Return of Gulf War Vets Being Felt In Va.

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Credit unions in this market, which have been flooded with new savings the past six months, were preparing for a different kind of deluge last week after the return of more than 16,000 fighting men and women on warships from Iraq.

The returning sailors and soldiers have not only been swarming the shopping malls, eateries and other area businesses over the past two weeks, but their credit unions, too, in order to check up on their finances, open new savings accounts or buy cars with pent-up combat pay, accrued over tours of duty extended as long as 10 months.

"Since the (battleship USS) Truman and (aircraft carrier USS) Roosevelt came in all of us have had just a tremendous increase in walk-ins," said Della Butler, who manages Navy FCU's nine area offices.

Some of the credit union's member service representatives are reporting increases of as much as 30% in walk-ins, members doing more than just checking their accounts. Some branches were seeing a doubling of loan volume from last year in the days following the fleet's return.

"When they come back into town they want to celebrate," said Nancy Porter, head of marketing for Chartway FCU here. "Basically, it's been burning a hole in their pockets."

The returnees were also giving a tremendous boost to community morale, with credit union employees, most of whom have relatives and friends among them, joining in the celebration. "Welcome Home" banners and other celebratory decorations were seen at most of the area branches, with employees sporting red, white and blue. "It' affected the whole community," said Butler.

The nation's largest credit union was seeing traffic at teller stations up almost 8% over last year, according to Loren Moeller, director of public affairs for Navy FCU. She also noted an increase in business at the credit union's four branches in northwest Washington state, where the USS Lincoln returned from action a month ago. Those branches were reporting a 50% increase in loan volumes in the weeks after the return of the sailors and soldiers. She predicted similar increases in the Virginia Beach area in the coming weeks.

"Big increases for the month of June," she said, pointing to the vast increase in call center volume. "Our call centers have just been slammed."

Some returnees were interested in opening new Kids Club accounts at Navy FCU after having new family arrivals during their tours, while others were interested in depositing newly accumulated savings.

"I had one guy who wanted to open a new Roth IRA," said Butler, who said the man told her, "You know, I've been thinking about this the whole time I was away."

The increase in business was forcing several area credit unions to extend their hours or increasing staffing in their busiest branches.

But what the area credit unions were seeing most was a spike in demand for car loans, especially, from the returning servicemen and women. The combination of the lowest rates in decades (Navy dropped its new car loan rate to 2.9% and used car rate to 5.9% in April) and built-up combat pay is putting car loans in the fast lane at some credit unions.

"We're doing a lot of auto loans since they've been back," said Butler, adding that one office in nearby Norfolk, Va., reported a 39% increase in car loans in the last week of May.

"With servicemen, that is something you often see, since they do move around and relocate a lot," said Porter. "They will put their money into vehicles, rather than, say, their homes. Dealers just love the military."

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