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Financial stress hits many during the holidays, including veterans

Financial stress is an issue affecting numerous Western New Yorkers during the holiday season. Veterans are certainly among them. In fact, financial stress is often the first problem facing many upon transitioning from the military into the civilian world. WBFO recently visited one of the local agencies serving veterans to find out more.

New clients who sign up for services offered through the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York are interviewed to determine what specific needs they may need addressed. These include help with managing finances.

"One thing we have in place at the Veterans One-Stop Center is when they come in, they do an intake. We find out all they needed," said Alyssa Vasquez, program manager for the One-Stop's Joseph P. Dwyer peer-to-peer program. "If they need any kind of financial-related assistance, we put that in place if they do need to meet with a financial counselor."

Case workers from Consumer Credit Counseling Services offer their help two days a week, according to Vasquez. As is the case when acknowledging a mental health concern, one of the challenges when counseling veterans is overcoming the culture that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

"I think sometimes there still is, in an individual level, that person needs to get past that on their own. But one thing we do try to help them with, as far as that goes, is whenever they meet with one of our case managers, it's a private setting," Vasquez said. "All of our staff, they're really great at building that rapport, allowing that veteran to know 'you're OK to say these things.' We've all fallen on hard times."

Vasquez admits she was among them. She and One-Stop vice president Adam Hart trace their past financial challenges to credit, and they say a military-issued credit system known as the Military Star Card often leads young military members to spend beyond their means.

One of the problems, they explained, is that in a setting where much is taken care of, there's minimal advice about careful spending and budgeting. Hart found himself a young Marine who quickly spent himself into serious credit debt. Having been deployed on multiple occasions, he added, there was a lack of appreciation for the dangers of missing a payment while he was abroad.

"It was so easy to not do it and there's no resources available to educate people, especially at that time," Hart said. "My situation is far from unique. I racked up a considerable amount of debt as a young Marine. It completely destroyed my credit. It took me years to rebuild it."

Hart says some of his peers are still working to restore bad credit. Vasquez, who served in the Army, admits she and her then-husband also gave in to the temptations to spend.

"They don't charge you tax, so there's (the feeling of) oh, there's an incentive, we're doing right by them. But they're really not," she said. "Me and my ex-husband, we were both in the military, both privates, and we racked up thousands of dollars (of debt). Especially with deployments, you come back and everything is a party. It's like 'I worked so hard for all these months and I'm going to treat myself.' Pay day is treat yourself."

Vasquez says in her experience, there was some financial counseling available within the military but there was not much deep diving to learn more details about an individual's case and much was left to the soldier to disclose.

Many, upon leaving the military, find themselves with the task of balancing their checkbooks. And at the end of the year, with the Holidays arriving, there's the pressure to make loved ones happy.

"We hear this a lot from our clients, that when they leave the military, they're not told where to turn for help," said Veterans One-Stop Center marketing manager Jillian Johnson. "So they have on top of what they experience while serving - which is something most people cannot imagine - now they have to come home and rebuild their lives. And if they need help, they need to find that. But they don't necessarily know where to look for it, or how to look for it."

Other veteran agencies who offer assistance during the Holidays include Western New York Heroes, Inc., which facilitates an Adopt-A-Hero program that provides qualified veterans and their families food, clothing, and other gifts. They also host the Heroes Bridge program which provides help with mortgages, rent and utility payments.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.