When President Donald Trump signed legislation in August to help veterans who are navigating bankruptcy, it was a victory for a Des Moines attorney and veteran who was a key player in the negotiations.

Lt. Col. Kristina Stanger of the Nyemaster Goode law firm teamed with Holly Petraeus (retired assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and wife of retired Gen. David Petraeus) and other notables to fix a long-standing glitch in the federal rules that counted veterans’ benefits in calculations of disposable income. That meant more of the veteran’s income could be sought by creditors and worsened an already tough financial situation, Stanger said. 

“Iowans and veterans around the country are struggling with financial distress and mental health issues,” Stanger said in an interview. “A significant underlying problem with mental health issues and suicide and the ability for our nation to fight its wars is the mental health. We rely so heavily on our soldiers and our people. And the soldiers and the people that we serve, that serve our country, deserve the world.”

The central piece of the legislation is the Honoring American Veterans in Extreme Need (HAVEN) Act. Stanger got involved in the lobbying effort after meeting a leader in the American Bankruptcy Institute at a workshop. ABI pushed hard for the bill. “I’ve learned a lot of political science,” Stanger said, including how to deliver impromptu elevator speeches to members of Congress, in chance elevator meetings. 

“As I started doing pro bono work for veterans and families and helping them through financial distress or legal issues, this issue came up,” said Stanger, a member of the Business Record’s Forty under 40 class of 2012. Bankruptcy laws were making things worse.

“I'm a bankruptcy lawyer,” Stanger said. “The bankruptcy code provides for fresh starts for companies, for farmers, for veterans. What I discovered in that work of helping families to find hope was the bankruptcy laws were preventing that.” 

This hits home for Stanger, who served as a medical service corps officer in the U.S. Army beginning in 2000, serving in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. She continues to serve in the Iowa National Guard. She’s a graduate of Drake University Law School. Her husband just retired from the Guard. 

In 2005, Congress made it tougher to discharge debts, and included more items in people’s income calculations. There were only three exceptions — payments to victims of war crimes, payments to victims of terrorism, and Social Security disability payments. 

At times, veterans let a bank foreclose on their house instead of filing for bankruptcy and risking other assets, but that led to mental stress and in some cases suicide. 

President Trump signed HAVEN in August, protecting veterans’ disability payments from creditors. Other legislation was intended to increase the debt limit for family farms and to assist small business owners facing bankruptcy.