The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE

Since the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934, Americans have been promised a safe, decent and sanitary home. While it isn't written in stone like our federal housing policy, the national agenda also aims to make sure that anyone who has served his or her country in the military service should also have a safe, decent and stable place to call home.

Frequently, that goal can be achieved through the GI Bill, which allows for no-down-payment loans. On top of that, many states have special programs for the servicemen and women residing within their borders.

Many private entities also have stepped up to help America's returning GIs in one way or another. National homebuilder Pulte, for example, gave away 20 brand-new homes to worthy veterans over the last two years.

But arguably, no single company has done more than the Madison, Wisconsin-based Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. Over the last two years, Fairway, which has 190 branches covering all 50 states, has given 27 houses mortgage-free to wounded veterans or their families.

"I believe you can make a difference and make a living at the same time. That's when it becomes fun," says Louise Thaxton, the 61-year-old dynamo who makes Fairway's effort roll.

"Nobody asks to be a hero; it just sometimes turns out that way," she says, quoting a popular line from the 2001 military film "Black Hawk Down." "We can step back and someone else can give them a mortgage-free house, or we can step up."

Working in Fairway's Leesville, Louisiana, office, Thaxton is on a crusade on behalf of servicepeople returning from the wars in the Middle East.

"I saw the need for excellence in serving the military," she explains. "We're the watchdog for the better part of the world, and someone needs to be a watchdog that stands between the warriors and the wolves."

That watchdog, as it turns out, is a 5-foot-2 grandmother of 17 who sees the military as a "targeted population," easily cheated, over-billed, ripped off and scammed.

In other words, our fighting men and women make great marks.

They typically are young and financially inexperienced. They may have been trained for combat, but not for fiscal battles. What's more, servicepeople are often transient and, therefore, totally unaware of which local businesses are honest and which are not.

At Fort Polk in Louisiana, Thaxton saw young vets being raked over the coals by used car companies and payday lenders, and she also saw overcharging by title companies and even a bit of gouging by some mortgage brokers.

"I saw lenders not using VA or FHA loans because 'they were too hard' just so they could get the extra fees" from conventional mortgages, she says. "They would refinance people from a 30-year fixed loan to a three-year ARM just to get $5,000 in fees."

Besides closing her own deals, Thaxton began teaching her colleagues about the ins and outs of dealing with returning warriors, which is not the same as working with everyday citizens. For one thing, they often don't have the luxury of time and cannot wait for the market to turn. Another example: Vets may not be stationed at the same base as their spouse, or the civilian half of the couple may be unable to find work.

Four years ago, Thaxton asked her company to back an extension of her education efforts, and Fairway CEO Steve Jacobson gave her his blessing. "He told me to just run with it," Thaxton says.

So she set about creating a continuing education class for real estate agents and brokers on how to deal with military clients. At the end of the class, students are awarded a Certified Military Residential Specialist diploma. (The designation is Fairway's, and not the Mortgage Bankers Association's or the National Association of Realtors', which has its own military designation.)

Last summer, in Clarksville, Tennessee, the home of Fort Campbell, Thaxton led a three-hour seminar for 400 realty pros from as far as 100 miles away. Pacing back and forth in her ever-present combat boots -- she wears them even when she's training for her first half-marathon in the rural backroads of Louisiana -- she asked the entire audience to stand. Then she asked those who have served in the military to sit down.

Next, she asked anyone who's a military spouse, parent, grandparent or child to sit as well, followed by aunts, uncle, nieces and nephews of someone in the service.

Only a few people were left standing, and the point was made: "We are all connected to the military."

At each seminar, Fairway donates a home to a wounded vet. In Tennessee, the recipient was retired Army Specialist Marshall Lane, who was wounded during combat operations in Afghanistan, earning a Purple Heart as well as a Combat Medical Badge for performing his duties while under fire from the enemy.

Everywhere she goes, Thaxton rallies the real estate troops.

"I have a huge goal that every wounded warrior receive a mortgage-free house," she said in Clarksville. "It's not impossible if everyone gives something. There's none of us who can do everything, but everyone can do something."

When the evangelist for wounded vets closed the class, the entire room stood and burst into applause.