was featured in Financial Planning’s story – reached beyond her official role to help Stevens, the soldier who considered suicide for financial reasons, because she overheard his desperation during a fruitless conversation with another planner. Holt said getting comprehensive financial planning shouldn’t require random acts of fate, but should become common practice.
“We can do better. We can design our military to be more responsive, compassionate, and helpful to soldiers like Sgt. Stevens,” Holt insisted. “We can pull more soldiers back from the abyss.”
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