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Joining the military, with your meals, uniforms, accommodation, ammunition and all sorts of other things paid for, is no guarantee you’ll save most of your pay.

About one-third of military recruits don’t complete their first term of enlistment. Most leave because of misconduct, medical problems, incompetence or drug use. Less than 6 percent of the early dropouts are discharged specifically for financial irresponsibility.

But Dave Gretsch believes that money troubles have a hidden hand in many premature departures from the military. The retired Army veteran is doing his part by coordinating training for the financial assistance program at Fort Hood in central Texas.

“You start taking a look at the soldiers who didn’t make it, and you’ll find most of them had this common theme that their personal financial situation is not good,” Gretsch says. “It affects a person’s happiness. You take a person who is financially stable and compare them to someone who is financially devastated. That affects their attitude, work performance, motivation. Really, it affects the attrition rate of the U.S. Army.”

Fort Hood has a two-part program to deal with soldiers’ financial problems. The first aims at prevention and the second sets its sights on repair. Based on a successful Navy program, Fort Hood’s efforts have been exported to other Army installations, including Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Sill, Okla.

An all-America problem
For many soldiers, Gretsch says, money problems arise from a combination of youthful impatience and financial ignorance. These enlisted men and women are just like any other young Americans.

“In the military we are a reflection of American society,” Gretsch says. “We’re in an instant age right now — pager, cell phone, e-mail, get it right now on credit. We find it’s easy for them to get credit and loans and easy for them to fall into debt over their head. That kind of thing happens gradually, without them realizing it. The next thing, they’re saying, ‘After I’m paid, all the money’s gone and all I have left is this $20 bill.’ “

Young people in general lack a financial education because their parents don’t talk to them about budgeting, credit, savings and investing, Gretsch says. So at Fort Hood, the Army steps in with a mandatory eight hours of financial training for each newly arrived recruit.

“I ask them, ‘How many of you had your parents sit you down at the kitchen table with the bills? How many taught you how to write a check, how to budget?’ ” Gretsch says. “Less than 5 percent have been told how to budget.”

It doesn’t help matters that soldiers are young and, like most young people, have a short frame of reference.

“The young soldier has the inability to look past what kind of booze they can get their hands on this weekend,” Gretsch says with the chuckle of a man who remembers when he acted the same way. “I was like that, too. I had some kind of inability to look far down the future.”

A new enemy
Back when Gretsch was in the Army, massage parlors and pawnshops deftly separated soldiers from their pay. Now, he says, the financial predators have become more sophisticated in taking advantage of soldiers’ impatience and lack of financial savvy. Gretsch in particular singles out check-cashing storefronts that offer payday loans.

A soldier can walk into one of these establishments and write a check for $130, postdate it to the next payday, and receive $100 cash and a $30 gift certificate that’s good only in the check-cashing store’s catalog of shoddy, overpriced items.

Gretsch advises recruits to stay far, far away from payday lenders. “I tell them if I was king for a day I would burn them all down. It’s a hugely bad deal.”

That’s the kind of blunt advice that soldiers get during their eight hours of financial training.

First, the soldiers are taught the basics of budgeting. They get handouts explaining the concepts of net worth, income and expenses, and budget worksheets. “I tell them to take that and find some quiet space with their bills and pay stubs and make a plan,” Gretsch says.

Then the soldiers learn the basics of credit, interest, how to save, the importance of setting money aside to handle emergencies and setting realistic financial goals.

Fighting back
Not everyone learns the lesson. For those soldiers, Fort Hood has a command financial specialist and an alternate assigned to each battalion. Fort Hood has 80 battalions, each with 400 to 1,000 soldiers.

Each command financial specialist is a noncommissioned officer ranking from staff sergeant to first sergeant.

The command financial specialist comes to a soldier’s aid when he’s getting in over his head. A soldier can refer himself to the program, or his sergeant can order him to get financial counseling when a creditor calls the unit or financial problems come to their attention.

The command financial specialist sits down with the soldier and they work out a budget and possibly a debt liquidation program. Fort Hood’s program even has an agreement with the local Consumer Credit Counseling Service, which waives fees for soldiers.

Service members also can get advice on saving and investing from their command financial specialists. And soldiers can ask specialists to get Blue Book values on used cars or look up information from the Better Business Bureau.

Gretsch can cite statistics that suggest that the classes and the command financial specialists benefit soldiers. Particularly, he points to another huge Army installation, Fort Bragg, N.C., which has a much higher rate of bankruptcies and offers its soldiers less financial education.

In some of the Army, “we teach them how to take that M-16 apart blindfolded, but not about personal finance,” Gretsch says. “But that’s changing.”

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