A prominent congressman is pushing legislation to help broaden financial planning assistance for troops and veterans in an effort to reduce the high rate of military suicide.
“There are steps that can be taken to ameliorate [financial stress] through good personal financial advising,” says Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). His moves follow a special report in Financial Planning that shows deep worries about personal finances are a leading factor in military suicides.
Holt’s plan would direct the military to conduct intensive studies of the effectiveness of existing financial planning programs and would result in broad-based recommendations for delivering more effective planning and financial education to soldiers and veterans. The studies also would examine soldiers' high debt levels, which can lead them to lose their security clearances and, ultimately, their jobs.
Holt says much of his proposal – which was blocked from a vote on the House floor this month, although he says he will try again – was based on eight recommendations made by financial planners in the Financial Planning special report. Over the past four years, Holt and Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) have led a bipartisan coalition that’s secured a total of $120 million for programs intended to reduce military suicide rates.
‘UNIQUE FINANCIAL STRESS’
Holt’s latest proposal argues that members of the military face “unique financial stress” in the course of their service. Frequent relocations create high expenses for soldiers, who often experience divorces that prove “financially ruinous.” In addition, soldiers who have been wounded and suffer from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder often have a diminished capacity to handle their own finances. The proposal also notes that the military’s financial planners currently are forbidden from providing financial planning for soldiers and may only provide limited financial education.
At the outset, Holt’s plan seeks studies to establish:
- The ability of military personnel to receive unbiased, professional and personalized financial planning.
- How the payment of government-funded life insurance benefits of $500,000 impacts military and veteran suicides.
- Whether the financial planning, education and counseling services of the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are coordinated properly.
The proposal says the agencies should most focus on:
- Improving financial outcomes for soldiers and veterans, and reducing financial stress.
- Increasing connections between mental health professionals and financial planners who serve the military.
- Helping service members whose security clearances have been threatened for financial reasons.
- Preventing financial abuse of troops and veterans.
- Preventing suicide among soldiers and veterans.
In the Financial Planning special report, the Pentagon acknowledged that the vast majority of meetings between planners and troops last only about 15 minutes. “To say that financial advice is just a box you check off after five or 10 or even 15 minutes of conversation, that is not worthy of the name of financial advice,” Holt says. “The stress associated with service members’ finances is … not just a casual matter that they should be counseled in a superficial and quick way.”
Financial stressors are such common precipitating factors to suicide among soldiers and veterans that the military must address the link, Holt adds. “It’s been driven home to me through families in my congressional district that these are not just numbers. They are not just statistics. These are family tragedies,” he says. “Suicides are always puzzling. Everyone is left wondering what went wrong, what could I have done?”