|Ron Szejner of the Catholic Business League, left, talks with veteran Michael Hoskinson at Operation Stand Down, a veterans service center in Nashville. Szejner, a Vietnam veteran, is one of about a dozen volunteers who has recently begun working one-on-one with veterans who need assistance getting their finances in order. Photo by Theresa Laurence|
Sitting across a table from one another at the Operation Stand Down Tennessee Veterans Service Center in Nashville, Air Force veteran Michael Hoskinson and St. Henry parishioner Ron Szejner talk financial planning strategies.
Hoskinson, who found his way to Operation Stand Down after separating from his wife and becoming homeless, is getting some much needed help navigating the rocky road back to financial solvency.
With past bankruptcies to his name, mountainous credit card and payday loan debt, Hoskinson had fallen into a “vicious circle” of bad financial decisions, he said. Now, thanks to new initiatives at Operation Stand Down and volunteer financial mentors like Szejner, Hoskinson is learning how to better manage his money.
“Financial planning is hard for vets coming back into society when they’re used to Uncle Sam taking care of everything,” said Szejner, a Vietnam veteran. “The good news is that organizations like OSD are here to help vets through tough life circumstances,” he said.
At Operation Stand Down, “we help vets make a real life plan,” said Sean Muldoon, LCSW, deputy executive director of OSD, and a parishioner at St. Stephen Catholic Community. The approach of the volunteer financial mentors is, “let me walk this path with you.”
Service providers “can fill vets with information and referrals but if there’s no one to walk with them on this path, they can get lost,” Muldoon said. That’s why the new one-on-one financial mentorship program is so important, he said.
The program got off the ground last summer, and, after some tweaks, is taking better shape in the new year. On Jan. 10 four mentors met individually with seven different veterans; there will be more opportunities in the upcoming months for one-on-one meetings.
This complements Operation Stand Down’s partnership with 5/3 Bank and their Empower U classes, which are offered several times a month. The classes include topics like budgeting and saving, slashing debt, and boosting credit scores.
“The goal is to offer any and all veterans a program that is broad based,” Muldoon said. This is part of OSD’s focus on helping veterans avoid major financial mistakes that could lead to bankruptcy and homelessness.
When veterans and financial mentors meet, it starts with a personal conversation; it’s not driven by paperwork, data and charts. That can come later. But first, it’s important for two people to establish a personal relationship. Szejner also notes that the volunteer financial mentors “have no agenda” other than helping the veterans; they are not there to sell a loan or any other product.
“In the military you always have somebody, but when you’re out you can feel lost, like no one’s got your back,” Hoskinson said. “Stand Down, they’ve got my back.”
Hoskinson, 57, who served during the Cold War era, is part of Operation Stand Down’s transitional housing program, where he is regaining his footing after going through tough personal times. He recently got a part-time job with Volunteers of America as an Outreach Worker, targeting homeless veterans, and he’s learning how to manage a household and be smarter about spending and saving money.
Before he came to Stand Down, Hoskinson, a disabled veteran, was surviving on his $300 a month disability check. Alone, and scraping by on so little, “I didn’t have any hope,” he said. When he connected with Operation Stand Down, he got a re-assessment of his health and benefits and began receiving a significant monthly increase in his disability payments. “God answered my prayers. I’m grateful,” he said.
“Many vets view disability payments as a stagnant piece, but it’s not. Life circumstances can change,” said Muldoon, and disability payments can be readjusted based on veterans’ current health issues if they were impacted by their military service, even if it was long ago.
In addition to disability payments, Operation Stand Down helps veterans navigate a wide range of issues that impact them financially, including the GI Bill, the VA home loan program, and more.
When Szejner and Hoskinson met, one thing they discussed was Hoskinson’s strategy for saving so he can be ready to move into his own place soon. “We discussed specific steps, ways to make sure he follows through,” said Szejner. “We talked about having money set aside for needs, wants, contingency, and longer term needs,” while avoiding past financial mistakes.
Szejner, a member of the Catholic Business League, helped recruit some financial mentors through that organization, and encourages those with financial backgrounds to consider volunteering.
He also encourages veterans who need help to seek out Operation Stand Down. “In all our parishes there are vets who need help and may not know where to get it,” Szejner said. A good place to start is OSDTN, which is a secular organization, but currently led by Catholics, including Executive Director Deacon John Krenson, and Deputy Executive Director Muldoon.
The financial mentorship program is one more step to helping veterans maintain healthy and productive lives after their military service has ended.
The relationship created between a veteran and financial mentor is “hopefully on-going … so they can touch base when it’s time to make a big financial decision,” Muldoon said. “Mentors are like ‘battle buddies,’ because sometimes the biggest challenge is that the vet is doing it alone.”
More information can be found at www.osdtn.org, or by calling 615-248-1981 in Nashville or 931-896-2184 in Clarksville.