Meet the Military Families of Foreclosure

It’s a sad irony that so many of those in uniform who help keep us safe in our homes are in serious danger of losing theirs.

As an Army wife and a mother of six kids, Pamela Harris (top right) quickly became overwhelmed after her husband, Corey, was deployed to Afghanistan. Image: Aaron Borton for HouseLogic

The same economic problems that afflict civilians also have hit military families. Adding to their burden, veterans often face physical and psychological problems as a result of combat service; and their families must manage the home front without them.

As the following profiles show, the combination is often tragic.

A perfect storm is what Jennifer Robinson, director of assistance at USA Cares, a nonprofit that offers financial assistance to post 9/11 veterans and active-duty military personnel, calls the foreclosure crisis. In fact, she says, there are specific problems that can put military families at greater risk for foreclosure than civilian families:

  • Reserves called to active service often find themselves earning far less money in the military than they did at their civilian jobs.
  • Spouses often have to cut back on working hours to take care of children, since they have no one to share childcare duties with.
  • Service members may find jobs gone when they return—the factory they worked for is now padlocked.
  • Service members may have injuries that prevent them from returning to the same jobs they had, and various disability programs don’t make up the difference. Meanwhile, spouses have to take care of them.
  • Service members’ homes have lost significant value, making refinancing difficult.

Data from RealtyTrac on foreclosures in 163 Zip codes with a high proportion of military families tells a grim story: Between February 2009 and February 2010, these foreclosures were up 10.93% while the national rate was up 6.22%.

Groups like the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Regional Loan Centers and private organizations like USA Cares are helping. But, the problems many veterans face remain acute.

Read on to meet several veterans deservedly helped by USA Cares. And please join our cause: Support HouseLogic’s Operation Home Relief Campaign via Facebook.

Pamela Harris: Fighting at Home While Her Husband is Fighting Abroad

During the last year, the words of Pamela Harris’ aunt would frequently echo in her head. “She always said that ‘if you want something out of life, you better fight for it,’” says Pamela, a 36-year-old Army wife and mother of six.

That inspirational advice along with some heartfelt prayers were the only things that kept her going when her husband, Army Sergeant First Class Corey Harris, 43, was deployed to Afghanistan in August 2009 and a series of financial blows jeopardized their ownership of their 2,800-square-foot home in Vinegrove, Ky., near Fort Knox. 

They love their home, which they bought in 2007, “but then it all started slipping away. Suddenly I was alone, in charge of everything, and wondering if my husband would ever come back,” Pamela recalls.

Job loss and bureaucratic problems

She quickly realized she wouldn’t be able to manage her full-time job as a hotel laundry attendant while also tending to her disabled 16-year-old son and the other kids, who ranged in age from 2 to 19. “I was constantly having to shuttle back-and-forth to occupational therapy, speech therapy, medical appointments, daycare, sports practices, and other school programs, plus manage the household in every other way,” she says. “I was totally overwhelmed.” 

Given her burdens, Pamela and her employer agreed that she should take a leave of absence, and though she was guaranteed a job when Corey returned, she wouldn’t be earning a salary in the interim. They would have to get by on his military salary alone.  

Accounting snafus exacerbated the problem: If military personnel use their housing allowance for on-base housing, it isn’t regarded as income, but if it’s used for off-based housing, as in the Harrises’ case, it is considered income.

With the housing allowance considered as income, the family was now essentially classified as too rich to merit the Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income they had been receiving for their son’s disability. The Social Security Administration didn’t notice this for months, and when it did, it not only discontinued future benefits, but asked the family to reimburse $3,700—eight months worth of payments.

“It was their error and they said I had to pay them back even though it wasn’t my fault,” Pamela says. “I no longer had a job, our insurance wouldn’t cover everything our son needed, and Corey’s pay couldn’t make up the difference.”

Pamela consulted with a financial adviser on the post and began investigating various sources of help while also cutting back her expenses as much as possible. But despite her best efforts, she couldn’t keep the mortgage payments current and started receiving foreclosure notices from her bank.

A forbearance plan she hoped would help fell apart. “I was an absolute wreck,” she says. “I’d have $140 left over after making the mortgage payment,” plus some essential utility bills. The $140 was all she had for food, gas, and other essentials for two weeks. Their credit score took a beating and she felt completely hopeless.

Nonprofit to the rescue

Then, an Army advocate told her about USA Cares, a nonprofit that helps post-9/11 veterans and active-duty military personnel. “I filled out an application around Christmas time and got a call from a rep just after the holidays,” says Pamela. “She was incredibly supportive and sympathetic.” USA Cares spoke with their bank and got the family’s mortgage up to date.

Corey came home from Afghanistan in August 2010, and is once again stationed at Fort Knox. Pamela started a new job at her former company a month later. Things are now looking up for the family, and she is determined to stay strong and find a way to pay for the services their disabled son requires.

“I’m gonna keep pushing, just like my aunt told me to,” she says. “USA Cares came through for us—there’s always a way.”

Richard Rosario: Injury Threatens Vet’s Sanctuary

Master Sergeant Richard Rosario’s 1,600-square-foot home in Beaumont, Texas, is far more than a shelter. “It’s our sanctuary—a center of learning about the spiritual values my wife Ana and I try to pass on to our four children,” he says. “And it’s also a joyful place to compose and play music,” a hobby the whole family shares—including Rosario’s musician parents, who live with them. 

But a military-related injury threatened all that.

Unable to work

In July 2009, Rosario, a 23-year member of the military with four years of service in the regular Army and 19 years in the National Guard, tripped on a rock while training for a tour of duty in Iraq. His injury not only prevented him from working at his civilian job as a Federal Bureau of Prisons budget analyst but also caused extreme disruption in his military pay. He was placed in an incapacitation program, and according to Rosario, “every time they put someone in that program, they have to be approved for every paycheck.”    

The approval process was delayed, he claims, because the approvers weren’t familiar with his case, only met on certain days, and relied on paperwork that often couldn’t reach them in time for their meetings. 

Four months went by before Rosario received another paycheck, which caused him to fall behind on his utility and other payments and led to foreclosure notices. “My mortgage was three months overdue and there were late charges on top of that,” he says. Gas, electricity, and Internet and TV services were shut off, and his wife was getting sick from all the stress.

Ana Rosario’s salary as a supervisor of church custodians could barely cover the family groceries. Although some military checks eventually started coming again, the family still hadn’t collected any monies for June, July, August, and September of 2010. Only the generosity of Rosario’s church and USA Cares, a nonprofit that helps post-9/11 veterans and active-duty military personnel with financial counseling and aid, kept the Rosario family home from slipping away.

A helping hand over the rough patch

“The sergeant dealing with my case put me in touch with USA Cares and they were very helpful, very quickly,” says Richard. “I’m incredibly grateful to them. They covered the mortgage payments for August and September and my church covered June and July. USA Cares also got the late charges removed.” 

In mid-September, Richard was abruptly released from the military incapacitation program and instructed to return to his civilian job. “My knee isn’t really strong enough for the prison job,” he says. 

“In that environment, you have to be able to defend yourself against inmates. But I have to bring in money until things get resolved with the military. I’ll be earning $3,000 less a month than I was when I had the National Guard pay but at least I don’t worry about losing my home anymore. That’s huge!”

James McCormick: Burdens of Civilian Life

Captain James McCormick, 42, isn’t one to shy away from hardship. He served for 16 years in the Army, another six in the National Guard, and led a combat unit in Iraq where he suffered gunshot wounds to his legs, hand, and chest. But even for a recipient of three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, and an Army Commendation for valor, the burdens of civilian life can prove intractable.

“My command was taken away, my 22-year military career terminated, and then I lost my civilian job as an occupational safety and health manager in a company-wide layoff,” says McCormick, the father of a blended family of seven kids. “I was completely demoralized and didn’t feel capable of doing much of anything.”

‘You’re too old…you gotta go’

The trajectory of loss and financial burden started when McCormick volunteered for active duty in Afghanistan in the summer of 2008 and a routine medical exam revealed a previously undiagnosed brain trauma resulting from roadside bomb incidents and loss of manual dexterity.

McCormick recalls the harsh response of his National Guard Battalion Commander, which struck him almost as hard as the IEDs: “You’re broken and you’re no good to me,” he said. “You’re too old to be a captain and you gotta go.”

McCormick proceeded to endure a year of medical evaluation for retirement, requiring an expensive weekly four-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in New Haven, W.Va., to Fort Knox, Ky., as well as the cost of hotel accommodations.

He says that during that period, the battalion didn’t cover the expenses, pay him, or transfer him to a Warrior Transition Unit, where he would have been considered on active duty. “Every time I made the trip, I’d lose two days’ pay from my civilian job,” says McCormick. “I was in an awful limbo and felt desperate. My income sunk to about half of what it had been.”

The small home in which the family of nine had resided since 2006 was already in need of repair. A basement flood led to a hefty repair bill.

Then, in June 2009, two months before his medical retirement was finally granted, his youngest son, Preston, was born with severe medical problems and had to spend 14 days in the hospital neonatal unit.

“I’d rather have been shot again than see Preston go through what he went through,” says McCormick.

The family quickly exhausted their savings and in a final blow, the bank sent a foreclosure notice.

A new hope

Then everything turned around. He started getting his retirement pay and an Army Wounded Warriors rep, Clay Rankin, made some phone calls on his behalf to help.

Within two days, McCormick was in touch with USA Cares, a nonprofit that helps post-9/11 veterans and active-duty personnel. The organization helped analyze his debts, provided him with financial counseling, and covered three months of house payments as well as outstanding car, water, and electric bills. “The $6,500 they gave me kept me from going over the edge,” he says.

McCormick then applied for a position as a Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialist and got the job.

“I absolutely love it,” he says. “I’ve helped many people as a church pastor, but here I’m supporting people who’ve experienced the sorts of things I’ve gone through and getting a nice salary on top of my Army retirement pay. I’m feeling really hopeful now. My family’s learned how to make do on less and we’re fixing the house ourselves, one piece of trim at a time.”

Stefan Walker: Pain on the Homefront

It wasn’t that long ago that Army First Sergeant Stefan Walker, 50, sat down on the couch in his small house outside of Fort Knox, Ky., swallowed his pride, and waited for his neighbors to bring over a bucket of water and some gas money.

In a 30-year career with the Army and Army Reserves, Walker was no stranger to working in difficult conditions, but none of his past experiences equipped him for the situation in which he found himself in March 2009.

His water and electrical service had been shut off, his house was about to go into foreclosure, and the disabling back injury he had sustained while instructing troops was preventing him from being able to do anything about the downward spiral that had gripped his life.

Unable to keep up the house

It was especially painful for Walker, who had been so involved in working on his house, from building a family room downstairs to laying hardwood floors and lining the front porch, steps, and sidewalk with red brick pavers. “It was hard enough knowing that I wouldn’t be able to work on it anymore but to have it slip away from me was killing me.”

He had been taken off active duty but didn’t qualify for medical disability. He was in so much pain, however, he couldn’t work at a civilian job.

Subsequent medical evaluations uncovered spinal disc impairment and permanent disability, but it took him months to get back pay and ongoing incapacitation pay. Without those monies coming in, he fell behind on all his bills.

“I couldn’t work,” Walker says, “And my wife only earns $9.50 an hour, which isn’t enough to cover our expenses, but it’s all we had coming in.”

An angel to watch over me

In the summer of 2010, Walker finally received support from a unit administrator who went online and filled out an application on his behalf with USA Cares, a nonprofit that provides financial counseling and aid to post-9/11 veterans and active-duty personnel. The organization pledged to help him cover the mortgage payments he owed until he could catch up.

“The woman who helped me at USA Cares is named Angela,” says Walker. “I can’t imagine a more perfect name for her. I felt watched over.”

He credits others’ generosity, his wife’s love, and his faith with sustaining him through this difficult period.  “Sheila works a full-time job and takes care of everything in the house—from the cooking and cleaning to the mowing,” he says. 

“I just want it to be easier for her and to have a stable place for my teenaged daughter from my first marriage. She was born with leukemia and has had a rough time of it. But she went into remission and lived. I’ve seen that prayers can be answered and I just know everything’s going to be OK.” 

Andrea Berta:  The Last Straw

Andrea Berta, 34, piles her three children, aged 2, 5, and 9, into her car and shuttles off to her eldest’s piano lesson. Her husband, First Lieutenant Martin Berta, 34, served in the Marines for 11 years and is presently serving with the Utah National Guard in Afghanistan. She hopes to welcome Martin home to their Eagle Mountain, Utah, home someday—but she almost wasn’t able to.

Deployed with the 118 Sapper Company two months ago, Martin is responsible for clearing road bombs. “I’m worried sick,” Andrea says. “He calls me every morning, but I haven’t heard from him today. It’s hard. I’m trying to just take it a day at a time. Fortunately, my home and small town help me do that; they’re so peaceful and safe.”

Erroneous debt

A year and a half ago, Andrea discovered a line item on one of Martin’s paychecks that indicated a debt of $5,500. Upon investigation, Andrea learned they were being asked to return monies the military had mistakenly paid out for Martin’s weekend training sessions.

Martin worked out a payment plan of $500 per month but the paperwork got held up and two $1,700 deductions were taken out of his paycheck in a single month, leaving them short of funds to cover their mortgage. Although they had minimal debt and had never been late before, Andrea says their bank wouldn’t work with them.

Andrea couldn’t pay the mortgage for two months and the resultant late charges set them even further behind. They planned to use their 2009 income tax refund to catch up on payments, but had to use it instead to rent an apartment in Missouri—on top of house payments—while Martin trained for his deployment to Afghanistan.

Even worse, the resulting bad credit rating could have affected Martin’s security clearance, limiting the jobs he could get.  

“There are no words to describe the kind of pain and terror that gripped us at that point. This wasn’t our fault and no one would help. A relatively small amount of debt was going to make us lose our house right when my husband was heading to Afghanistan. I was afraid to come back home from Missouri for fear of finding a foreclosure sign in the front yard.”

Reveling in the home that’s still theirs

The couple began a frantic search online for any possible options for financial counseling and aid to post-9/11 veterans and active-duty military personnel.

“We filled out the application and they called us two days later,” says Andrea. The process took just a month and a half, and they covered the two months of missing mortgage payments plus about $4,200 in late fees. “When I found out, I called Martin to tell him the news and we both started crying on the phone.”

For now, Andrea is basking in the newfound sense of stability. “I have the best neighbors,” she says. “One just put in a sprinkler system for me at no charge—he said that it’s the least he can do since Martin is fighting for our freedom.”

A number of others came over on the anniversary of 9/11 to show their support and hang out in the back yard. “Today, new grass seed is being put in,” says Andrea. “I hope it grows quickly; it has to keep up with my family—I just learned I’m expecting again.”