CLEARWATER — Tampa resident Jodi Wood said she sometimes struggled with her finances after she joined the Air Force two decades ago.
She knows how difficult it is to seek help.
"It's kind of scary," said Wood, 41, whose most recent deployment was stateside duty at MacDill Air Force Base earlier this year.
"For a long time, I lived paycheck to paycheck. A lot of younger airmen aren't willing to open up about their finances. They'd rather go to anybody else but their commander for help."
Trust isn't easily earned.
With that thought in mind, two Tampa Bay area residents recently founded a nonprofit called VeteransPlus. Working in partnership with the National Foundation for Debt Management, the group provides financial counseling and education to active duty troops, veterans and their families.
VeteransPlus, fueled by $437,000 in grants to conduct financial outreach to troops from Florida and 21 states, is based in Clearwater. Its founders say their aim is to have veterans counseling veterans. All services are free.
"I think veterans have a certain amount of compassion, knowing what military life and sacrifice is all about," said John Pickens, a VeteransPlus co-founder who recently retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he most recently was a VA spokesman in St. Petersburg.
"Everybody's got a unique set of circumstances. And sometimes it's not easy to relate those circumstances to a total stranger. But veterans get more comfortable when they find out the person they're talking to has been in their boots."
Last month, VeteransPlus announced a partnership with the American Legion — the nation's largest organization of service members — to provide a range of financial services to active military personnel, veterans, members of the National Guard and Reserves or their families.
Part of the agreement calls for financial seminars at Legion posts around the nation. Issues VeteransPlus will cover include basic budgeting, debt management, identity theft and mortgage counseling.
"Thousands of veterans face financial challenges, especially those with loved ones deployed in harm's way," said Clarence Hill, the Legion's national commander.
Pickens, who founded VeteransPlus with Christopher Fitzpatrick, said his group is increasingly being hired by other nonprofits to evaluate veterans and service personnel who have applied for aid elsewhere to be sure a financial need exists. Pickens said other groups often don't have the time or resources to do that.
Since January, the group has conducted 32 "outreach" events to provide financial counseling and expertise.
Pickens and Fitzpatrick said the service branches sometimes pay too little attention to financial basics like balancing a checkbook and handling a credit card responsibly.
Troops who are deployed into war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they said, often return after a year with thousands of dollars in their bank accounts because they didn't have the opportunity to spend it overseas.
Once home, that money tends to burn a hole in their pockets. Too many of them splurge without a thought to financial planning.
"They just need a little but of guidance, that it's okay to go out and treat yourself, but let's not go whole hog. Let's kind of back off and maybe invest some of this money, grow it," said Ralph Dyer, executive director of the National Foundation for Debt Management, VeteransPlus' partner.
The foundation also is based in Clearwater.
A group of 11 licensed financial counselors provide advice, including seven at the foundation. Of those, most are either veterans or related to one.
"Our goal is that they will all eventually be veterans or military moms and dads," Pickens said. "They understand the military acronyms and the stories. They just get it."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.