WASHINGTON - The need for quality financial education and protections for servicemembers and their families will not diminish even as more than a decade of war begins to draw to a close, a Defense Department official said today.
"Even though the force will be transitioning -- we hope, of course, out of a high-operations tempo -- over the next five or six years, we can't presume our servicemembers and their families will have more stability at the end of the day," Robert L. Gordon III, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, told a group of financial experts.
Speaking at the Financial Fitness Forum here, Gordon stressed the importance for the Defense Department, other government agencies and financial institutions to continue working together to improve military families' financial well-being. The forum was hosted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Office of Servicemember Affairs.
Representatives from a host of banks, defense credit unions and other financial organizations and institutions attended the forum to identify the most pressing financial issues servicemembers and their families face and to brainstorm ideas to help them.
It's a young military force, Gordon noted, citing 46 percent of servicemembers are 25 or younger. They start families younger than their civilian counterparts, and are highly mobile, moving every two to three years.
Youth combined with financial inexperience may expose servicemembers to unfamiliar financial products with new terms and options, "leaving servicemembers to make decisions and take what's handed to them without a full understanding of conditions of product to accommodate their needs," Gordon said. "Who do they trust?"
Compounding the issue, the nation's been embroiled in economic turmoil over the past five years, and military families aren't immune, he noted. Many families depend on two incomes, but spouses can have a tough time finding employment as they contend with a struggling economy, frequent moves and deployments.
As a result, military members may find themselves vulnerable to quick fixes and poor financial choices, Gordon said.
Gordon called on financial institutions to play a role in the military community's financial education so they're better equipped to make "informed and judicious" choices.
"We need assistance to help servicemembers and their families take advantage of opportunities," he said. "We need to forge a partnership that educates and empowers them [and] it will take the commitment of everyone in this room."
Gordon cited the Defense Department's Military Spouse Employment Partnership as an example of a partnership that "will pay enormous dividends for military families."
The DOD has partnered with companies large and small, stateside and overseas, to offer spouses employment opportunities. The program includes banks and credit unions, Gordon noted.
The goal, he said, "is to help our spouses to not just gain a job, but the potential of an ongoing career."
Since the program's inception in June, MSEP has gained 96 partners -- 11 from financial institutions -- with more than 200 employers in the cue. Spouses can browse through more than 120,000 jobs located around the globe, Gordon said, noting more than 15,000 jobs -- from a global account executive to a pastry chef -- already went up on the website over the course of the morning.
"What a significant opportunity for our spouses to be able to find a career choice," he said. In the long term, aiding spouses with careers will help military families bridge a time of transition, he added, when a number of servicemembers will be entering the workforce as veterans.
Above all, the aim is for servicemembers and their families to remain resilient and to gain the tools so they can more confidently manage their financial affairs, Gordon said.
This will prove particularly important in today's fast-paced world where people can execute financial transactions on the go in mere seconds. "This environment of immediacy and access in many cases moves faster than our ability to educate and ensure proper policy protections," Gordon said.
"We not only need to update our message for the 21st century," he added. "We need to deliver that message with the tools and opportunities presented by the 21st century."