Upon returning from a PBS Moneywise financial presentation for the military in Japan last fall, Hollister "Holly" Petraeus settled into her Arlington, Va., office at the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

While her husband, Gen. David Petraeus, heads the U.S. Central Command, overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Holly Petraeus fights another war on U.S. soil as director of the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Military Line. Only her war is against the rip-offs and financial illiteracy plaguing U.S. service members.

Among the agencies that have helped fund her effort: The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Foundation for Financial Planning. "I talked to a lot of financial counselors at military installations," Petraeus says. "I did two trips for the Navy. It's not unusual for service members to come in with $60,000 to $70,000 in credit card debt. They aren't aware of how much they owe. They pay the minimum on everything and finally go and ask for help."

Not only are young military personnel often naïve about money, but the sheer size of this group makes them a particularly vulnerable target. "The military paycheck is not very large. But they're absolutely guaranteed," she explains. "They will come in twice a month. The collective military payroll often is the largest in the state."

Petraeus describes one call from the mother of a young service member in Texas. He and a friend purchased laptops from a kiosk at a local mall. "The mother called because she got the paperwork," Petraeus says. "They were paying $140 a month." One critical question the two neglected to ask when obtaining the financing: "How long they'd be paying."

Petraeus says those computers, once the terms and interest rate were analyzed, wound up costing $3,300 apiece!

The financial problems of military personnel and their families became so severe that the Department of Defense worried they were affecting the ability of service members to do their jobs. During the first year of the Iraq conflict, soldiers had to be brought home because of financial problems, Petraeus recalls learning as the wife of a commander. Some incidents involved family members cleaning out the bank accounts of military personnel who were deployed.

The Department of Defense kicked off a "Financial Readiness" campaign in 2003 to attack the problem, and better educate military families about money. More than 20 nonprofits-including the Council of Better Business Bureaus-pitched in to provide free or no-cost assistance to military families. The campaign included making Military One Source, a military employee assistance program that confidentially provides counseling, accessible online at militaryonesource.com and toll-free at 1-800-342-9647. Plus, there are Department of Defense-paid personal financial counselors-including CFPs and ChFCs-offering free help to military personnel.

In Virginia, Petraeus was reuniting with her husband to attend an Association of the U.S. Army convention. The couple, who live in military lodging at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., recently took advantage of a double whammy of low home prices and low mortgage rates to purchase their own home. Although they were not living in it at this writing, the home is a symbol of stability in the lives of two heavily traveled military spouses, now parents of two grown children.

The 57-year-old Holly Petraeus doesn't field BBB telephone complaints. Those are handled by staff personnel. Her three-day-a-week job involves publishing a monthly newsletter and crafting 90-minute financial workshops, complete with handouts for bureaus to bring to military bases.

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