WASHINGTON - The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is partnering with the Defense Department to create better awareness of programs and protections available to servicemembers with college debt, after a report that says many servicemembers are encountering problems accessing the benefits.

Servicemembers say they get faulty or incomplete information from loan servicers about repayment options, that they have trouble determining what benefits are available to them and what loans the benefits apply to, and that they are sometimes denied servicemember-specific benefits because of paperwork snafus and other obstacles, according to a report released Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"The financial health of our forces is absolutely critical to our overall military readiness," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday. Servicemembers and their families are "often targeted by those who seek to profit from their unique circumstances."

Financial problems are the leading reason servicemembers lose their security clearance, Panetta said. Debt can be even more difficult to manage while deployed.

Panetta said 41 percent of servicemembers in a recent survey reported that they are paying off an education-related loan.

The average cumulative amount of student loan debt for active-duty troops graduating in 2008 was about $26,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

After the sacrifices servicemembers have made, it "should be easier, not tougher," for them to pay off college debt, Panetta said.

Congress has created several laws and programs to protect servicemembers with student loan debt. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act allows those who acquired the debt before they went on active duty to reduce the interest rates on their loans. Other choices allow servicemembers to defer loans, reduce the principal on certain loans for combat service or even have some federal loans forgiven.

Those with a complaint can submit their grievance at

hladj@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @jhlad

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