When nursing school graduate Elizabeth Mondo found herself saddled with $210,000 worth of student loan debt and jobless in early 2009, she took the only path that made sense — military service.
"I couldn't find a nursing job to save my life, and the economy was so bad," she said. "But I had some girlfriends who were in the army for 10 years and they said I should join. I looked into it and I did."
It was a smart move. After she enlisted, Mondo landed a job at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where she's been contracted to work through 2016.
Like all military servicemembers, Mondo's federal loans were sent into deferment until the end of her service, as offered through the Higher Education Act. Her private loans were a different story.
The U.S. Army agreed to cover $90,000 of Mondo's Sallie Mae loans for three years, and she asked Sallie Mae to put her remaining loan balance — about $120,000 — into deferment until she left active duty. They refused to budge for months, while her loans continued to swell under a 9 percent interest rate.
It wasn't until she posted an online petition seeking action from Sallie Mae that she got the answers she needed. Turns out she was not only eligible for deferment under SCRA, but she qualified for a lowered interest rate as well.
"Nobody ever told me (about this program), so my interest rate for all my loans was accruing at a higher rate," she said.
Luckily, Sallie Mae agreed to honor SCRA, and reimburse Mondo for the interest charges she accrued at the higher rate.
Mondo's story is far from unique. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found in a recent study on military student loan debt, servicemembers often rely on lenders for information about loan options –– and they don't always wind up with the full story.
Even if they navigate the maze of options, servicemembers report that they are often met with loan servicer roadblocks. For example, the CFPB has heard from military borrowers, including those in combat zones, who have been denied interest-rate protections because they failed to resubmit unnecessary paperwork. These kinds of servicing obstacles prevent servicemembers from taking advantage of the full range of protections they have earned through their service to this country.
Mondo's ordeal has inspired her to work with Sallie Mae to educate others like her at Walter Reed.
"This has been a huge battle. There are already enough stressors for us. It's just another unnecessary stress of the day."
Here's a comprehensive list of loan repayment options for military servicemembers:
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