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Financial strain pushes many veterans to the breaking point

Courtesy Adam Legg

Navy veteran Adam Legg said a long jobless spell after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan left him feeling hopeless and led him to "go weeks without smiling, walking around like a shadow, like you're not there."

By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor

Hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been flying home to a fresh fox hole: A debt crater that’s sucking in entire military families and could be helping to fuel the veteran suicide crisis.

Courtesy Adam Legg

"I was a watch commander where I had 25 to 30 people working beneath me, in charge of millions of dollars worth of ammunitions, weapons, vehicles, computers," said Adam Legg, a Navy veteran. "And then when I come home, not only can I not find a job, I can't take care of my family."

A bad job market, a long backlog for federal disability benefits, and occasionally unwise spending habits have been conspiring to strain the financial and mental health of many veterans, experts say.

"We keep hearing of suicides rising. How much pressure do you think one person can take?" asks Christopher Fitzpatrick, deputy director of VeteransPlus, a nonprofit that has fielded more than 170,000 calls from ex-service members with imminent financial concerns. 

"No one wants to talk about the fact that there are other reasons, besides PTSD, for suicide at 2 in the morning. You know how we know? We have an online form people use to contact us, and we get those emails — they’re sent at 1, 2, 3, 4 in the morning. People are reaching out, literally: 'Can you please help me? I’m losing everything.'"

It's a problem that could get even worse in coming years, with more than one million service members expected to make the transition to civilian life.

Navy veteran Adam Legg, 30, ran into financial trouble following two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. A jobless and hopeless period that began after his service separation in 2009 led him to "go weeks without smiling, walking around like a shadow, like you're not there," he said.

He couldn't secure a job at his local McDonald's or at dozens of other companies to which he applied in Central Florida. With a wife, Melissa, and a young daughter to feed, he maxed out a credit card that he was able to pay off with money he'd saved during his eight years in the Navy. 

'Very, very dark place'But bigger bills — like the mortgage — went untouched. After losing his Florida home to foreclosure and two cars to repossession, Legg said he began to consider suicide. 

"When you feel like you can’t take care of your family, feed them, shelter them, it’s a very, very dark place. A feeling of uselessness that maybe they would be better off if you’re not around," Legg said. 

"We've been below the poverty line, absolutely. I was a watch commander where I had 25 to 30 people working beneath me, in charge of millions of dollars worth of ammunitions, weapons, vehicles, computers. And then when I come home, not only can I not find a job, I can’t take care of my family. If it weren’t for my wife, if she was not supportive the way she was, I really don’t think I’d be here right now."

According to VeteransPlus, fewer than 20 percent of their clients have stockpiled a six-month savings cushion while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan despite untaxed, hazardous-duty wages that fattened paychecks.

Some returning veterans planned to live off their credit cards until landing civilian work, even though the veteran unemployment rate is two points higher than the civilian rate, Fitzpatrick said. Some expected to support themselves via VA benefits, apparently unaware that average wait time for that money approaches — and sometimes eclipses — one year.  

The Pentagon urges military personnel and their families to bank some money while in the service. This year, during “Military Saves Week," service members were reminded to “set a goal, make a place and save automatically.” Service members also can take advantage of the Thrift Savings Plan, a federally sponsored retirement savings and investment program resembling a civilian 401(k).

But even some of those who build up savings while serving abroad find their stash exhausted after buying gifts for family and plucking shiny toys, like motorcycles, for themselves when they come home from war, according to VeteransPlus.

"We don’t like using the word ‘entitlement,’ but often that’s what it really is for these young men and women who feel like they’ve served their country and are coming home with some money and ‘now it’s my turn,’" Fitzpatrick said. 

Move west, young manFor Legg, the way out was to escape Florida, not his life. He and his wife packed up their daughter, dog, cat and remaining belongings and recently drove to the Pacific Northwest. Two things lured the Legg family to Baker City, Ore.: a lower cost of living and its proximity to a military-friendly college, Eastern Oregon University. 

He's now a full-time student, living off of his GI Bill and his VA benefits for a diagnosed anxiety disorder (not PTSD), damaged knees, a bad back, and an injured left arm — combat baggage that requires daily Vicodin consumption. They live in a small, rented house.

Melissa was scheduled to deliver their second child last Wednesday. Soon, Legg plans to file for bankruptcy. 

Courtesy Adam Legg

Navy veteran Adam Legg and his family moved to Oregon from Florida.

"I have no choice. We're at that rock bottom line," he said. "I'm not the only one. Of the (veteran) friends I've kept up with, most are struggling." 

Many veterans panic when they face getting kicked out of their homes, or must decide between buying food or diapers, said Kristy Kauffman, executive director of Code of Support, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit that proclaims to "bridge the gap between civilian and military America."

"It happens far too often. We get at least one call, email, or referral every week," she said.

Kaufmann agrees with Fitzpatrick that poverty is one factor behind the veteran suicide rate, adding: "It does increase the risk." 

"The vast majority of those who have worn the uniform," she said, "are imbued with a strong sense of mission and pride in 'getting it done.' For those who have trouble reintegrating into the civilian world — whether due to physical or mental health issues, or lack of employment opportunities — it's that loss of mission that seems most debilitating."