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.