Best Defense

The defense budget implosion (IV): Gourley on Romanian strippers and the financial lives of today’s soldiers

Like I said last month, this guy can write. Here, in our blog post of the day, he explores the financial lives of today’s soldiers. Keep his comments in mind as your Congress pole dances around its plans to trim military benefits. I know some of those bennies are going to have to go, but ...

quinn.anya/Flickr
quinn.anya/Flickr

Like I said last month, this guy can write. Here, in our blog post of the day, he explores the financial lives of today’s soldiers. Keep his comments in mind as your Congress pole dances around its plans to trim military benefits. I know some of those bennies are going to have to go, but brace yourself for the many news articles we will read, see, and hear about the problems such congressional fiddling causes for Army units:

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense department of financial, physical, and mental health

I commend the uninitiated to spend a day walking any commissary’s aisles and parking lots on payday. You’ll see the importance of the institution. Steady assault waves hit the place throughout the day like the Normandy landings. Go there during lunch at your peril. It’s going to take you an hour to pick up that tube of toothpaste you need. The wives are well-trained at navigating the grocery terrain, too. They’ll put their brood of two or more kids in two separate carts, pushing one ahead and pulling one behind, and stack them to overflowing with necessities. It amazes me that they don’t suffer from carpal tunnels negotiating the hairpin turns with those behemoths using only one hand.

Eggs. Cheese. Kids’ snacks. Soft drinks. Milk. Bread. Most of the chicken and all of the ground beef. The place will be cleaned out by 5 p.m. Guaranteed.

These people live paycheck to paycheck. I’m not saying that the American soldier is embarrassingly low paid for his/her honorable service. Though that may be the case, it’s more relevant to discuss things in terms of economics, and the truth is that a great many enlisted military members are very poor money managers. All you need to do is sit outside the main gate at Fort Campbell and watch the Mustang parade at 6 p.m. to know where the deployment bonuses go. You’ve got 19 and 21-year-old kids in the barracks who are playing XBox and drinking beer like it’s water one minute, and before you know it they’re 25-year-olds with a wife, a 6-month-old, a car payment, rent (or worse, an adjustable rate mortgage), utilities, and a bunch of buddies calling from the barracks asking if they want to go drink beer all weekend. Let’s drop all the discussion about how mature they are and their leadership in combat– in the financial realm, these people often find themselves thrust into a life they’re unprepared for and are slow to mature into.  

The Thrift Savings Program, Army Emergency Relief, Commissary System, and on-post child services are important programs that provide immense help to service members when they stub their toes on life’s financial issues. I had troops that had no idea how a debit card worked, couldn’t balance a checkbook, and fell for some of the oldest identity theft scams in the book. I also had more than I’d like to remember that got burned by their stripper girlfriends. Programs and institutions like the ones I mentioned above are necessary buffers and parachutes to keep troops from hitting bankruptcy before their leaders can pull them out of a financial nosedive. And heaven knows we need THOSE institutions to slow the free fall, because the main streets outside the gates of every post in the Army are lined with OTHER institutions whose sole profit model is to usher service members into Chapter 13. I refer to payday advance and loan establishments the same way Obi Wan Kenobi described the Mos Eisley cantina– you won’t find a more wretched den of scum and villainy anywhere in the galaxy. Those people are thieves.

There are those that argue that the AER fund and “discount” establishments within the Army foster irresponsibility among troops when we should be discouraging it and helping them learn to save. I agree, but do you want the Army to teach financial management to America’s youth, or fight two wars, because we kind of have our hands full with that war thing right now. True, even in peacetime the Army isn’t good at educating people at how to make good life choices. There is no “reconditioning training” that teaches people how to go from the Army lifestyle to the civilian workplace. There is no “dude, don’t marry the Romanian stripper” class here in Vicenza. And if you listen to the folks at the passport office, it’s apparently a huge problem because they clean out the bank accounts, book a ticket for the United States and file for divorce as soon as they get their citizenship and see the hubby off to Afghanistan. There is no “do not go car shopping within 50 miles of Fort Campbell because the guys at the dealerships in Clarksville are vipers, especially at Wyatt-Johnson and Gary Matthews.”

Just trying to help a few people as I go here.

We talk about the grand scheme of things to a large extent in this forum. However, like the Libya proposition, the commenters in here and from Americans at large rarely have the chessmaster discussion of “if I do this, what will the board look like two moves hence?” We never talk about second-order effects. I would certainly like to see a more efficiently run DECA. However, I believe that said efficiency must necessarily come as the result of a near-transparent process from the perspective of the commissary shopper. These people live on very narrow margins. “Why” is less important in this case, because that leads into a discussion of solving a large problem that isn’t the priority right now. What really matters is not making the problem worse.

Having been through the disaster and drama that is a financially dysfunctional soldier multiple times, I believe just about every other leader on this board would agree that they’re no different than a litter urgent casualty on the battlefield– it takes more people out of the fight to address the issue than a KIA. It would not take a severe interruption in commissary services or a tremendous price hike to severely imbalance the checkbooks in many lower enlisted families. That leads to all kinds of second-order effects. Arguments over finances lead to serious violence, legal troubles, substance abuse problems, and broken homes and marriages. Upsetting the fiscal situation in a military home doesn’t take much, and it has severe consequences. It really doesn’t take much more than the beat of a butterfly’s wings to initiate the typhoon.

Consider that against the possibility that military paychecks may get delayed substantially longer in August than they did a few months ago. If the military went 60 days without pay, you’d have people putting down their rifles and taking whatever other jobs they could find. AWOL doesn’t mean anything when your baby is crying and there’s no formula in the house.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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