For CUs Serving Deployed Troops, Transactions Often More Than Financial

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After the taking part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, South Dakota National Guardsman Darren Freidel had plenty on his mind. Freidel had a supply section to run, soldiers to take care of and, of course, his own safety.

Stationed at Talil Air Base with the 109th Engineer Battalion nearly 200 miles from Baghdad, Freidel said his seven months in the combat zone were "not terrible," considering he had just helped topple a hostile government.

"We were there at the beginning of the war so they were still scared of us," he said.

Prior to shipping out to Iraq, Freidel, 25, had spent his first anniversary away from his wife, Krystal, while training at Fort Carson, about an hour south of Denver. When he tried to send his wife flowers, his credit card was declined for some reason. That's when Freidel contacted Army Guard FCU staff for help and Krystal got her anniversary flowers on time. "They made all the arrangements. She cried for quite a while. They really impressed me," he said.

Army Guard FCU CEO Mary Johnson said Freidel informed credit union staff how much money to spend and they selected the type of flowers to send to his wife. Since the start of the combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Army Guard FCU has been making numerous efforts outside of what might normally be expected of a financial institution as it has worked to aid its members in uniform. Among those efforts:

* It has waived debit card ATM fees for any soldier who is mobilized anywhere in the world.

* The credit union has continued to grant loans and processed applications for members overseas.

* It upgraded online payment accounts with links to helpful websites and added a "Contact Us" feature.

* It has provided treats and held raffles for family support meetings.

* It has hired an accountant to help military spouses with tax filing.

During the South Dakota National Guard deployments, the CU ran a 2.9% APR, new-vehicle loan program for three months that many overseas guardsmen learned about from fellow soldiers. "They would shoot us an e-mail and we would do the paperwork," noted Johnson.

Johnson said during the combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, only one deployed service member has declared bankruptcy and that she wasn't convinced the delinquency was due to being out of the country for combat duty.

In the past, members could access their accounts online for information, but had to send a message to the credit union before CU staff made the change. Following an upgrade, members can make their own money transfers and the see updates on screen.

As Army Guard FCU serves guardsmen throughout the entire state of South Dakota, many members couldn't travel to the CU for on-site advice regarding taxes. For that reason, it has turned to Tom Postma, a CPA who spent seven years in the U.S. Air Force as a nuclear launch officer and was trained to launch Minuteman 2 and cruise missiles. Postma is self-employed and had previously worked on Army Guard FCU's annual supervisory committee audit.

Postma said military personnel and spouses signed up for phone consultations at base family support at whichever military station they were located. Army Guard FCU hired Postma to make phone calls from 6 to 9 p.m. and help out with advice about filing extensions, how having a husband or wife in a combat zone affects taxes, or all questions in between.

"I called them and answered any question," Postma said. "I think it worked pretty smoothly. It was pretty helpful."

The calls had a 10-minute time limit, so callers were straight and to the point, he said. Troops serving in a combat zone are entitled to a variety of benefits, including postponing the date they have to file a tax return.

Army Guard FCU serves 1,245 members with $7.8 million in assets. Johnson said her credit union is small enough to perform extra services and that the guardsmen all appreciated the effort.

For one Guardsman, being a credit union member was more than worth it, especially if it's Army Guard FCU.

"It's a lot better than a bank. It's a lot more personal," Freidel said.

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