Sunday, October 22, 2006

Debt Is Keeping Troops From Overseas Duty, Study Finds - New York Times: "SAN DIEGO, Oct. 21 (AP) — Thousands of American troops are being barred from overseas duty because they are so deep in debt that they are considered security risks, according to a review of military records by The Associated Press.

The number of troops held back has climbed sharply in the past few years. And while it appears to represent a small percentage of all military personnel, the increase is occurring at a time when the armed forces are stretched thin by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are seeing an alarming trend in degrading financial health,” said Capt. Mark D. Patton, commander of Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego.

The Pentagon contends that financial problems can distract troops from their duties or make them vulnerable to bribery and treason. As a result, those who fall heavily into debt can be stripped of the security clearances they need to go overseas.

The number of revoked clearances has surged since the beginning of the Iraq war, but military officials say there is no evidence that troops are deliberately running up debts to stay out of harm’s way.

The problem is attributed to several factors, including a lack of financial acumen among young recruits; reckless spending among those exhilarated to make it home from a tour of duty; and the profusion of so-called payday lenders, businesses that allow military personnel to borrow against paychecks at extremely high interest rates.

The debt problems have persisted despite financial counseling offered to the troops by the Pentagon and crackdowns on payday lenders.

Data supplied by the Air Force, the Marines and the Navy show that the number of clearances revoked for financial reasons rose every year from 2002 to 2005, climbing to 2,654 last year from 284 at the start of the period. Partial numbers from this year suggest the trend is continuing.

About 6,300 troops in the three branches lost their clearances in that four-year period. Roughly 900,000 people are serving in the three branches, though not all need clearances.

The figures represent just a piece of the problem, because the Army — which employs an additional 500,000 people and accounts for the majority of the 160,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — rejected requests to supply its data, saying such information was confidential.

Security clearances are revoked when service members’ debt payments total 30 to 40 percent of their salary. The exact amount depends on the military branch.

Not all military jobs require security clearances. Marine infantryman does not, but some Marine specialties do. So do many jobs in the Navy and Air Force.

Financial problems are the overwhelming reason security clearances are revoked. Other reasons include criminal activity, questionable allegiance and ill health.

A primary reason the military revokes clearances on financial grounds is the fear that soldiers in debt may be tempted to sell secrets or equipment to the enemy.

In addition, “when they are over there fighting, we like them to have their heads in the game,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commander of Marine bases in the Western United States.

Military officials also blame high interest rates at payday lending businesses, many of which are clustered outside bases around the country. Several states have cracked down on the lending practices. On Tuesday, President Bush signed legislation limiting how much these businesses could charge military personnel."


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