How Congress Has Assisted The Nation's Military Personnel
New Jersey Lawyer Magazine
More than 37,000 servicemen and women from New Jersey are making immense sacrifices to defend and protect America and our freedoms. Multiple and extended tours of duty away from family— and in some cases children they have yet to meet—coupled with battlefield stresses that to most Americans are beyond anything imaginable, make wartime deployments particularly hard on our servicemen and women.More than 37,000 servicemen and women from New Jersey are making immense sacrifices to defend and protect America and our freedoms. Multiple and extended tours of duty away from family— and in some cases children they have yet to meet—coupled with battlefield stresses that to most Americans are beyond anything imaginable, make wartime deployments particularly hard on our servicemen and women.
With this in mind, the last thing our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, guardsmen and reservists should have to worry about before and during deployment are personal financial and legal matters at home that are exacerbated only because they have been deployed. Our military personnel have too many immediate challenges to confront to be distracted by concerns over whether someone is seeking a default judgment against them back home or whether their property may be repossessed while they are away.
In an effort to reduce the hardships on deployed military personnel, I made modernizing and strengthening their financial and legal protections one of my top priorities when I was Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The legislation I authored and became law—the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)—was the first substantial enhancement to the financial, civil and legal protections given to members our armed forces in over 60 years.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (P.L. 108-189), is now our nation’s foremost law that protects the civil, legal and economic interests of members of our armed forces and their families. Unfortunately, its successful implementation has largely flown under the radar. It is, nonetheless, a story that needs to be told and retold, so others who are deployed are aware of their full protections enshrined in P.L. 108-189.
My law ensures that from the first day of active duty onward, members of our armed forces receive protections from actions against their financial and legal liabilities during time of deployment. For guardsmen and reservists, SCRA coverage applies for all who are called to active duty for a period of more than 30 consecutive days in responding to a national emergency and begins on the date the guardsmen or reservist enters active-duty service.
Extension of SCRA protections to members of the National Guard and the Reserves are of utmost importance considering the heavy load they are carrying in Iraq. Many of these men and women have established careers outside of the military and have left well-paying jobs behind during their deployment. Activation for guardsmen and reserve members often leads to a reduction in income which in turn can place significant economic pressure on them and their families. For these men and women, the financial protections in the SCRA are not only valuable, but extremely necessary.
Among the numerous rights granted to active duty servicemembers, guardsmen and reserves is protection from eviction from housing while on active duty due to nonpayment of rents. Previously this right only applied to rents that were $1,200 per month or less. Under my law this protection was significantly updated to meet today’s higher cost of living—initially covering housing leases up to $2,400 per month—and adjusted annually since initial passage to account for inflation.
My law also gives servicemembers the ability to terminate housing leases and automobile leases after notice of deployment without penalty. Furthermore, the SCRA prevents personal property—such as automobiles—from being repossessed without a specific court order, protecting servicemembers in case they fall behind on lease payments while they are serving our country miles away.
As a result of my law, servicemembers have the right to request a 6-percent interest-rate cap for debt or liability—including credit card debt—incurred before active duty. My law unambiguously states that no interest above 6 percent can accrue for credit obligations while on active duty. Instead, the portion above 6 percent is permanently forgiven.
The civil legal protections in the SCRA include an automatic 90-day stays to relieve servicemembers from having to be physically present during proceedings when they have been called up to active duty or deployed to new duty stations and the possibility of servicemembers reopening default judgments rendered against them when the failure to appear was caused by military service.
These and other important safeguards in the SCRA have protected numorous servicemembers and their families from evictions, foreclosures, repossessions, double taxation and adverse legal judgments in the short time the law has been in effect.
My law has been effective, in large part due to the extraordinary efforts every branch of the military makes to educate servicemembers of their rights and obligations under the law through briefings, military media and websites. The strong legal advocates within in each branch of the military have also played a crucial role in informing servicemembers of their rights and answering questions they have about invoking their rights under SCRA.
Those same military legal assistance officers are also the servicemembers first line of defense when they need to invoke their SCRA rights. Civilian lawyers also play an important role in protecting SCRA rights, often working hand in hand with military lawyers on cases. And in some cases, when civil rights are being violated, the Department of Justice can be called upon for additional assistance. (More information on how private practice attorneys can assist in SCRA matters can be found here.)
The successful implementation of these protections could not have come at a more crucial time. The Global War on Terror has required more personnel deployed for longer stays overseas, which has led to a renewed focus on the individuals fighting the battles, as well as the families they have left behind. As a result, more attention is being focused on programs to reduce the stress members of our armed services and their families face during time of deployment.
As lawmakers, it is incumbent upon us to constantly seek ways to reduce undue stress on members of our armed forces and our veterans community at home. As Congress looks to new avenues to help reduce the hardships and ease the burdens of military families, we should look to the successes of the SCRA as a model of how to properly legislate and implement reforms that truly do benefit our servicemembers and their families.
A former Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-Hamilton) has represented the Fourth District of New Jersey for 27 years and is the author of 13 laws to benefit our nation’s veterans including the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (P.L. 108-189).