Beware The Many Temptations Of ‘The Ville’

Ft. Benning, Georgia is home to almost 120,000 troops including the storied 75th Ranger regiment. Within a mile of exiting the base and turning onto US interstate 280, you encounter your first fast-food restaurant- Wendy’s. Another few steps down the road is a Checkers, two Taco Bells, a Burger King, and a host of regional southern style quick-serve greasy spoon establishments. Scattered between the golden arches and the wire fryers full of freedom fries are a host of used car lots hawking hulking black trucks and fast Ford Mustangs. Within a 10 mi radius of the gate, there are 19 used car dealerships offering sleek steel sleds with veiled interest rates and “ez financing” for a newly enlisted soldier with no credit but a guaranteed government paycheck. Filling in the real estate between the restaurants, liquor stores, and used cars dealerships are a smattering of strip clubs, payday loan lenders, and liquor stores. Taken in aggregate, one set of businesses is designed to take a soldier’s wealth, the other- their health. Welcome to a strip of commerce found outside almost every military base known as “the Ville.”

Despite the food temptations of the “Ville”, physical health is one of the fundamentals of military life. In fact, good physical fitness is not only an entrance requirement for service, it is one of the key differences between civilian and military professions. At most commands, Physical Training (PT or working out) is a mandatory evolution. Service-wide there are minimum physical fitness standards that are enforced (Imagine if the employees of Facebook were forced to get up at 7 am and do 8 count bodybuilders) and tested on a regular basis.

Because of this culture, military members have better health habits than civilians, but unfortunately, overall long-term health outcomes for military members appear to be worse than the general population. Service members have higher rates of cancer and heart disease than their civilian counterparts.  This is especially surprising given their better access to healthcare.   There are several potential explanations for this, but two are directly related to military financial health.

Poor In Wealth Means Poor In Health Too

First, there is, sadly,  a long-standing correlation between health and income across the population. So despite having excellent medical care, by virtue of income alone, statistically speaking military members (and their families) are likely to have worse health outcomes than most affluent members of society.

100122-N-3485C-101 PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 22, 2010) Personnel Specialist Seaman Chris Norris, from Pensacola, Fla., counts money from the lock box in the disbursing office onboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Stennis is currently transiting to southern California for fleet replacement squadron qualifications. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Frankie J. Colbry/ Released).

Second is the strongly correlated relationship between stress and poor health.  One could make the argument that service members live under greater general stress than most of their civilian counterparts because of the worry of war and conflict inherent in the profession of arms. Additionally, financial stress is cited more than any other military-family issue by veteran spouses. Over 54% say it is the number one household issue and over 84% of active service member spouses have worries about personal finances. The two related vectors of stress and financial worry appear statistically to have a more pronounced impact on the military community than civilian equivalents.  DOD has recently recognized this financial distress as a critical national security issue. Beyond the health of the service member and family, financial insecurity has the ability to impact readiness and training.

Knowing the debilitating short and long-term impacts of financial stress and distress, how should the military community armor itself against this enemy? One methodology that is gaining traction is by thinking of financial health overall as a sub-component of wellness and utilizing some of the same ideas to fight obesity and malnutrition in order to promote financial health and wellness. The military has to educate, train, and equip itself against both poor food choices and poor economic choices- the twin evils of the “ville.”

There Are Resources In The Military Available For Financial Fitness

Luckily, there are a host of initiatives designed to help service members do just that. In 2017 the Department of Defense launched the Office of Financial Readiness (FINRED) with the charter of providing financial literacy and planning to service members and their families. FINRED has been promoting training to improve financial literacy for active-duty personnel. Additionally, elements of the private sector have worked to close the gap between the private wealth community and the military community (full disclosure, the author is on the founding team of a financial technology platform designed to serve the military community). Finally, in the veteran’s world, a host of entrepreneurial and philanthropic initiatives are helping transitioning service members and veterans find employment, education, and start-up expertise in the civilian world.

Despite the long laundry list of resources dedicated to helping the military community improve financial health, many challenges remain. The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), a contribution-based retirement system puts the onus on the member to make smart financial decisions. The rise of inflation in contrast to military pay raises, tightens every military family’s budget Add to that the difficult nature of transitioning from active duty to the civilian world and,  the challenges of financial health in the military community become even greater.

In order to promote financial wellness, the military member (and veteran) will have to embrace financial literacy and education with greater mendacity than past warriors. Commands will have to encourage and promote the same healthy behaviors around economic strength that they do around physical fitness. Some of this work of culture change has already begun. Speaking recently with Army Special Forces sniper Tim Kennedy, he expressed how it was one of the top priorities of the Command Sergeant Major to ensure the financial stability of each individual member of his unit. Like PT, senior leaders must augment individual responsibility, and help ensure junior members are on a solid financial path.

Commanders and individuals must also understand that financial strength, like physical strength, is not built in a day. It is a process of disciplined and dedicated long-term practices. In both muscles and money, small continual gains compound over time. In the long run, service members will have to embrace the power of portfolios and combat the vices of the ‘ville’ in order to achieve long-term health and wealth.