Tester, Baucus introduce bill to give service members relief on student loan debt


by Martin Kidston

Natalie Jennings’ son left for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in 2011 for 10 weeks of boot camp.

Before his departure, the aspiring Marine had attended North Dakota State University before transferring to Montana State University-Billings. He’d accumulated three years in student loan debt and the payments were coming due.

The problem was that while in Marine Corps boot camp, he had no means to pay the bill. And the Department of Education – adhering to current law – had no way of forbearing the Marine’s debt until a later date.

“He had no ability to take care of what he needed to take care of,” said Jennings, a single mother living in Logan. “I had to go take a second job at night so I could pay his student loans while he was in boot camp, so it wouldn’t ruin his credit.”

Frustrated with current policies, Jennings contacted the Department of Education looking for help. Without success, she began writing letters, suggesting that the regulations on student loans were unfair to the nation’s service members, including her son.

Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, D-Mont., agreed, and on Thursday they introduced their Service Member Student Loan Relief Act to help future veterans avoid similar situations.

Under current law, borrowers of student loans offered through the Department of Education who are called to active duty during wartime or a national emergency, can defer their payments.

The law also allows service members to defer payments for 180 days after the demobilization process – a point when the military operation officially concludes.

But current policies neglect the pre-mobilization phase. Tester, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the new legislation, Senate Bill 634, takes into account the disruption that relocation and predeployment training can have on service members.

“When a service member is called up for active duty and training for war, they should be spared the burden of having to figure out how to make their student loan payment,” Tester said Thursday. “My bill ensures that when folks get called up, they can spend their last few weeks prior to departing and training focused on their families.”

Military personnel generally receive alert orders telling them they’ve been tapped for deployment. It marks the beginning of a long and stressful process that results in several moves and eventual deployment to a war zone.

As written, the Service Member Student Loan Relief Act would make it possible for military personnel to defer payments starting when they receive alert orders, or 180 days before the first day of service, whichever is shorter.

“The borrower’s deferment eligibility would start once he or she receives deployment orders and is mobilized for pre-deployment training,” Tester spokesperson Andrea Helling said. “If the order was received more than 180 days prior to deployment, the deferment eligibility wouldn’t start until 180 days pre-deployment.”

The issue hadn’t received much notice until Jennings brought it to the attention of Tester’s office. Jennings was happy with the response, and said she’ll watch the legislation progress.

Her son leaves for Afghanistan this April, making him eligible for loan deferment, if the bill were to become law.

“It wasn’t that my son wasn’t going to repay his loans, he just couldn’t do it in boot camp,” Jennings said. “I wanted to help other families avoid the same situation.”