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Mortgage protection for military homeowners

In his July 7 testimony before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Jeff Steele, assistant director of the Legion's Legislative Division, expressed The American Legion's support of seven veteran-friendly bills; he highlighted three items of special interest to the Legion.

One, H.R. 2345, would extend until 2018 the current Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) monthly assistance payments to disabled veterans who are training for and competing in the Paralympic Games for athletes with physical disabilities. The bill would extend VA financial assistance to the U.S. Paralympic Team as well. Steele told subcommittee members that, since its founding in 1919, "The American Legion has identified as its most important issue the rehabilitation and reintegration of the disabled veteran. We know that sports and physical activity can have a transformative effect on those with a physical disability, and the continued provision of funds will help to expand and provide greater access to sports programs for them. The American Legion supports this bill."

In his oral remarks, Steele also registered Legion support of H.R. 2329, a bill that encourages financial institutions' compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). It is the act that postpones or suspends certain financial obligations incurred by deployed servicememembers and protects their homeowner mortgages. SCRA is designed to enable servicemembers to devote their full attention to duty and relieve stress on their family members. The proposed law would require that large lending institutions subject to the SCRA make a designated employee responsible for the institution's compliance with the act, and distribute information about the SCRA to servicemembers.

The proposed law was inspired by reports earlier this year that one of America's largest banks had been overcharging thousands of servicemembers on their home loan interest, and had improperly foreclosed on the homes of at least 13 military families. Steele told the subcommittee, "The Legion wholeheartedly joined the chorus of justifiable outrage about this shocking situation and called upon all financial institutions that handle mortgages for military families to review policies and practices, to make sure they are obeying federal law.

"While the bank involved has issued a mea culpa and made efforts to reassure the men and women of our military their commitment to make this right," he continued, "the episode makes it clear that further strengthening of the SCRA is called for. It is a national security imperative that servicemembers be able to fight the nation's wars without having to worry about their rights being trampled at home."

The last item Steele spoke in support of also related to the SCRA. The bill, H.R. 1263, would extend SCRA financial protections against property seizure or foreclosure to surviving spouses of servicemembers who suffer service-connected death. "Military families serve our country with pride, honor and quiet dedication," said Steele. "We know that every member of a military family sacrifices just as much for this country. When one member of the family goes to war, the whole family goes with them."

Steele said that spouses of servicemembers who have died currently, "have no mortgage protections, leaving grieving families vulnerable to losing their home and being put on the streets. Extending mortgage foreclosure protection to surviving spouses will allow families to explore their options so they may keep their homes."

Other bills the Legion endorsed in its written testimony to the subcommittee dealt with streamlining Post-9/11 Educational Assistance Program payment processing, extending VA Home Loan Guaranty Benefits to some surviving military spouses, and strengthening legal language relating to the award of certain VA contracts to veteran-owned businesses.