The 12th Annual Stephen Barr Award for Feature Writing: Ann Marsh

“Inventiveness. Insight. Balance. Depth. Impact”


Ann Marsh, senior editor and West Coast bureau chief for Financial Planning, is the 2015 winner of ASBPE’s Stephen Barr Award for her May 2014 article “Could Financial Planning Help Stem the Rate of Military Suicides?” Her investigation into the role that financial planning could play in reducing the military suicide rate resulted in Congressional legislation in 2014. Prior to joining Financial Planning, Marsh wrote the Money Makeover column for the Los Angeles Times, and is also a former freelance writer based in Prague and Los Angeles. She is a former staff writer for Forbes, where she worked on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. The Stephen Barr Award was presented July 24 at the ASBPE National Conference at the Kimmel Center ia New York University.

Most Americans believe the hundreds of soldiers and other veterans who kill themselves each year do so over lingering combat trauma. But Marsh’s investigation found that more than 80% of suicides in 2012 were among soldiers who did not see combat – with more than half those suicides being among soldiers who never even deployed. Over 11 months, she interviewed dozens of serving members of the armed forces, financial planners, experts on stress and Pentagon officials. Her work was challenging because the Defense Department gathers few statistics about its financial planning programs. But Marsh learned that the DoD doesn’t allow the planners it hires to provide actual assistance, only generic advice. Planners who do help risk being fired. Indeed, financial distress as a factor in this epidemic had gone nearly unaddressed.

She persuaded proud military members to talk of their fears for their families, humiliation in falling deep into financial trouble, and difficulty in seeking help. The Army sergeant at the center of the story, Angelo Stevens, had debt that threatened his security clearance and military status. He said to himself at the time: “[I]f I’m dead my family can get $500,000 in life insurance, but I have to kill myself,” referring to the policy covering active-duty soldiers. Only after a financial planner – against military protocol – risked her job to help him did Stevens see a way forward.

A month after publication, a congressman relied on Financial Planning’s findings to craft legislation – which passed – to study the links between financial stress and military suicide, and seek more effective interventions. It was signed into law in December.

Said one Stephen Barr judge of Marsh’s work, “She did an outstanding job of shedding new light on a subject that’s been covered exhaustively in the news. Good, solid reporting packaged in a very engaging narrative, with thoughtfully designed and executed sidebars.

This is the 12th Stephen Barr Award to be presented. It is named for one of ASBPE’s most honored reporters, who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 43. Unlike other ASBPE awards, it honors individual writing across our feature categories, and especially work that shows inventiveness, insight, balance, depth of investigation, and impact on readers. A check for $500 accompanies the award, administered by the not-for-profit ASBPE Foundation.

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