NEW YORK – With thousands of the country's "citizen soldiers" deployed in the War on Terror, many families of activated military members are trying to cope with fewer paychecks and growing debts.
"We're doing OK but I know there's other families — these men have left jobs where they're making less in the military than they did in their civilian jobs," said Theresa Lynn, who lives in Scottsboro, Ala., and takes care of her two elderly parents.
Lynn's husband, Donald, had been in the Special Forces but that was 15 years ago, long before his recent decision to join the Army National Guard. A truck driver by trade, her husband had been in and out of employment for a year before getting a decent-paying job. Not long after that — on Jan. 3 — he was activated out of Fort Stewart, Ga., and deployed to Iraq.
With breadwinners on active duty and now earning soldiers' wages, many families are coping with half the income they're used to budgeting.
A cut in pay between someone's civilian job and military pay is often a "tremendous burden that the citizen soldier who has volunteered to serve his country has to endure," said Lt. Col. Bill DuPont of the National Committee for Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve (search), an agency within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.
President Bush and Congress tried to alleviate the burden by enacting into law last December new banking regulations aimed at financially protecting military families when a spouse is deployed.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (search) is much the same as that of the Soldiers and Sailor Civil Relief Act (search) of 1940. If a Reservist or Guard member is called to active duty, the SCRA kicks in. Among other things, the law orders companies to reduce interest rates on credit card debt to 6 percent, lower interest rates on mortgage payments, protect families from eviction if rent is $1,200 a month or less and delay all civil court actions, such as bankruptcy, foreclosure or divorce proceedings.
"It covers things that are absolutely critical for them, things like interest rates," said Linda Eagle, president of the Edcomm Group (search), which works with financial organizations on developing processes to comply with the laws. Edcomm also has provided 100,000 SCRA tutorials to military personnel.
"Today's military leaves behind the wives, husbands, spouses — almost all of them have financial obligations in the way that they didn't many years ago," Eagle said. "It is incumbent on the banks to train people, incumbent on the regulators to enforce this rule ... and incumbent upon the military management and leadership to worry about not only the soldiers and sailors but to proactively worry about their families and say to them, 'Hey, we know this is a hardship, military pay is pathetic, it's not good.'"
'I Had Enough to Worry About'
But some families are finding that their financial institutions aren't being very cooperative, and it's a slap in the face.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, "we felt like my husband would actually be activated sooner or later, so I paid off all of our credit cards and everything," said Cathy Yaikow of Gadsten, Ala.
But when she called Discover to make sure her and her husbands' interest rate was lowered on their card, the company told her because her husband wasn't the primary holder of the card, even though he was on the account, the interest couldn't be dropped.
In fact, said Yaikow, the person on the phone at Discover was "very rude" and told her the company would tack on the accrued interest to be paid off when her husband returned from service.
"I said, 'I do not think so, that is not the law. You are not allowed to do that,'" said Yaikow, who later received an apology from Discover. "At the time he said that to me, I had enough to worry about with my husband being activated rather than having someone be a smartass to me."
When Lynn called Bank of America (search), Chase Manhattan Bank (search) and Chevron Gas (search), among other companies, she was told that she couldn't get her interest rates dropped because only her name — and not her husband's — was on the accounts.
"Please understand that in order for us to grant this special handling afforded under the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, the current cardholder or the current joint cardholder would have to be enlisted. Unfortunately, we cannot honor your request to lower your annual percentage rate to your 6 percent rate …" the May 16 letter from Chase Manhattan reads.
She and her husband were married two years earlier and she even provided a marriage certificate to qualify for the reductions. But under the law, banks aren't technically obligated to give spouses benefits unless the accounts are joint with that of the deployed family member.
"The way I understood it … is that I'm his dependent and we are married so that would apply to me because he's our sole income right now," Lynn said. "I thought, 'Well, it's my word against theirs,' but a lot of times, you can't get very far … especially the big banks, they're not going to volunteer anything because they're not going to lose that interest [payment]."
Some financial institutions offer the breaks with little fuss, but a Bank of America spokesman said cases like Lynn's can pose complications.
"People need to understand that they need to think about that in terms of their own financial planning — if they are married to a serviceperson, if they want the relief under this act, it goes with the serviceperson so the name of the serviceperson has to be somewhere," the spokesman said.
Burden of Proof
Chevron officials said they try to help as much as they can if families can prove financial hardship — whether it's under the SCRA or some other program.
"We are certainly open to helping our membership if, due to a spouse's departure and loss of income, their household is experiencing a financial hardship," said Rebecca Lytle, executive vice president of lending and member service at Chevron's credit union.
"Some people might just try to do it because they want their rate reduced. We want to make sure we have the ability to provide this to those who need it, so we do require they support their request with their [deployment] orders and we look at their circumstances."
Eagle said banks could do a lot for their reputations and business if they were a little more attentive.
"If the banks are smart ... it's a great story for the banks, 'We care about our soldiers and sailors ... we're educating our people to know that when the family comes to you, give them the respect they deserve, the information they need, give them the rights that they have,'" Eagle said.
Lynn, Yaikow and others say it's up to military families to educate themselves on what they are entitled to under the law. The military provides families with a packet of information on the SCRA, but every word needs to be read, experts said, and families need to be proactive.
"They can't be thrown out of their homes for not paying rent — they need to know that," Eagle said.
The 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (search) is another law military families should know about. It provides job protection and rights of reinstatement to employees who participate in the National Guard and Reserve.
But it is in the companies' best interest to make sure they take care of the weekend warriors and their families while deployed, DuPont suggested.
"It is not unusual to receive a call here to find out if the XYZ company known for their lumber or home improvement, whether they're supporters of the Guard and Reserve," he said.