What personal finance counselors should understand about veterans

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

Mechel Glass is helping a new generation of veterans learn to manage their money — and she sees firsthand the unique personal finances challenges veterans face. 

Glass, an Army veteran herself, knows that serving veterans well goes far beyond understanding military benefits and special tax rules. Even the way she approaches her clients is different — in part because many veterans return from deployment struggling with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, which can include forgetfulness, anxiety, angry outbursts and an inability to focus.

She also trains other financial counselors to serve veterans through a program called CredAbility ReConnect. In an interview recently, she told me about some of the hurdles new veterans face and shared some of the key advice she gives to other counselors who want to serve them.

 – Jeff Severns Guntzel, senior reporter

Mechel Glass

Army veteran Mechel Glass advises veterans on personal finances and trains other financial counselors to understand the unique situation veterans find themselves in. (Photo from mechelglass.com)

Understand deployment

When I left high school and joined the military at 17, I didn’t have any financial literacy knowledge. For many in the military, this is their first job and this infusion of cash is something really surprising.

Many of them sign up for jobs that give bonuses. And when they are deployed to a combat zone, they get hazard pay. Then there are the tax incentives — you don’t have to pay taxes on certain types of military income.

They are insulated — they’re living in their barracks so they don’t have to pay for housing. Your clothing, food and medical — all these things are taken care of. You’re not paying for a gym membership because you’ve got regular physical training. Typically, a lot of their money ends up going to entertainment like DVDs and video games. They get used to that lifestyle.

Often they don’t really think about the uniqueness of their situation. When I was in the military, my number-one priority was my duty. It was following commands and making sure I’m making the right decision for my team — get the job done, get it done right and be sure you’re protecting your people.

Then in downtime of course, they’re not thinking about managing their money; they’re thinking: “Alright, I survived this day and tomorrow I’ve got to go right back out there.”

It’s a very traumatic, emotional time. They are dealing with a lot of stress. For our young recruits, they might never have left their state before their deployment. Everything is new for them.

Understand what it’s like to come home

It’s hard to connect back to civilian life when you’ve been insulated in the military. You’ve been gone for a number of years. You’re trying to come back and reconnect emotionally with your family, with your community and with all of the things that have changed. Nothing is the same as it was when you left. That causes a tremendous amount of stress. Even if you weren’t deployed in battle, still it was a time of war and there are things that were required of you — it causes stress.

When you step off the plane, you have to go through this process of getting integrated with the Department of Veterans Affairs so you can get your benefits. You have to decide, “What are my long-term goals? Am I going to use money to buy a house with VA loans or use the G.I. Bill to go back to college?” There are a lot of decisions you have to make in a quick amount of time, and you don’t know which decisions have to be made right away and which decisions can wait.

Often, new veterans have been deployed numerous times. When they come back, they find that there is no employment available for them — and if they find a full-time job, they may have to leave it for another deployment. For National Guard members, sometimes those folks make a lot more money as civilians than when they’re on active duty.

Understand the problems that go beyond money

Of course, many of our veterans are coming home with PTSD or TBI. And really, trying to address the emotional issues is something they have to do first.

Our counselors are trained in how to deal with veterans who have PTSD. You don’t want to make rash movements. You want them to be able to stand up and express themselves. Some counselors might feel uncomfortable when they are trying to counsel someone who is standing up and walking back and forth — but if the person wants to stand up and pace it’s okay for him or her to do that. We want to be sure that veterans feel comfortable with us and that we know what they’re going through. Many of our counselors are veterans themselves.

I was at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, talking to the wife of a veteran. Her husband had just gotten back from deployment about three weeks earlier and she said, “You know, we’re not behind on our mortgage yet. Right now I’m struggling with just paying the gas bill and I can’t seem to get him off the couch. I’m sick of nagging him.”

He had severe PTSD, and she was just trying to figure out what to do. You can’t focus on anything. You may have nightmares over and over and you may feel like you’re all alone — like you’re drowning in a deep hole of depression and there’s no way out. You don’t want to think about anything else. Everything feels so dark and cold. You don’t know where to turn. You can’t focus on anything, much less on paying a gas bill. You don’t have the wherewithal to get up off that couch.

See the whole person

This how it starts: When you’re in the service, everything is going fine. You’ve got that regular paycheck coming in. Then when you get out, you know, maybe you’ve got a car and an apartment and everything is going well. Then one day you just can’t get out of bed to go to work. The next day your employer is calling, asking where you are. You can’t even explain it. So they let you go and now you can’t pay your bills. Your car gets taken away and you get an eviction notice. You’re still just sitting there because you’re still trying to deal with the emotional impact of what happened to you during your service. You are overwhelmed and feeling a sense of shame. Your family doesn’t know what you’re going through and you don’t want to be a burden to them so you don’t reach out to them.

You had people following your lead in the military. You were protecting people. Now you can’t protect yourself. So there is a lot of shame, which is why a lot of them don’t reach out for help. Everything just starts piling up and the next thing you know maybe you’re out on the street.

That happens so often to our veterans. We have to have some kind of safety net so if they do make that first wrong step, it doesn’t snowball.