Could Financial Planners Help Stem the Rate of Military Suicides?

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Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens carried heavy burdens when he went to see a military financial planner in May 2010. His family, which includes two seriously ill children, was living under the cloud of $100,000 in debt — and the financial predicament was threatening his job. He saw no options before the meeting, and a few humiliating minutes with the planner left him feeling more hopeless than when he arrived. As he headed to the parking lot, he did the math and made a decision.

"I walked out thinking, 'If I'm dead my family can get $500,000 in life insurance, but I have to kill myself,' " he recalls. As he approached his car on the base at Fort Belvoir, Va., he heard someone calling after him. Another planner, Jan Chapman, had overheard his consultation and felt compelled to act.

"I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was one step off the planet," she says.

Stevens, now 38, credits Chapman, a 62-year-old planner in Annapolis, Md., with saving his life.

Statistics from the Defense Department include financial trouble along with mental illness, family problems, legal issues and substance abuse as top factors in military suicides. Running counter to the belief that time on the battlefield is the main cause of such deaths, a Pentagon study of the 319 non-reserve military suicides in 2012 found that more than 50% were among service members who had never deployed.

Insurance may play an inadvertent role in suicides. Almost all active-duty soldiers carry a $400,000 government life insurance policy, which pays out even when someone takes his own life — unlike most insurance policies that cover private citizens. Survivors of service members also typically receive a $100,000 death benefit payable immediately. Most of the survivors of the 350 active-duty military suicides in 2012 received life insurance payouts, according to the Pentagon.

Chapman and about a dozen other planners with experience in guiding service members, as well as many veterans, say they have seen the debilitating effects of the financial pressures members of the military face.

While the Defense Department hires hundreds of financial advisors to assist those who serve in the armed forces, military policy does not allow them to provide planning, although some bend the rules to help troops in need. Instead, the advisors are instructed to focus solely on financial education, largely out of concern that planners could try to sell unsuitable financial products to service members who typically have little or no experience handling financial matters. "It's an important distinction," according to Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department's Office of Family Policy for Children and Youth.

Despite concerns about unscrupulous advisors, planning advocates believe the military is not using a vital tool at its disposal, especially since the military already forbids planners from selling products to troops. They say lives could be saved if the military helped more soldiers build strategies and develop solutions for escaping financial problems, such as debilitating debt. They also say the Pentagon's tendency to treat suicide risk primarily as a mental health problem impedes its ability to help those in financial straits.

"We've known this forever and no one will listen to us," says Craig Bryan, a veteran and executive director of the University of Utah's National Center for Veterans Studies. "We know that financial problems are one of the leading factors that immediately precede suicide among members of the military," he adds. "There are life stressors that are perceived as being unsolvable and never-ending, and suicidology is seen as being a coping strategy."

Jacqueline Garrick, director of the Department of Defense's Suicide Prevention Office, said she is well aware of the stigmatization that can come with classifying a service member's troubles as being related to mental health. She says her office is refocusing its suicide prevention efforts toward resolving daily life problems. "But understanding that," Garrick says, "and how to do it, how to develop the training and curriculum around that, it's still something that we do need to have a better understanding of."

This military's shift in focus — Garrick's office was formed in 2011 — may have contributed to a 9% drop in suicides to 474 in 2013 from 522 in 2012 among regular and reserve troops.

Garrick's office also is designing programs for new veterans. At least 8,000 veterans, about 22 a day, commit suicide annually, according to the Veterans Administration. Veterans account for more than 20% of all suicides in the U.S., although they amount to less than 10% of the U.S. adult population, according to a Financial Planning analysis of government records.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a statement late last year, said: "The Department of Defense has no more important responsibility than supporting and protecting those who defend our country, and that means we must do everything possible to prevent military suicide. The entire DoD community — service members, civilians, members of our families and leaders at every level — must demonstrate our collective resolve to prevent suicide, to promote greater knowledge of its causes, and to encourage those in need to seek support. The Department of Defense has invested more than $100 million into research on the diagnosis and treatment of depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse, as well as interventions for relationship, financial and legal issues — all of which can be associated with suicide."

The military employed 314 full-time personal financial managers on military bases worldwide in 2012. Hundreds more volunteer or work as military contractors. These planners conducted 1.8 million meetings with soldiers of less than 15 minutes, according to the Pentagon. Just 162,000 "extended contacts," or longer meetings, were provided for service members that year. In 15 minutes, a planner can only provide "a tidbit" of financial advice, says Cathie Purdon, a planner in San Diego who is on family leave from overseeing a nationwide network of 100 military planners for the large military contractor Zeiders.

The military says it is currently analyzing its suicide prevention practices and related programs. Of these, at least a half-dozen address financial issues.

By the time Stevens sought help in 2010, he had received a letter from the military informing him that he would soon lose his security clearance. The military considers soldiers with high debt to be security risks, and indebtedness is the top cause of lost security clearances.

Losing his clearance would lead to losing his job, Stevens believed. That would mean he couldn't provide for his daughter and his son Andrew, who has a severe form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome that kills most children in their teenage years.

After quickly reviewing the particulars of his situation, Stevens says the planner scolded him for setting a poor financial example to soldiers in his command. Stung by the criticism, he explained that his household went to one income from two so his wife could be home to take care of their children. The planner suggested writing letters to creditors, but said it was up to him to figure out how to write them — the skills he had hoped to learn from her. The planner was following protocol.

"We make it a rule to never do it for them," says Purdon, who says she wishes planners had more time with soldiers. "We are there to educate. We can't put ourselves in a situation that would put us out of that scope."

While some contractors are tolerant of planners who push the boundaries of their employment terms to help service members, many contractors follows the regulations strictly.

Given her employer's protocol, Chapman took a risk when she ran to the parking lot and offered to help Stevens for free, after hours. That first evening, she met Stevens at his Alexandria, Va., home and worked with him and his wife, Nancy, for about six hours. She met Andrew, then 11, and the couple's 13-year-old daughter, Victoria, who has a less-severe form of epilepsy.

Chapman had experience dealing with adversity. After a fallout with a former business partner many years ago, she says she fell on hard times and a $3,000 debt that went to collection, which caused her longtime broker-dealer, Raymond James Financial Services, to drop her. That experience helped Chapman understand the dilemma many military men and women face when they're told their severe debts could mean losing their security clearances.

Last year, Chapman started a new venture called Clearance Advocates in which she bills troops independent of the military for putting together detailed responses to the military in order to save their security clearances. She estimates that she spent hundreds of hours in self-directed study of rules governing debt negotiation for soldiers. She has also worked for military planning contractor Zeiders.

In working with the Stevenses over several weeks, she put in about 45 hours of unpaid work and gave them a crash course in taking on creditors. "She drew up a battle plan," he says.

Chapman gave Stevens a thick three-ring binder with tabbed sections, one for each debt. She helped him write letters to each creditor and taught him how military laws protect active-duty service members from certain creditor tactics.

The letters typically asked creditors to agree to one of a few options: write the debt off because of Stevens' active-duty status; take payments of as little as $5 a month, which they argued was all he could afford based on his income and expenses that they documented; or accept a payoff amount if they were willing to discharge the remaining amount owed. If none of those options were acceptable, Stevens — who felt honor-bound to satisfy as many debts as possible — told the creditors he would include the debt in a bankruptcy filing.

Following those efforts, Chapman helped Stevens negotiate his $100,000 in debts down to $48,000. He then declared bankruptcy.

Stevens' wife Nancy describes the relief that came over the household once she and her husband knew how to help themselves.

"Once I had the help from Jan," she says, "Everything went smoothly. I didn't sit and cry on the phone. I just explained to [creditors]. I took the initiative to call them rather than them calling me. I'd say, 'What can I do to work it out? And, 'This is how long I will pay you for until it is paid off.' "

Chapman learned none of these skills during her studies to become a CFP because most planners serve relatively wealthy clients who don't struggle with high debt. However, some planners who work with the military hold other credentials that do include instruction in debt reduction.

Chapman also filed a 72-page argument on Stevens' behalf regarding his security clearance that resulted in the military maintaining it. Stevens wrote a commendation to his command praising Chapman. "She's like the mom I never had," says Stevens, who was removed from his parents' Rhode Island home at the age of 3 and raised by the state.

A short while later, Chapman says, her supervisor delivered the news that she would be let go because of her work with Stevens.

"Do you understand that there would be a dead soldier if I didn't do this?" Chapman says she replied.

"Yeah, but you were out of your lane," the supervisor said, using an oft-repeated military phrase.

"Yeah, but ...?" Chapman says she echoed in disbelief.

Another of her former supervisors, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of career repercussions, confirmed this account. He also said that the military's shifting priorities also contributed to the early end to the contract.

After a trying period of months without income, Chapman went to work for a different military contractor that did not restrict her from working more intensively with service members in financial crisis.

Another planner working for a military contractor says she, too, was let go after she began teaching debt reduction classes to 50 soldiers at a time at a college. "It was considered out of the scope of the contract," she says, even though they helped stop 115 home foreclosures. She also asked to remain anonymous because she signed a confidentiality agreement with two different contractors.

In her daily work in one of the nation's poorest states (which she asked Financial Planning not to identify), she worked one-on-one with as many as 400 soldiers a month, and thinks she helped many make life-altering financial progress.

However, over a nine-month period in 2012 and 2013, she worked with 11 soldiers who eventually killed themselves. She says financial factors played a part in their demise.

One she described was a young man whose income plunged to less than $15,000 a year from $40,000 when he left the service and was let go by a civilian employer who feared he would depart on future deployments. Another was a 38-year-old father of three young children. She helped save his house from foreclosure by invoking laws that protect military members' homes. But after receiving a robocall from his bank informing him, erroneously, that his home would be foreclosed on the next day, she says he killed himself within hours.

By following protocol, the planner says she lost contact with these soldiers before each committed suicide — possibly severing an important lifeline.

As with their civilian clients, more soldiers and veterans could come away from planning sessions with a sense of relief and well-being, planners say.

"Just having light shed on the numbers is very empowering," says Kate Fries, a San Diego planner who has worked with military clients. "It's like, 'I see the monster in the corner and it's really the coat rack.'"

A soldier who recently met with New Jersey-based military planner Dylan Ross of the Garrett Planning Network believed it would take 17 years to pay off his debts, Ross says. After Ross showed him he could do it in 17 months, the man's relief was palpable. The military could play a leadership role in promoting the value of financial planning in overall health, Purdon adds. "If they had a strong enough program," she says, "there would be a ripple effect."

After working with Chapman, Stevens began talking openly about his close call with suicide. Before leaving the military, he served in a pilot suicide prevention program available on many bases around the country. He and six others focused on rushing to the aid of imminent suicide risks.

Newly empowered with a clear understanding of how to argue — and win — with creditors, Stevens, who's now managing a sweetFrog yogurt shop in Alexandria, Va., says he began guiding other soldiers on negotiating mounting debt. He estimates he's helped more than a dozen soldiers retain their security clearances.

"It works both ways," Stevens says. "We are a big family and we are taught to help each other."

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