Meet 9 People Improving the Financial Lives of Veterans
Veterans Day may be one day on the calendar, but for these military money heroes, the work of helping soldiers thrive in civilian life is an ongoing mission. The following nine people, some of them still in uniform, are engaged in providing vets with support ranging from legal services to financial counseling to disability care. Take a look to see how they're giving back, today and every day.
Hometown: Minot, N.D.
Cause: Guidance for fellow service members
Educated about the family’s finances from an early age by his father, a pharmacist, Smolek was alarmed to overhear fellow service members discuss stocks “guaranteed” to double in a few weeks or 9% interest rates on student loans when rates for active-duty members are capped at 6%. Four years ago he initiated regular information sessions on finance at Minot Air Force Base; he has helped educate hundreds of military families on budgeting, debt, retirement investing, and more. He does one-on-one counseling too, either in person or, when deployed via Skype and FaceTime.
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Cause: Women’s Entrepreneurial Skills
Women, who constitute 15% of the military, end up homeless or unemployed as veterans at higher rates than their male counterparts. Mandeville, a former Army Reservist who served in the Persian Gulf in 1991, took a 25% pay cut after 16 years as a banker to teach entrepreneurship at the Women’s Business Development Center. While she was there, she spent 60 to 80 hours a week seeking out ex-service members to tell them about resources and encourage them to take her free classes covering personal finance, business development, and marketing. Mandeville now works for the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs as the Associate Director of the Entrepreneurial Program and Women's Veteran Initiative.
Cause: Consumer protection for military families
Petraeus has spent years protecting the wallets of those who protect our country. Well aware of the strains faced by military families — as the wife of Gen. David Petraeus, she moved her own family 24 times in 37 years — she helped thousands of households guard against debt and rip-offs by developing workshops at the Better Business Bureau. Among her current missions: (1) preventing abusive and deceptive recruiting practices by schools serving veterans, members of the military, and their families; and (2) tracking scammers who target servicepeople in one state (for example, by levying sky-high interest) so the fraud doesn’t spread to another. Says Petraeus, now running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s military programs: “Catching such despicable people motivates me to do my job.”
Hometown: Walpole, Mass.
Cause: Free financial advice
A retired Army colonel, Power led the charge—first in his home state of Massachusetts, then nationwide—to have financial planners provide free advice to military families. Now he helps Homes for Our Troops, a charity that mortgages free homes to severely injured vets, making sure recipients can afford to keep them. “Once they get the house, they still have to pay the taxes and cover the insurance,” he says.
Brittany & Robbie Bergquist
Ages: 24 & 23
Hometown: Norwell, Mass.
Cause: Low-cost phone calls
At ages 12 and 13, after hearing about a soldier in Iraq who owed $8,000 for calls home, this sibling duo from Massachusetts emptied piggy banks and hit up friends to make a $21 donation. That effort snowballed into Cell Phones for Soldiers, a nonprofit that recycles phones to buy prepaid calling cards—over 210 million minutes’ worth of talk so far—for soldiers overseas. In 2012, CPFS launched an effort called Helping Heroes Home, which assists veterans returning from overseas duty with one-time, emergency funding. So far, the group has given money to 2,500 vets and prevented an estimated 250 foreclosures.
Says Robbie Bergquist:
Maj. Dan Rooney
Home state: Oklahoma
Cause: Veterans’ Education
Flying from his home to a family-owned golf course in Michigan, Rooney was pained to see, on the tarmac, a family with the flag-draped coffin of a soldier killed in Iraq. The pilot-turned-PGA-golf-pro — slated to return to the Air National Guard as a fighter pilot in December — began raising money for survivors by asking golfers to chip in extra on greens fees. His Folds of Honor charity has funded over 7,500 scholarships for families of fallen soldiers; grants amounted to $10 million last fall alone.
Hometown: Newton, N.J.
Cause: Veterans’ Benefits
Over the past eight years, Newark-based attorney Michael Pasquale has donated 500 to 600 hours annually to doing pro bono work on behalf of recently discharged and soon-to-be discharged American soldiers who are physically or psychologically injured. Many are like his first client, a man in his mid-forties who suffered traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq and wasn't physically able to resume his civilian job; the government, however, found him only 10% disabled and awarded him a low one-time payment. Forced into premature retirement, a number of veterans are undercompensated by the Department of Defense and consequently can’t meet their family’s financial needs. Pasquale shepherds clients through the appeals process to get their benefits raised to a fair level, often earning them higher base pay for life as well as a pension and family health care. With demand high for his services, Pasquale is training attorneys at other law firms and corporations on how to handle such cases.
Cause: Tax litigation
Drawn to cases off ending her sense of fairness, Ciraolo volunteers about 200 hours a year defending individuals and businesses in IRS disputes. Clients have ranged from teachers misled about tax law to wives unfairly dunned for taxes on their husbands’ income. (She saved the wives millions.) The Baltimore attorney, who launched her state bar’s U.S. Tax Court pro bono program in 2008, has gotten colleagues to train personnel at nearby Fort Meade to prepare returns for soldiers — making her firm a pioneer in a new national program. As of February, Ciraolo is the U.S. Justice Department's acting assistant attorney general in charge of the tax division.
Hometown: San Diego
Cause: Veterans’ financial planning
Block’s concern for people with disabilities dates to his twenties, when his first wife died of multiple sclerosis. After a 25-year career as a financial planner, Block started teaching budgeting to wounded warriors in San Diego. That led him to the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops, which builds free houses for injured veterans. Block shows recipients — often young and untrained in managing money — how to live within their means. One typical project: helping a veteran who lost both legs devise a spending plan for building a swimming pool for physical therapy without taking on debt. Last year, Block founded Financial Independence Training, a nonprofit focused on using interactive modules to teach active-duty Marines lessons in personal finance.