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July 6, 2014

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Financial hardships mount for military families

INDIANAPOLIS — Days before the July 4th holiday, Holly Petraeus stood on the steps of the imposing Indiana War Memorial, in front of a bank of cameras, and made a plea to military families: Don’t let pride stand in the way of asking for help.  

It was a striking message from a reserved woman who seemed at unease in the spotlight.

Petraeus knows about damaged pride and a military culture that abhors weakness. In late 2012, her husband, former CIA director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, suffered a fall from grace after admitting his role in an extramarital affair.

The public shaming must have been almost unbearable for the family, but Holly Petraeus stayed warrior-strong. She continued in her job advocating for military families who, after the longest period of warfare in U.S. history, too often find themselves in financial trouble, victimized by financial scams and illegal foreclosures.

Invited by Indiana’s U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly to meet with Hoosier military families, Petraeus visited Indianapolis in her role as assistant director of service-member affairs at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She talked about her work monitoring the complaints of military families and her office’s crackdown on illegal foreclosures on active-duty members. She described aggressive debt-collection practices that frighten military families.

Their money problems are real: A 2012 Defense Department report said 27 percent of military families have more than $10,000 in credit card debt, compared with 16 percent of all Americans. Nearly a third of enlisted personnel and junior non-commissioned officers patronize easy-credit, high-cost lenders, it found. And indebtedness is the top reason for revoking a soldier’s security clearance.

Petraeus said she and her small staff field many calls from service members who are threatened with de-ranking or to have their security clearance pulled if they cannot pay their debts. Those calls often come late in the process, she said, long after mortgaged homes are under water or when penalties of unpaid debts have piled up.

Petraues worries that’s related to a military culture. “You think you have to be strong, so you don’t want to ask for help,” she said.

Donnelly echoed her plea to service members and their families: “We are here to let every service member from Indiana know that you are not alone, that if you are looking up today and say, ‘It almost seems overwhelming, the financial challenges I face,’ we are here for you. … We will be with you every step of the way.”

That’s a big promise to make.

But, then, Petraeus is a veteran advocate and comes from a family of American warriors, dating to the Revolutionary War. While her husband may have long enjoyed the glory, her son, Stephen, quietly served two tours in Afghanistan as his famous last name was kept under wraps.

In many years as a military wife – she moved 23 times in 36 years – Petraeus said she saw the toll taken on families. Before her current job, she worked as director of the Better Business Bureau’s military line, providing financial advice to worried soldiers and their spouses. She’s candidly talked about her own reckless spending as a young military wife.

Sometimes the financial hole can seem too deep to surmount. Last year 118 service members died in combat, while 470 committed suicide. Financial worries, both Donnelly and Petraues noted, surely played a role in some of those suicides.

“Just coming home,” said Donnelly, “doesn’t take away all the challenges.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Twitter: @MaureenHayden.

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