10/10/2013 08:33 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Protecting Those Who Protect Us

The men and women who risk their lives and fight to defend us overseas should not have to fight to defend their families at home at the same time. Their sole focus should be on completing the mission and returning home safely.

To maintain this focus, federal law has provided civil protections for members of the military since the Civil War. Known today as the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, it protects the financial stability of our troops and their families while they are fighting for us.

The SCRA caps interest rates on most loans, including mortgages and credit cards, at 6% and postpones civil proceedings, such as foreclosures and other debt collection law suits during a deployment. Financial institutions who violate the SCRA are breaking the law. A soldier in Afghanistan should be lining up for the satellite phone to call a loved one back home, not to call a debt collector who is not following the law.

I have personally witnessed the sacrifices that our nation's troops make to keep us safe and protect our freedoms. The country's financial crisis has hit our military men and women especially hard, while at the same time they are bearing the brunt of two wars spanning more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The protections in the SCRA are more important than ever, but evidence continues to surface that financial institutions are not obeying this law that protects our troops and their families.
Many of the major financial institutions that helped contribute to the financial crisis have also come up short when it comes to following the SCRA -- compounding the painful effects of the Great Recession. I believe these institutions not only must follow the law in the future, but have an obligation to determine whether violations occurred previously and to make things right. That is why I recently sent letters to more than two dozen leading financial institutions -- credit card banks, mortgage servicers and student loan servicers -- demanding to know what they are doing to discover whether they have violated SCRA in the past and what they are doing to ensure the law is followed going forward.

Recent settlements serve as a reminder that we must remain vigilant in ensuring our servicemembers get the benefit of the SCRA's protections. In July, Capital One agreed with the United States Department of Justice to pay $12 million to remedy SCRA violations. And in late September, J.P. Morgan Chase reached a settlement with the federal government that calls for the bank to financially compensate members of the military who suffered from SCRA violations and to change its operations to ensure the SCRA is followed in the future.

J.P. Morgan has made significant strides in SCRA compliance since revelations of its mortgage-related SCRA violations first surfaced. All banks, lenders, and account servicers should take steps similar to JP Morgan's to discover and remedy past SCRA violations and to put procedures in place to ensure we never have to deal with any such failures to protect our active duty military again. Institutions should also support initiatives such as the Veterans Career Transition Program that Chase sponsored at Syracuse University

Congress also needs to do more to strengthen compliance with the SCRA by allowing for on-the-ground enforcement by state attorneys general. State-level enforcement of consumer protection laws is working in other areas, and should expanded to include the SCRA. As the chief consumer protectors and law enforcers in our respective states, attorneys general are often the first to hear about abuses in the arena of consumer debt, including abuses of servicemembers and can act quickly to address violations. We all need to do what is necessary to ensure we are protecting our service men and women from unnecessary hardships at home.

Our financial institutions need to take all necessary steps to ensure they have in place the infrastructure and the procedures to comply with the statute. Congress needs to ensure full compliance through combined federal and state enforcement of SCRA. The states need to work with the federal government to ensure that active duty servicemembers are protected from any form of financial exploitation. If we focus on doing our job at home, service men and women will be better able to focus on their job: protecting and defending our nation.