Served in the U.S. military? This bank's for you

For anyone who is serving in the military, or served and was honorably discharged, you're now eligible to be a customer of one of the top-ranked banking and insurance companies in the country. USAA, started in 1922 by 25 military officers to insure each other's cars, is opening its doors wider. It recently announced an expansion of its customer base from enlisted military to all living service men and women who were honorably discharged.

In an interview with the New York Times, USAA's CEO, retired Major General Josue "Joe" Robles, says the reasons why USAA wants to expand its eligible customer base from 25 million to 60 million is because it felt it had unfairly excluded Vietnam vets, and also because the bank did so well during the financial downturn (it expects a record year for 2009) that it can comfortably take on more customers and guarantee them good rates and customer experience.

As a USAA member myself, I strongly recommend checking its products out. I'm a member because my dad, a retired Air Force major, was a customer who suggested I get my own account (USAA accepts "military brats" as customers), and my husband, an honorably-discharged Army captain, was already a member. After being a Bank of America and Citibank customer, I can honestly say USAA is a breath of fresh air.

Its customer service is like night and day, and Business Week has ranked USAA as a "Customer Service Champ" for the last three years. No "telephone hell" or surly operators here. My phone call is picked up on the second ring, my questions are answered thoroughly, and the attitude is always sunny (maybe because USAA is based in sunny San Antonio, Texas).

A couple of years ago, I did a price check on auto insurance policies, but no firm gave me a better deal than the one I already had with USAA. My credit card's APR is 8.9 percent, which hasn't changed since I got the card five years ago, and USAA hasn't slapped any penalties or fees on me for using my card too little or too much, as other card companies are doing these days. My bank accounts don't earn much in interest but they also don't charge any fees.

The one minor drawback is that because USAA doesn't have any bank branches or ATMs, I must mail my checks to them in special-delivery deposit envelopes, and they can take up to a week to post in my account. However, you can use your debit card at any bank and USAA reimburses the ATM fees, and it recently introduced an iPhone app that uses the phone's camera to scan a check and make an instant deposit.

I can't vouch for USAA's financial-planning or brokerage services, but Morningstar and Lipper rank its mutual funds highly. My husband and I are thinking of buying a house, so I'll be checking out the 30-year and VA loans USAA offers. I don't have the fear of being ripped off by greedy bankers when I sign up for a USAA product. Maybe it's because so many of its executives and employees are former military and they want to help their own.

This month is when we get the icing on the cake for being USAA membesr. Because it is set up along the lines of an insurance club with membership, USAA returns money it has earned and saved to its members in the form of dividends and distributions. The more USAA products you own, like home loans and auto insurance, the bigger a dividend you'll receive. Last year was not great for any financial firm, but I still got $84 deposited in my checking account from USAA. This year, USAA says it will return a lot more.

You may take me for a brainwashed cult member. Who can say anything good about a U.S. bank or insurance firm these days? But USAA is different, in my opinion. There are few companies I really trust and admire, and USAA, which has never given me a reason to complain, is one of them. If you've served time in the military, leap at the chance to be a member of this elite group. USAA seems to have the same motto as Army grads from West Point: "Duty, Honor, Country."
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