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Wednesday, July 30, 2008 03:41 pm

Throwing our troops to the sharks

Soldiers trapped in debt are deemed a “security risk” by the military

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At a time when American field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan say they need every single soldier they can get hold of, thousands of our battle-ready troops are being held back in the United States. Why not deploy them? Because the Pentagon has hung this label on them: security risk.

There's nothing squirrelly in the makeup of these folks. Their only crime is that they've fallen deeply into debt here at home.

Like other Americans, military people can have an illness, go through a divorce, or just get caught in a credit-card crunch — and debt piles up. But our troops also are targeted by predatory "payday lenders" — chains of quick-money outfits clustered around military bases, luring soldiers to borrow against their next paychecks at exorbitant interest rates.

Soldiers whose debt payments reach about a third of their paycheck are designated risks by the military brass and their security clearances are yanked, meaning that they're barred from duty abroad. The Pentagon's rationale is that soldiers in debt might be tempted to sell secrets or military equipment to the enemy. More than 6,300 members of the Air Force, Navy, and Marines lost their clearances in a recent four-year period because of financial reasons. The true size of the problem, however, is much larger, because the Army — which employs the vast majority of our troops — refuses to release its numbers.

But why isn't the Pentagon standing with the troops? Instead of branding them for life as security risks, the top dogs should work with these good soldiers to refinance their loan-shark debts with long-term loans at a low — or even zero — interest rate. Lenders should not be allowed to profit from the hardships of American soldiers. Whatever happened to "Support our troops"?

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.

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