November 17, 2008 – After a mortar sent Andrew Spurlock hurtling off a roof in Iraq, ending his Army career in 2006, the seasoned infantryman set aside bitterness over his back injury and began to chart his life in storybook fashion: a new house, a job as a police officer and more children.
“We had a budget and a plan,” said Mr. Spurlock, 29, a father of three, who with his wife, Michelle, hoped to avoid the pitfalls of his transition from Ramadi, Iraq, to Apopka, Fla.
But the move proved treacherous, as it often does for veterans. The job with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office fell through after officials there told Mr. Spurlock that he needed to “decompress” after two combat tours, a judgment that took him by surprise. Scrambling, he settled for a job delivering pizzas.
Mr. Spurlock’s disability claim for his back injury took 18 months to process, a year longer than expected. With little choice, the couple began putting mortgage payments on credit cards. The family debt climbed to $60,000, a chunk of it for medical bills, including for his wife and child. Foreclosure seemed certain.
While few Americans are sheltered from the jolt of the recent economic crisis, the nation’s newest veterans, particularly the wounded, are being hit especially hard. The triple-whammy of injury, unemployment and waiting for disability claims to be processed has forced many veterans into foreclosure, or sent them teetering on its edge, according to veterans’ organizations.
The problem is hard to quantify because there are no foreclosure statistics singling out veterans and service members. Congress recently asked the Veterans Affairs Department to find out how badly veterans were being affected, particularly by foreclosures. The Army, too, began tracking requests for help on foreclosure issues for the first time. Service organizations report that requests for help from military personnel and new veterans, especially those who were wounded, mentally or physically, and are struggling to keep their houses and pay their bills, has jumped sharply.
“The demand curve has gone almost straight up this year,” said Bill Nelson, executive director for USA Cares, a nonprofit group that provides financial help to members of the military and to veterans. Housing, Mr. Nelson said, “is the biggest driver in the last 12 months.”
Congress has recently taken small steps to help, banning lenders from foreclosing on military personnel for nine months after their return from overseas, up from three months, and ensuring that interest rates on their loans remain stable for a year. Another relief bill to prevent certain injured veterans from losing their homes while they wait for their disability money was signed into law in October. The protection is good for one year.
“We owe these men and women more than a pat on the back,” said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who introduced one of the bills.
But the short-term measures do little to address the underlying economic difficulties that new veterans face, beginning with the job hunt. Veterans, particularly those in their 20s, have faced higher unemployment rates in recent years than those who never served in the military, though the gap has shrunk as the economy has worsened. (Veterans traditionally have lower unemployment rates than nonveterans.)
Recently discharged veterans, though, fared worst of all. A 2007 survey for the Veterans Affairs Department of 1,941 combat veterans who left the military mostly in 2005 showed nearly 18 percent were unemployed as of last year. The average national jobless rate in October was 6.5 percent.
A quarter of those who found jobs failed to make a living wage, earning less than $21,840 a year.
“You fill out a job application and you can’t write ‘long-range reconnaissance and sniper skills,’ ” said Mr. Spurlock, who searched a year for a better-paying job than delivering pizza, finally finding one as a construction supervisor.
The situation is especially troubling for the injured, whose financial problems begin almost immediately.
“The wife drops everything to be by his bedside,” said Meredith Leyva, founder of Operation Homefront, a nonprofit group that provides emergency money and aid to 33,000 military families a year, including the Spurlocks. “She stays at the nearest hotel to make sure he is alive. They live that way for months. She either has to quit her job or she is fired. This bankrupts people.”
Some injured veterans cannot work at all and must rely on disability checks and other government payouts. The wait for a disability check from the Veterans Affairs Department averaged six months in August, enough to financially crush some families.
Those who can work struggle to find employers willing to accommodate their injuries, including mental health problems. The Labor Department recently started a Web site, America’s Heroes at Work, that prods employers into hiring more wounded veterans and explains that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are manageable conditions and not necessarily long-term.
Some believe that the government has to do more.
“There have to be incentives for employers,” said Thomas L. Wilkerson, a retired Marine Corps general who is chief executive of the Naval Institute, an independent nonprofit group.
Active duty troops who switch installations also find themselves struggling. Many of those forced to sell their homes this year are finding a scarcity of buyers, or even renters, particularly in states hit hard by the mortgage crisis. Military spouses must choose between taking a loss on their homes or riding out the housing slowdown and facing another separation from their loved one.
Although the government offers safeguards for some federal employees in similar circumstances, it will not help service members make up the difference if they are forced to sell a home at a loss.
What is worse, foreclosure or excessive debt can damage a service member’s career by leading to discharge, the loss of security clearances or, in extreme cases, jail.
A 2007 California task force reported that in the Navy, the number of security clearances revoked because of debt increased to 1,999 in 2005, from 124 in 2000.
“It’s the crash in the market,” said Joe Gladden, managing partner of Veteran Realty Service America’s Military, who sees families in extremis out of Northern Virginia. “It’s not that they have made stupid decisions.”
Mr. Gladden said e-mail messages and phone calls to his office had become so routine that he encouraged military families to share their stories anonymously on his company Web site, vrsam.com.
“I am about sick over this situation,” one woman wrote. “Our two young boys have to go without seeing Daddy until we can sell our house. Not only that, but we face the possibility of Daddy deploying to Iraq again. Shouldn’t we be able to spend as much time together until that happens?”
For the Hatchers, the financial decline began after Roger, a Navy reservist and father of four, returned from his first tour of duty in Iraq. When he got back to Ventura, Calif., in 2004, his job as a groundskeeper for a school district was gone. He was offered a custodial job for less pay. Mr. Hatcher decided to find another job. He looked for several months, then was redeployed to Iraq. By then, the family had moved to Bakersfield, to a cheaper house near relatives.
His second tour was tougher. Iraq had grown more violent, and in late 2006, Mr. Hatcher was blown out of a Humvee after it hit a roadside bomb. The blast injured his shoulder, arm and neck. Back home, Mr. Hatcher, 49, fell prey to nightmares and rages. He drank heavily, said Tami, his wife of two decades. The pain in his shoulder never let up.
It took Mr. Hatcher eight months to find a job, and the family fell behind on their house payments. A disability claim filed in 2007 was still pending in August, Mrs. Hatcher said.
Mr. Hatcher wound up hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder three times. “We noticed there was a change after the first tour, but not as drastic as this time,” Mrs. Hatcher said. “The person comes back a different person, and then you have financial issues on top of it.”
His new employer, a construction company, welcomed him back after each medical absence. Still, weeks off the job meant weeks without pay.
Meanwhile, the mortgage company ratcheted up the pressure. Feeling cornered, the Hatchers signed a forbearance agreement, which significantly increased their monthly payment. “They knew about my husband’s situation,” Mrs. Hatcher said of the mortgage company. “They wouldn’t work with us.”
The Hatchers borrowed from friends and relatives but still came up short. Then two nonprofit groups stepped in to help. One of them, Operation Homefront, negotiated with the lender to keep them in their house.
Mrs. Hatcher, a purchasing agent, tried her best to shield her husband from their financial troubles. “It’s putting a big strain on me,” she admitted. “But only one of us can lose it at a time right now, and it’s his turn.”
The Spurlocks, back in Florida, were not so lucky. Operation Homefront managed to stop foreclosure proceedings, but the couple had to agree to a deed in lieu, turning over their house to the bank. Their debt was forgiven.
The family moved into a rental house and whittled down its credit card debt to $26,000.
“It feels impossible right now to pay off our bills,” said Michelle Spurlock, 28, her voice breaking. “I had to get my mom to bring diapers over. We couldn’t go grocery shopping. As soon as we turn a corner, it’s something else.”