FAIRBORN, Ohio — During the last decade, credit unions that serve the military have been called on to do more to support those who protect our nation.

These credit unions have stepped up financial counseling, carried more members' debt and worked one-on-one with countless servicemen and women to help them navigate through financial challenges.

Several credit unions that serve the U.S armed forces looked back on how life and business have changed since tragedy struck at the World Trade Center on 9/11, sending the U.S. headlong into conflicts in the Middle East.

When Doug Fecher took over as CEO of Wright-Patt CU in 2000, the U.S did not have tens of thousands of soldiers deployed in active war zones.

But that quickly changed in three years.

"I recall how the intensity of our involvement overseas ratcheted up so fast," he said. "We were in peacetime and then the world was completely different. Military personnel and their families suddenly were under a great deal of stress-that meant they needed the credit union more than ever to help keep their financial lives stable."

Arty Arteaga, president and CEO of the Defense Credit Union Council (DCUC) in Washington, said that 10 years ago credit unions began to play larger roles in the lives of the military.

"Our troops were now in a war zone and that requires a great deal of sensitivity to their personal and financial situations, providing the right products and services-and our credit unions have done that," Arteaga said.

Stress On Individual Attention

The support military credit unions have delivered to our armed forces over the last decade, they explained, has been less about special products, promotions and services, and more about individual attention-giving special consideration based on the needs of the member. credit union execs said sometimes that means skip-a-payment, a fee waiver for early CD withdrawal or loan modifications.

Craig Chamberlin, CEO of the $740 million-asset Marine FCU in Jacksonville, N.C., said, "It often comes down to doing whatever we can, based on the service person's unique situation. I tell our staff that if we have a member deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, wherever, don't do anything to make his family's life more difficult. If the member gets behind in his debts, we will carry the delinquency until he gets back and we will work with him to get things straightened out."

The fighting overseas ended a formal financial education course Marine FCU held on military bases it supports. It was a program, Chamberlin said, the CU placed a great deal of time into and improved the balance sheets of many enlisted personnel.

"The training tempo of the military became so high," noted Chamberlin, saying there simply was no place on the military's agenda anymore for financial education programs. "The main focus was training our fighting force on how to stay alive."

Chamberlin said the credit union still conducts a great deal of financial education for the military, but on an individual basis. The CU, too, has adjusted its focus on military support, putting greater emphasis behind programs that lend assistance to families that have experienced a death or had a loved one injured in combat.

When Iraq deployments began ten years ago, the $1.1 billion Andrews FCU in Suitland, Md., focused quickly on remote access, said CEO Jim Hayes, starting with online banking and now adding mobile. "We understood the importance of service men and women having access to the credit union no matter where they are."

Beefing Up Real Estate

The $16.5 billion Pentagon FCU in Alexandria, Va., has been beefing up its real estate CUSO to provide military families with a service they have been increasingly asking for, said James Schenck, president of Prudential PenFed Realty.

"Due to all the back-and-forth deployments and relocations, members of our military need a real estate agent they know they can trust. Families often have very little time to make a purchase decision on a home and ask us if we offer this service."

Recently the extra assistance credit unions have provided the military has resulted from fighting in Washington, helping these members and their families weather the impact of the budget sequestration and government shutdown, said DCUC's Arteaga.

"I am proud of our credit unions in and around all of the military bases. At every juncture they answered the call, whether it was sequestration, the shutdown..."

As Credit Union Journal previously reported (Credit Union Journal July 24, Aug. 12), CUs across the country stepped in while the government squabbled, with low and 0% interest loans, penalty-free CD withdrawals and guaranteed paychecks.

Marine FCU guaranteed paychecks, as did the $5.5 billion Randolph-Brooks FCU in Live Oak, Texas. "We always had been prepared for a government shutdown but it never came until this past year," said Sonya McDonald, SVP of planning and market development at RBFCU. "We offered the paycheck guarantee along with other services, like low-cost loans."

Wright-Patt's Fecher contends that all the special services recently offered by credit unions may not have been accessed to the degree that many CUs expected, saying, however, the programs helped whether they were used or not.

"I think our military personnel suffered more from all the uncertainty around the sequestration and shutdown," observed Fecher, who said knowing the credit union was standing by as a safety net allayed a great deal of member concerns.

"I received e-mails from people high up in the Pentagon and at Wright-Patt Air Force Base saying they knew what our credit union did and thanked us for it," said the CEO of the $2.7 billion shop. "That speaks to how intensely necessary are credit unions that serve military families."

Job Hunting In A Tough Economy

Now that U.S. involvement in the Middle East is scaling back, these same credit unions are ready to support troops that face the challenge of finding work in a tough economy. Military CUs are looking ahead to how the pullback of troops could impact members and the credit union, including potential base closures.

"I think this is an issue our credit unions will face," said Arteaga. "Our fighting force is being reduced by tens of thousands. This means veterans exiting the military and looking for jobs, and there are only so many jobs out there."

Military CUs will be called on to hire even more veterans, and look for ways to provide even more financial counseling, said Arteaga. "Many of our military will need to know financial management basics so as they exit to civilian life they won't encounter too many bumps along the way."

Marine FCU's Chamberlin said his credit union has its eye on this potential problem, and will wait to see "what cards are dealt. If many of our military personnel don't find jobs, they will face hardships and we will face loan losses. We will work with each based on their own circumstances."

Arteaga has a great deal of faith in how credit unions that serve the military will respond. "Our credit unions have been right there for our military as they went to war these past ten years, and they will be there for them as our country winds down our role in the Middle East."

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