Mideast edition, Sunday, July 29, 2007

View graph outlining major changes being considered by Congress.

WASHINGTON — When naval reservist Karl Botkin was deployed to Kuwait in July 2005, his wife called around to see if they could get a break on their car loan interest rate and credit card payments.

Everyone said no.

“It caused some real problems, because even though I was making some money over there we still had more bills,” the retired petty officer said. “And it made me feel terrible because she had to deal with all of that and I couldn’t do anything to help. I was powerless.”

When Botkin returned home nine months later the family was in debt. He also discovered the family had been eligible for reduced interest rates and protection from creditors under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, despite the companies’ insistence that no special military safeguards were available.

“Some of them told her to her face there was nothing for military families,” he said. “So we just figured we had to keep paying and make it work.”

Technology, troublesThe SCRA gives broad financial and legal protections to active-duty troops and their families. The legislation was originally written in 1940 but revised in 2003 to put greater emphasis on Guardsmen and reservists who found themselves serving in overseas operations.

Now, after cases like Botkin’s have emerged, some members of Congress are pushing for even more revisions, arguing that the provisions of the legislation haven’t kept pace with time and technology.

“I think we need a fundamental reassessment of whether this act is working,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., one of several lawmakers who has proposed changes to the law. “It’s worth looking to see if we can really modernize the whole thing.”

Lawmakers are considering more than a dozen changes to the bill, covering issues such as preventing child custody changes while troops are deployed and allowing troops to suspend their cell phone accounts while they’re overseas.

Israel is pushing for a measure that would require the Defense Department to automatically notify credit agencies whenever a servicemember is deployed, and instruct them to make sure creditors are aware of the resulting civil relief act provisions.

While such information sharing could have taken weeks or months in the past, Israel said that today’s computerized pay systems and credit records should allow nearly instant notification once troops receive their first paycheck with hardship duty pay included.

Child custody changesSince Guard and reserve troops can break certain leases if they’re called to active duty, one proposal amending the act would allow renters to get a tax credit for that lost income. Another would delay foreclosure on a servicemember’s home until at minimum one year after they return from combat, much longer than the current 90-day wait under the act.

The child custody provision, included in the House and Senate versions of the 2008 Defense Authorization bill, is actually an older proposal. Michael Robinson, a California lobbyist, said he has been talking to lawmakers about custody rights for several years

That proposal would prohibit courts from making any permanent custody changes while one parent is deployed, a problem Robinson said he has been following since the first Iraq war.

“So they’re sent overseas and as a result of serving they lose custody,” he said. “We just want to make sure they get their time, and this will send a strong message to the courts.”

He said he’d like to see Congress go even further, possibly following several state provisions which allow deployed parents to assign their visitation time to a new spouse or other relatives.

Updates or upheaval?Military support organizations said they support most efforts to update the SCRA, but stopped short of calling for a full rewrite.

“Most of these proposals are narrowly focused, designed to close gaps in the existing law,” said Eric Hilleman, deputy director of legislative affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. “The law is working and the gaps don’t seem to be gaping, but there are certainly holes in any legislation.”

For example, several groups have opposed a proposal by Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., requiring that credit agencies indicate military service in their files whenever a late or delinquent payment is made by an active-duty servicemember.

“We don’t want to create excuses for financial irresponsibility,” said Kathy Moakler, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. “Troops and families still need to plan ahead and do their homework. So that might be going too far.

“But allowing troops to get out of their cell phone contracts (once they’re sent overseas), that’s just following the line and makes a lot of sense to us.”

Groups also are pushing for better education of the SCRA rules, both for troops and corporations. All servicemembers receive literature and lectures on the law when they go through basic training, but many businesses, especially smaller renters or stores, aren’t familiar with the rules until they’re confronted by a problem with a military customer.

Still, for some troops like Botkin, better education isn’t enough.

He eventually got a refund on his credit card payments and bank loans for the amount his interest rate should have been reduced, and an apology from the companies. But he said that doesn’t make up for the stress his family faced.

“I had to come back and fight for that money, and I shouldn’t have had to,” he said. “When you’re over [in Iraq] you don’t want to be worrying about these things.”

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