Maybe President Joe Biden has the best of intentions with his new student loan forgiveness plan. Maybe he’s looking to score political points as the midterm elections loom. Either way, it’s a slap in the face to all of us who sacrificed to repay our loans. It’s doubly unfair for those of us who repaid what we owed and served in the military , upending our lives, professions and, in cases like mine, now owing the government money after we defended our country.
I do not know a single service member who doesn’t remember exactly where they were on that awful day in 2001 when two jets crashed into the World Trade Center, commencing the war on terror. Then I was a major in the U.S. Army Reserve and the sole owner and sole employee of my financial services firm, AmeriVet Securities, Inc.
My company at that time had the distinction of being the first financial services firm in the securities industry to be certified as both minority-owned and operated and disabled vet-owned and operated business (I received a VA disability rating due to an injury from a parachute jump that didn’t prevent me to later serve).
Two weeks after September 11, 2001, I started getting emails from the Army informing me to prepare to be called up for active military duty. Initially, they told us we would be deployed no more than two times over two years. I ended up being deployed seven times over 12 years, and I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my comrades ended up with deployments of 10 years or more.
Our service took a toll on us in every aspect of our lives. Some of us have returned disabled due to wounds and injuries. Others suffer mental issues due to what we experienced on our deployments.
Once home we had to rebuild our civilian lives with readjustments not much different from those portrayed in the 1946 movie classic, "The Best Years of Our Lives." As the movie so brilliantly portrayed, for some vets these readjustments can be relatively easy.
But for many others, not so much because of their disabilities. On top of all of that, a new battle begins; one to join the workforce and earn a living.
President is looking to hand money to someone who went into debt to get an Ivy League degree for fine arts while I saw bullets fly by my head.
The soldiers portrayed in the aforementioned movie benefitted from the first GI bill, which allowed many of them to own homes, start businesses, and go to college. Such support hasn’t kept pace with the need of a new generation of soldiers. During my deployments, I had to put my company in legal purgatory due to my absence. On Wall Street, the official classification is known as "inactive," according to our regulators at the Finance Industry Regulatory Authority. It essentially allows me to keep my brokerage licenses so when I return to civilian life, I can pick up where I left off.
Again, not easy to do. During my various deployments, I almost declared bankruptcy because of the difficulty of restarting a business. When my military career finally ended in 2015, I had the daunting task of rebuilding my company from scratch which meant finding new institutional clients because all my old institutional clients had left me.
The securities industry had changed drastically in the 14 years I served which made it nearly impossible to go back to square one and operate as a one-person financial services firm. Slowly but surely, I was able to re-build my business, hire people, expand into new areas of Wall Street such as municipal bonds and IPOs. Amerivet is now profitable, and while business conditions remain tough, we will grind through it.
I received no help from the federal government, which is fine. I don't need a handout. But in 2020 the IRS demanded I pay more than $200,000 in back taxes even though my tax situation was solely due to serving my country in uniform during wartime. As it was explained to me, during my last tour, I did not stay in Afghanistan for the required period of time (I was wounded and came home early). I didn’t qualify for a tax-free deployment. The IRS hit me with full taxes for 2013 and 2014 and it wants to be paid immediately.
I have every intention to pay the money back. I just need some time. But talking to the IRS is like talking to a wall. It is demanding that I pay up immediately or face even more penalties and a higher bill. That’s why I wrote President Biden in the past year, figuring a letter to the office which I swore allegiance to would get some notice.
Unfortunately, it didn’t. To date, I have written the president seven times about my situation and received no response except for a White House boilerplate reply to my last missive. This mystifies me considering my military service. It also incenses me since the president is looking to hand money to someone who went into debt to get an Ivy League degree for fine arts while I saw bullets fly by my head.
I served two tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan. For my combat tours I received the Bronze Star Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, two Joint Service Achievement Medals, and the U.S. Army Combat Action Badge (for engaging in actual combat).
On my last deployment, which was to Afghanistan as a DoD contractor, I was wounded while trying to track down 1,600 grams of stolen Soviet-made Uranium-235 which an Afghan was attempting to sell on the black market.
I took out student loans to pay for my college education, but I paid back every cent over time. It took me 20 years to do it, but I did it. If the president is in such a forgiving mood, vets like myself can use a little help getting back on our feet. As we like to say from time to time, vets need a hand, not a handout.
Elton Johnson, Jr., is the Non-Executive Chairman of AmeriVet Securities. Johnson, graduated from the University of Notre Dame and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and U.S. Army Reserve where he served for 37 years and completed seven deployments during the war on terror. He is still trying to get Afghan nationals whom he served with, out of Afghanistan.