Four years ago, severe debts nearly pushed Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens to commit suicide. Earlier this summer even as his survival inspired the passage of planning-related legislation in the House intended to reduce military suicides his family faced a unexpected new threat.
"I am desperate," Stevens emailed his congressman on June 19, the day after the House vote. Facing a looming eviction, he wrote: "I want nothing more than to stay where my family receives their care."
Days before the vote, Stevens' landlords called to tell him that the four-bedroom ranch house in Arlington, Va., he rents was headed for foreclosure. The expense had grown too high, says Sandy Lopez, who has power of attorney for her parents, the landlords.
Stevens believed he would need to find a new home within 60 days a daunting task for the sole provider for a family that includes his wife, their two severely epileptic children, his wife's autistic brother and a service dog.
Stevens' struggles are emblematic of the kinds of complex and longstanding financial issues that many soldiers and veterans are facing after more than a decade on a wartime footing. Prior to committing or attempting suicide, many soldiers experience costly divorces, legal troubles, problems at work and a variety of other challenges.
For financial planners who wish to provide them with pro bono care that means theyll likely need to work in teams with other experts, possibly over a matter of years, military planners say.
"These are unusually difficult situations," says Dick Power, who heads whats widely regarded as one of the most successful pro bono military planning programs through the Massachusetts branch of the FPA.
To help Stevens this summer, Power called Edward Shapiro, a Newton, Mass., real estate lawyer to work along with another planner, Jan Chapman, who Stevens credits with saving his life in 2010 by reaching out at a desperate time and helping him tackle his high debt.
Power says he often brings in lawyers and other experts in social services, veterans affairs and taxes to work with his pro bono planners. Most, he says, are eager to help. Shapiro offered to be available to Stevens whenever he needed him.
"There is a need for the team approach for sure," Shapiro says. The lead person "has to have a holistic approach to the problem. It has to be one person who takes a sincere total interest in this person."
Sometimes, the planner who did the heavy lifting in the past has to take a backseat to a planner with different expertise. This time around, Chapman lacked the real estate experience to play the lead role.
"We can't be all things to all people," says Jan Chapman, a military planner and the founder of Clearance Advocates in Annapolis, Md. Chapman and Shapiro worked with a military planner experienced in halting foreclosures of soldiers and veterans' homes.
"There are a lot of different factors to consider in a situation that was so complex," Chapman says.
Without any savings due to high family medical expenses, the Stevenses were ill-prepared to afford the expense of a move and unlikely to find an affordable house near the children's doctors, large enough for five people and a large service dog, and reasonably close to Stevens job as amarketing manager for the sweetFrog yogurt chain.
Loss of a home is one of the most common economic strains associated with suicide, according to a study by the American Association of Suicidology. About a third of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves in 2012 had children living with them at home.
More than 85% of those soldiers who killed themselves in 2012 never saw combat and more than half did not deploy, running counter to the idea that most suicides are driven largely by lingering battlefield trauma.
Chapman's task, once again, is to help Stevens improve his credit score so he can eventually qualify for a VA loan; he says his landlords have long wanted to sell their home to him. Lopez confirmed this account but said the mortgage would need to be refinanced or modified in order to keep the property.
A spokesman for Wells Fargo, which holds the mortgage, says the bank would contact Lopez to see if they can work out an arrangement. "We understand the sensitivities of the situation," spokesman Tom Goyda says. "We'd like to come up with a solution that will be best for everyone."
Even if that is not possible, he adds, foreclosures typically take six to eight months in the state of Virginia. Renters like Stevens are given a minimum of 90-days notice before they must move and, in that case, the bank might be able to help Stevens with relocation expenses or by connecting him with veterans programs the bank supports, Goyda says.
The prospect of help from Wells Fargo came as a relief to both Stevens and Lopez.
In all, shepherding Stevens through this stage of his housing crisis took dozens of emails, phone calls and several teleconferences between him and the three planners. As his situation evolves, that work may continue.
Two months ago, the threat of a possible eviction created panic. "I need a miracle," Stevens wrote in the June 19 email.
Though he can't be sure where his family will be living down the road, Stevens say his planning team helped him understand that, even if the bank forecloses, he could stop paying rent for a number of months, enabling him to save money to pay for a move. He hopes to avoid having to take this route, largely because he does not want to cause financial distress for his landlords.
"It's about getting resources that give you scenarios and options," Stevens says. "I didn't have to do it on my own."
The Pentagon has estimated that up to 1 million service members may transition to civilian life over the next five years. As a result of this draw-down, Stevens thinks more veterans will find themselves facing financial conundrums they have no idea how to solve on their own.
"You are going to see more and more veterans who need financial help," he says.
When asked what he would have done recently without expert advice, Stevens said, "Honestly, I don't know."