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Repossession Trouble

Jayson Graves hadn't learned to drive yet when he walked into a local automobile dealership a couple of years ago and bought a pickup.

Graves, then 22, had just graduated from the Angel Job Corps program in Yachats. He took $2,500 from a graduation bonus and placed it as a down payment on a 1996 Chevrolet Silverado. Although the Roseburg man hadn't yet learned to drive, he wanted the pickup there for him when he returned from a stint in the U.S. Army.

Graves, who was stationed in Germany, arranged to have his Army paychecks direct deposited into a savings account at the Roseburg branch of Northwest Community Credit Union, then known as Wood Products Credit Union. Every month, the credit union would deduct his $370 pickup payment from the savings account. The truck was supposed to be paid off after three years.

That worked fine until earlier this year, as Graves and other members of the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment prepared to go to Iraq, when the Army payroll deposits suddenly stopped. That brought the pickup payments to a halt, as well. Now, the credit union wants to repossess the truck.

Graves' parents, Gary and Candace Graves, were mystified by what happened. They couldn't understand why a mix-up occurred just because their son was being deployed to Iraq.

They didn't learn of the delinquency until a quarterly statement came from the credit union showing that money hadn't been deposited into the account.

"It came as a total shock to me that the payments weren't being made," Gary Graves said.

They contacted their son, notified him of the situation and sent him new authorization forms for the direct deposit, as suggested by credit union officials, they said. Graves reported back to his parents that he had turned them in to his paymaster, but the deposits never resumed.

Since Jayson Graves left for Iraq on Feb. 6, his parents have not had any contact with him. They've been told by Army officials that his work there is sensitive and that they can't contact him. They didn't even know he'd been promoted from private first class to specialist until they spoke recently with a local recruiter.

The Graveses don't have authorization for power of attorney so they can talk with the credit union or the Army on their son's behalf. They've had their own financial troubles -- Gary broke his neck a year ago during a freak accident while pulling a piece of wood out of a dryer at Roseburg Forest Products' Plant 4 in Riddle. He was off work for several months.

The pickup is important to their son, they say, because he doesn't have anything else of value.

"His truck is his only possession. He isn't married. He doesn't have any kids," Candace Graves said. "If he had more possessions, then it wouldn't be so bad."

Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, soldiers are protected against repossession of property purchased under an installment contract before they went on active duty. The lien holder cannot take possession of the item without a court order.

Other provisions protect soldiers and their families from being evicted from their home or apartment, delay legal proceedings such as bankruptcy, divorce or personal injury actions. The law also prevents soldiers from being charged more than 6 percent interest on credit card purchases made before they went on active duty.

The law was signed by President George W. Bush in December. It strengthened a previous statute that has been in effect since 1940. Both apply to regular members of the armed forces, as well as National Guard and Reserve troops called to active duty.

A representative of Northwest Community Credit Union went to the Graveses' Roseburg home a few weeks ago, asking the family to voluntarily give up their son's pickup. They refused.

Calls from The News-Review to the credit union were referred to its legal counsel, Michelle Bertolino of the Portland firm Farleigh Wada & Witt. Because of privacy concerns, Bertolino said neither she nor the credit union could speak specifically about Graves' loan.

She did say the credit union would abide by all laws regarding installment contracts made with people who later went on active duty in the military. Bertolino also said the credit union would review its files to ensure that the installment loan issued to Graves was being handled properly.

"We'll certainly look into it," she said.

Between January and June, Maj. Mark Ronning, the judge advocate general for the Oregon National Guard, has handled complaints from 319 soldiers or their families regarding violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

Most of the cases are resolved by the individuals involved or by family support units established by the National Guard and the Reserves, Ronning said. He estimates he sees only about one-third of the overall cases.

"It's only getting to me when it gets out of hand," said Ronning, an attorney.

Ronning and representatives from the Oregon Department of Justice and the Oregon Bar Association set up a cooperative program where National Guard, Reserves and active duty soldiers and their families can receive free legal help in straightening out problems resulting from failure to follow the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

Ronning, who can be reached at (503) 584-3571, acts as the initial contact. He then refers them to an attorney who has agreed to participate in the program and offer legal assistance. He said he would seek help for the Graveses to solve the problem with their son's pickup loan.

In the meantime, Gary and Candace Graves plan to protect the pickup that sits outside their home. They have no plans to give it up.

"We're not going to let them take his truck," Gary Graves said.

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