In the year following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, nearly 182,000 Americans enlisted in the armed forces, according to the United Service Organizations (USO). Roughly 73,000 enlisted in the Reserves.
Since then, many have deployed to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and 7,052 died while serving. More than 30,000 others died by suicide after returning home, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.
Now the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is upon us, and it coincides with another somber milestone: the end of the war in Afghanistan. The controversial U.S. exit from Afghanistan as Kabul fell to the Taliban caused some veterans to question the U.S.’ role in the country and their service there.
There is no panacea for the grief, trauma, and the life-altering experiences post-9/11 servicemembers have faced. But providing safety, security, and a chance to start a new chapter when they return home is a way to support them and honor their service.
That is what the VA loan program aims to do, and the value of the VA loan has never been more apparent.
“In times of uncertainty, homeownership can bring a sense of stability – of having control over one’s life and future,” said Louise Thaxton, a branch manager with Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation and director and co-founder of the American Warrior Initiative (AWI) non-profit (Home.com and AWI are owned by Fairway). “Helping our veterans now with homeownership can be our way of saying, ‘Your service mattered to this country. Your service was not for nothing.’”
The 9/11 anniversary created an apt moment to consider the sacrifices of, and the benefits available to, members of the military community. But the VA loan has been around for almost eight decades, since the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) created the benefit in 1944 as part of the GI Bill of Rights.
“It is said to have had more impact on the American way of life than any other legislation before this, with the exception of the Homestead Act enacted a century before,” Thaxton said. “This bill reshaped the course of American history. Now, 77 years after its creation, this government-backed mortgage program is more important than ever.”
VA loans allow veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and some surviving spouses to purchase homes, in many cases with 0% down payment, provided the borrower has full entitlement benefit available. Those who have partial benefit can still use a VA loan, though they may need a down payment, depending how much benefit is available and the purchase price of their homes.
The VA’s borrower guidelines are flexible to allow as many eligible servicemembers as possible to qualify, and there is no limit to the number of times they may use a VA loan. The benefit is available to all branches of the military, including the National Guard, the Coast Guard, and the Reserves. To qualify, borrowers must meet the minimum service requirements and must have been honorably discharged.
“With the VA loan program having less stringent credit requirements and the ability to purchase with no money down, these loans can be a lifeline for military borrowers, many of whom would otherwise struggle to secure home financing,” Thaxton said.
To learn more about VA loan eligibility requirements, see our guide here.
Many servicemembers who enlisted in the decades after 9/11 were children on the day that terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Twelve of the servicemembers killed in the bombing at Kabul airport during the recent U.S. withdrawal were “9/11 babies,” born within a few years of the attacks.
Others who served throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t yet in high school on 9/11.
Among those was Petty Officer Second Class (SCW) Matthew Hynes*, a Navy veteran who was sitting in a seventh-grade classroom an hour and a half south of New York City when hijackers flew planes into the Twin Towers. Less than 10 years later, Hynes enlisted and was deployed to Afghanistan.
Now in his 30s, with a wife and children, Hynes has moved back to his New Jersey hometown to be near family and create a place of his own.
“Without the VA loan, I don’t think we’d really be able to put down roots,” Hynes said. He and his wife had moved several times for job opportunities in recent years, always with the goal of owning a home.
“When you move so many times, it did feel like it got harder every time,” Hynes said. “When we got the approval, it felt like we were able to breathe. It was like, ‘OK, it’s gonna be alright.”
“I would never have been able to do this without a VA loan,” he added. “It helps veterans all the time.”
Army Capt. Richard J. Snyder and his wife, Shelby, also relied on the VA loan to build their first home, which they’ll close on in a few weeks.
“We knew we would be able to get into a beautiful home, but we wouldn’t have to save for seven years or for 10 years to make that dream come true,” Shelby said of their decision to use a VA loan.
Building their Louisiana home is particularly special, as it’s the third time the Snyders have moved since her husband received his first orders and it’s the first time they’ve owned a home.
“We’ve been dreaming about this since we were sitting on the couch in Germany watching ‘Fixer-Upper,’” Shelby said. “It just opens up this Wizard of Oz world of possibilities.”
Related reading: Absolutely Everything to Know About the VA Home Loan in 2021
For military families like the Snyders and the Hyneses, the flexibility and affordability of VA home loans make the benefits of homeownership tangible.
“The VA Loan Guaranty program continues to help level the playing field for veterans and their families when they want to purchase a home,” Thaxton said. “For some, this loan is the only realistic path to homeownership. Research has consistently shown the importance of the housing sector on not only the economy but also the long-term social and financial benefits to individual homeowners.”
Homeownership is a key component of wealth creation in the U.S., and it can create stability and well-being in a way renting cannot.
For someone who has been through a deployment and traumatic experiences, it’s also a respite from the ongoing emotional challenges of having served.
“You go through some tough experiences, and those things come back once in a while, whether it’s a certain time of year or something that’s in the news,” Hynes said.
Having a place to call your own, a reminder that you were part of a worthwhile mission, can help veterans cope with and make sense of painful memories and reflections, he said.
“There is this kind of feeling of, ‘OK, I’m part of something. I did something. This is mine, this is mine for my family,” he said
That place of solace and steadiness is all the more important for veterans who served in the decades following the 9/11 attacks.
Pew Research found that post-9/11 veterans were more likely to have been deployed and seen combat than those who had served before them. They were also more likely to have experienced trauma and to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Homeownership is correlated with better health outcomes and with increased civic and volunteer engagement, according to Habitat for Humanity. A sense of purpose and of being connected with other people can be crucial for people who are struggling with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.
Importantly, the National Association of Realtors® reported that homeownership correlates with improved mental health outcomes in part because owning gives you a sense of control over your environment. You can create consistency in your living space and your routines, cultivate a feeling of safety, security, and community.
Living in structurally sound, hazard-free homes that support a good quality of life is also essential to overall well-being, which is one reason the VA has strict property requirements for homes purchased with VA home loans. The goal is to help veterans buy places where they can recover, build, and grow their families and sense of purpose in their communities.
For veterans, homeownership can also help ground them in the present and recognize how far they’ve come. Hynes said having fellow servicemembers, who have also started families and recently purchased homes, come to his house was profound.
“We’re sitting down at my table. There was this camaraderie moment. We’ve progressed from these different experiences,” he said.
*Hynes is the author’s brother.
The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics reported that 36% of post-9/11 veterans live with service-related disabilities. For them, the option to modify their homes to improve mobility and quality of life is essential.
“Homeownership allows the freedom of customization, which for many disabled veterans is a huge benefit, with the freedom to renovate for wheelchair accessibility,” Thaxton said.
In addition to the VA loan, the VA offers several grants to assist veterans who have service-related disabilities:
- Specially adapted housing (SAH) grant: Servicemembers who have qualifying disabilities may be eligible for up to $100,896 to purchase, build, or modify an existing home. The VA only gives out 120 of these grants each year, though you can apply in the ensuing years if your initial request is denied. You must own and live in the home to qualify for an SAH grant
- Special Home Adaptation (SHA) grant: If you have certain service-connected disabilities, you may be eligible for up to $20,215 to buy, build, or modify a home that you or a relative owns and in which you will live
- Temporary Residence Adaptation (TRA) grant: The VA also offers assistance for modifying a home in which you will live for a temporary period of time — for instance, if you are living with a relative while waiting for your home to be built or renovated or while you are recovering from service-related injuries. Veterans who qualify for SAH grants may receive up to $40,637 in TRA grant funds. Those who qualify for SHA grants may receive up to $7,256.
“This is my piece of America”
The 9/11 anniversary presents a chance to reflect on the value of the VA loan in offering support and new opportunities to servicemembers. But the VA loan is relevant, and needed, all the time.
“The VA loan is almost a celebration of veterans and active-duty servicemembers,” Shelby said. “It’s just another added bonus for the military community for all that we do, all that we give, and all that we’ve lost.”
That the benefit is available to all eligible servicemembers, regardless of branch or rank, makes it especially meaningful, according to Hynes.
“It’s a unifying factor. From the lowest enlisted to the highest officer, we’re all entitled to it and we all earned it together,” Hynes said. “The VA loan gives you the opportunity to say, ‘This is mine. This is my piece of America.’”
Fairway is not affiliated with any government agencies. These materials are not from the VA, HUD, FHA, USDA, or RD, and were not approved by a government agency.