Maybe President Joe Biden has the best intentions with his new student loan plan. Perhaps he is looking to score political points as the midterm elections approach. Either way, it’s a slap in the face for all of us who have sacrificed to repay our loans. It’s doubly unfair to those of us who paid off what we owed and were called into battle, disrupting our lives, our professions and, in cases like mine, racking up massive debts as we defended our country. .
September marks 21 years since that horrible day in 2001. I was then a major in the U.S. Army Reserve and the sole owner and sole employee of my financial services company, AmeriVet Securities, Inc.
At the time, my company had the distinction of being the first financial services company in the securities industry to be certified as both a minority owned and operated business and a disabled veterinarian owned and operated business (j received a VA disability rating because I was a skydiver in the US Army Reserve and being injured in a parachute training jump in 1988, but the injury was not serious enough to prevent me from continuing to serve).
Two weeks after 9/11, 2001, I started receiving emails from the military telling me to prepare to be called up for active military duty. Initially, they told us that we would not be deployed more than twice in two years. I ended up being deployed seven times in 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 all aspects of our lives. Some of us came back disabled from wounds and injuries. Others suffer from mental problems because of what we experienced during our deployments. In my case, I suffered physically and mentally from being wounded in combat, but at least I survived. Two American contractors I worked and befriended on my first tour of Iraq were captured and beheaded. I got a $20,000 bounty on my head myself. These experiences deeply affected me and continue to affect me.
Once home, we had to rebuild our civilian lives with readjustments that differed from those depicted in the classic 1946 film, “The best years of our livesAs the film so brilliantly portrays, for some vets these readjustments can be relatively easy. But for many others, not so much because of their disability.
In addition to all this, a new battle begins: that of entering the labor market and earning a living. The soldiers depicted in the aforementioned film benefited from the first GI bill, which allowed many of them to own homes, start businesses, and go to college.
Such support has not kept pace with the needs of a new generation of soldiers. During my deployments, I had to put my company in judicial purgatory because of my absence. On Wall Street, the official classification is said to be “inactive”, according to our regulators at the Finance Industry Regulatory Authority. It basically allows me to keep my brokerage licenses so that 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 due to the difficulty of restarting a business. When my military career finally ended in 2015, I had the daunting task of rebuilding my business from the ground up, which meant finding new institutional clients as all of my former institutional clients had left me.
The securities industry had changed dramatically in the 14 years I served, making it nearly impossible to go back to square one and operate as a one-man financial services firm. Slowly but surely I was able to rebuild my business, hire people, expand into new areas of Wall Street such as municipal bonds and IPOs. Amerivet is now profitable, and although trading conditions remain difficult, we will get through this.
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I received no help from the federal government, which is good. I do not need help. But in 2020 the IRS demanded that I pay over $200,000 in back taxes. even though my tax situation was solely due to serving my country in uniform during wartime. As explained to me, I did not stay in Afghanistan for the required period of time (I was injured and returned early), so I was not eligible for a tax-free deployment. The IRS hit me with full taxes for 2013 and 2014 and they want to get paid immediately.
I fully intend to refund the money. I just need time. But talking to the IRS is like talking to a wall. He demands that I pay immediately or face even more penalties and a higher bill. That’s why I wrote President Biden last year, thinking that a letter to the office to which I swore allegiance would receive notice.
Unfortunately, it is not the case. To date, I have written seven times to the President about my situation and received no response except for a boilerplate response from the White House to my latest missive.
This mystifies me considering my military service. It also infuriates me since the president is looking to give money to someone who went into debt to get an Ivy League fine arts degree when I saw bullets fly near my head.
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I made two tours in Iraq and a 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 US Army Combat Action Badge (for participating in actual combat).
On my last deployment, which was to Afghanistan as a DoD contractor, I was injured trying to track down 1,600 grams of stolen Soviet-made uranium-235 that an Afghan was trying to sell on the black market.
I took out student loans to pay my college education, but I paid back every penny over time. It took me 20 years to do it, but I did it.
If the president is in such a lenient mood, vets like me can use a little help getting back on their feet.
As we like to say from time to time, vets need a helping 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 wartime deployments against terrorism. He is still trying to get the Afghan nationals he served with out of Afghanistan.