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Not that Petraeus

Her last name may be familiar because of her husband’s job, but Army wife Holly Petraeus has made a name for herself as a champion for military families in the financial arena. Appointed to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Implementation Team, currently under the Treasury Department, she is charged with establishing and leading the Office of Servicemember Affairs.

Mrs. Petraeus is busy hiring staff, meeting with members of the military and financial communities to introduce the OSA, which goes operational in July.

“We’re hard at work, we’re just not officially enforcing yet,” she told me. “We can certainly raise awareness right now. We want to hear from the military about financial issues and problems they’re having.”

As head of the Better Business Bureau’s military division for six years, Mrs. Petraeus focused on consumer advocacy and financial education for military families. Her new position is similar, but with teeth. The OSA will have authority to monitor and enforce financial protections and create educational programs for military families.

Money problems can impact the effectiveness of military members, Mrs. Petraeus said, so the military has an interest in the financial health of troops and their families.

Deployments, frequent moves and activation of reserve units are just a few of the factors creating financial situations unique to military families.

“There are lots of recipes for financial problems during deployment,” Mrs. Petraeus said, also noting that guard and reserve members may take a pay cut to go on active duty.

“A big part of our mission here is financial education, and a big part of that is to take advantage of that time when you are making more money, not to raise your standard of living up to the max, but to do something productive with that money,” she said.

Last month she and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Elizabeth Warren visited Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, to get feedback from that military community. One roundtable discussion included active duty members and spouses from the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Mrs. Petraeus said their consensus was that financial education provided in basic training is not enough and that continuing education would help troops personally and professionally.

“When we asked who thought it should be mandatory, every hand in the room went up. They felt pretty strongly that financial education is needed,” she said.

"We hate to see, over and over again, young troops and their families learn by hard experience,” Mrs. Petraeus said. “I’d rather they learn by being taught a really good financial education course. We’re going to do our best to work with the Pentagon to design things that really work.”

The OSA will also monitor business practices targeting service members and ensure that financial institutions follow protective legislation. Leading American banks have already received a reminder from Mrs. Petraeus to abide by the Servicemen’s Civil Relief Act, which limits mortgage interest rates on military members and protects them from foreclosure during and after deployment.

Mrs. Petraeus said the federal government is making progress in keeping an eye out for troops and families.

She said a government-wide initiative, “Strengthening Our Military Families,” the program which included creation of her new job, is evidence of the support that is out there for military families.

“I went to a ceremony at the White House where the President, First Lady and Dr. (Jill) Biden all announced this program,” she said.

"I think almost every single member of the cabinet was there as well. Across the government they’re asking different agencies to take various steps to support the military,” Mrs. Petraeus said.

“I think we’ve put a lot of good things into place. We’ve made a lot of progress in taking care of spouses and kids. The stresses have been a lot since 2001, but I also think a lot of help has been put in place that wasn’t there before.”

She told a story highlighting the differences between military family care, past and present.

“I have a friend who was married to a soldier during Vietnam. He was killed. They came and pounded on her door on a Saturday night to tell her, and on Monday the Army sent a moving van to her house to move her, because it was considered bad for morale to have a widow stay on post. Less than 48 hours after they told her, they basically evicted her. So we’ve come a long way. We truly have, and in our national attitude too.

“I pause sometimes to be grateful … for all that’s been done for us, but we can always do more, and we can always do better. That’s part of my job here in this new office.”

To report concerns or questions to the OSA, write to Petraeus and her staff at Military@treasury.gov.

A few financial tips from Mrs. Petraeus:

  • When making a purchase, focus not only on the monthly payment but the total price and the penalty for missed payments: “Often if you miss a payment or two, all the money you’ve spent toward that just goes away,” she cautioned.
  • Look at the terms of any sales contract: “I know contracts are impossible to read … When in doubt, please do consult legal assistance.”
  • Be cautious with internet offers: “No matter how they word it, if they ask you to wire money up front … it’s probably a scam. You’re sending them your money, and you’ll never hear from them again.”
  • Monitor credit accounts: It’s harder when you’re overseas, especially during deployment,” she said. “I would strongly suggest when it’s during deployment, to put on an active duty alert or even freeze your credit.”

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