By MARYGRACE MURPHYThe end of the U.S.’s mission in Iraq is in sight. U.S. troops are set to withdraw from Iraq’s urban areas by June 30. President Obama has pledged that combat operations across Iraq will end by Aug. 31, 2010, and all remaining troops will be withdrawn by December 2011.Service members returning home could face stressful events such as unemployment and foreclosure. That’s where credit unions come in.Arty Arteaga, president/CEO of the Defense Credit Union Council, explained the situation at credit unions that serve military bases. They must remain viable while the base’s troops are deployed and be “still standing tall, ready to provide support when they return,” Arteaga said. “I can assure you, they do that. They absolutely do that. That to me is loyalty. That to me is commitment. They do exactly what they’ve been asked to do and then some.”“Military members and their families face many unique challenges, financial and otherwise,” said Gordon Simmons, president/CEO of Service Credit Union, based in Portsmouth, N.H. “Service Credit Union is honored to serve our military members whether they are deployed in a war zone or returning from duty to the United States.” The credit union provides loan discounts and higher rates on savings to newly enlisted military members through its STAR program. Service CU also offers a Warriors Rewards program, which makes even further reduced loan rates and increased deposit rates available to deployed military and civilians supporting US troops.Pacific Marine Credit Union, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., offers a number of programs that make life easier for its military members when it comes to their finances. For starters, each year, the credit union conducts more than 150 financial education sessions that teach more than 20,000 Marines about such topics as buying a car, managing debt and basic investing.One of the founding members of the Military Saves Campaign, a program designed by the Consumer Federation of America to encourage service members to save for the future, Pacific Marine offers a special rate on its Military Saver Certificate during Military Saves Week, usually the last week in February. Last year, more than 1,450 of the credit union’s active duty members opened 7% APY Military Saver Certificates during the month of February, with a total of more than $400,000 in opening deposits. Pacific Marine expects its members to have more than $1.5 million in their MSCs by the end of 2009.Camp Pendleton spans 200 square miles. Thousands of the young service members housed there do not own a car or have the time to travel to do their banking. Last year, to accommodate the needs of these members, Pacific Marine built a mobile branch with a travel schedule that includes some of the most remote locations in the camp. A self-contained vehicle with full-service capabilities, the mobile branch was an investment of more than $450,000. According to Brad Smith, Pacific Marine’s vice president of strategic development, such programs for military members are worth the investment. “These programs can be costly to provide, but it is our mission to give back to our membership. We are a credit union, that’s what we do,” Smith said.Suitland, Md.-based Andrews Federal Credit Union agreed with Smith’s statements. “Costs are not a major concern when it comes to caring for the men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting our country,” said Melissa Gardner, community outreach coordinator for the credit union, which serves a membership that is about 51% military.Returning from active duty can be a difficult transition. Andrews Federal tries to help smooth the way for service members by waiving late fees, extending loan terms or reducing monthly payments so they can meet their loan obligations. Recognizing that some service members have immediate needs upon returning to the U.S., the credit union also provides an emergency loan product with no credit check or checking account requirement; the service member is only required to have direct deposit into his or her account.Andrews offers its emergency loans at reintegration sessions for service members who have returned from deployment. Service members who experience financial difficulties can receive free financial counseling and money management services from the credit union at these sessions. One of the main issues that the credit union helps service members with is obtaining products and services to house the hazardous duty and bonus pay they may have accrued during deployment.Tampa Bay, Fla.-based Grow Financial Federal Credit Union was founded in 1955 as MacDill Air Force Base Federal Credit Union and today serves about 25,000 active and retired military members (about 15% of its total membership). Grow Financial “goes above and beyond” the requirements of the Service Members Civil Relief Act to ensure that members covered under the act are aware of the rates required on their loans and credit cards, said Allen Milliron, assistant vice president for business development at the credit union. Unlike many other credit card issuers, Milliron said, Grow Financial does not adjust outstanding credit card balances to current rates once military members have completed their active duty tours. When they return to civilian life, their outstanding balances remain at the SCRA rate of 6% APR.The credit union also periodically holds focus groups with young military members during off-duty hours. The participants are paid for their time and can express their financial concerns to a moderator. This form of research enables Grow Financial to develop services attuned to the needs of the military community, Milliron explained.A number of credit unions offer loans designed specifically for military members. Wright-Patt Credit Union, based in Fairborn, Ohio, announced in 2007 a pilot loan program that gets more active-duty personnel and veterans into their own homes. Wright-Patt’s Hero’sChoice Home Loan, developed in cooperation with CMG Mortgage Insurance Co., offers “lower costs, faster processing and higher loan limits than the standard VA loan,” according to the credit union.Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union, based in San Antonio, began its Patriot Express Loan program in 2007. The loans feature SBA’s lowest interest rates for business loans (generally 2.25% to 4.75% depending on the loan’s size and maturity), according to the SBA’s Web site, Thus far, Randolph-Brooks has made available more than $5 million in these loans, helping more than 100 eligible military community members.–[email protected]

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