Four years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense realized it had a personnel problem, and it had nothing to do with military readiness.
Many enlisted personnel - especially those aged 18 to 24 - didn't know the first thing about managing their finances. They found themselves in serious trouble over unpaid bills and defaulted loans and did not know how to save for the future.
More than 60 percent of all enlisted personnel with security clearances had their status revoked because of financial problems in 1995, according to a study by the think tank Rand Corp. Military personnel receive more than 120,000 letters of indebtedness each year, ranging from defaulting on mortgages to failing to pay credit card bills on time.
One Marine private thought he still had money in the bank because he had 10 checks left in his checkbook even though his account was depleted. Many others found that although it was easy to get credit cards because they had a steady paycheck, it was tough to pay off the balance when the bills came due.
Enter a plan to create a software package to help them out.
Working at the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (Spawar) in Norfolk, Va., James Davidson helped design a software program to teach enlisted personnel how to take care of their paychecks.
"We needed to educate our young military members," said Davidson, a civilian naval employee.
As a result, Spawar developed a multimedia package that includes 10 to 15 hours of training in personal finance using Microsoft Corp's Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT. And come October, such training becomes mandatory for all newly enlisted military personnel.
The project represents a new arena for Spawar, which designs, builds, tests and fields front-line support for communications, computers, intelligence and surveillance. But it was an important and necessary focus.
"There was a huge problem in government," Davidson said. "When your mind is preoccupied with financial problems, you are more susceptible to [other] problems...you can't perform your duty."
Each service has received 1,000 sets of the financial training package, delivered to financial counselors located at every installation. Counselors can set up classes or allow enslisted personnel to check out the software like a book in a library.
When users first take a lesson, they enter very general demographic information, including, age, rank and marital status. The results of the first and last tests about finances are made available without names to officials who are tracking results.
The curriculum is not Web-based. When the project first hit the drawing board four years ago, Davidson said, Web-based products were not readily available, and the Internet was not a part of everyday life the way it is today.
"We were just hoping that a soldier or sailor had access to a PC with a CD-ROM drive," Davidson said.
But now, Spawar is developing a version that is Web-based and, at a cost of US$100 per package, hopes it will be easily marketed to government agencies.
"I've run through courseware and, pound for pound, it's the best courseware I've seen covering financial management," said one civilian who tested the product but declined to be named.
He said it helped him learn about keeping a budget, setting financial goals and staying on track.
In the ever-growing world of software development, Spawar hopes to expand its mandate even further. "We are available for any government activity for federal and state governments," Davidson said.