Leaving the military is a life-changing transition, but don’t make it harder by not educating yourself on your benefits.
We’ve all heard senior leaders in the military chastise their younger troops for not planning ahead. Some of us have been those troops on the receiving end of theses reprimands. “Why did you buy that brand new pick-up truck from the used car lot right off post? Weren’t you thinking about your future?”
Short answer: No, I wasn’t. Long answer: I’ve always wanted the truck; I finally have a steady income, and I work a dangerous job. You only live once.
Look, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop these kinds of things when troops put on the uniform, but what about when they are about to take off the uniform for good? Can we do better?
Over the past few years, Congress and the military have made a tremendous investment in transforming the way in which we prepare transitioning service members for civilian life. The new training is much more robust, and best (or worst) of all, it is mandatory, stomping out the ages-old “nobody told me” excuse.
However, despite these improvements, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend while visiting transition sites on some of our largest combat installations as an advocate with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Young service members — particularly those separating after one tour of duty — still largely ignore free help in navigating the post-military benefits right at their fingertips.
The VFW has 21 pre-discharge claims representatives stationed on 16 installations to offer free assistance for any separating service member who has questions about his or her benefits. The mission of these representatives is to help the transitioning service member search through medical records to identify and document medical conditions caused or exacerbated by their time in the military, then help prepare the paperwork to claim benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Unfortunately, as my team and I have visited many of our representatives, we noticed that most service members who come through the door have served in the military for quite a long time, with many closing in on retirement. On Fort Bragg, for example, the average client for the VFW in the month of April was 48 years old and served at least 15 years in the military. During the same time period at Fort Stewart, the average client was 45 and had more than a decade in uniform.
The dilemma here is that most of the men and women leaving the military today have served far fewer than 15 years and will walk away with far fewer resources at their disposal than those who retire. What do the older service members see that the younger ones are missing?
The VFW has heard several assumptions about the VA claims process that may prevent younger service members from seeking assistance. While this problem is multifaceted, it is likely solvable. Here are five assumptions that the VFW has heard and ways we think they can be addressed:
“I’m not disabled. Why should I file for VA disability benefits?”
Recently one veteran’s advocate penned an op-ed telling veterans to “be careful” with their VA benefits, implying that veterans who file claims for service-connected injuries or health conditions are somehow admitting they are broken; exploiting the system; or unconsciously initiating an insidious cycle of government dependency.
To be honest, I believe that referring to service-connected benefits as “disability benefits” is probably the wrong language, but that’s what we call it and the terminology is likely not going to change anytime in the near future. However, for the separating service member who does not want to think of him or herself as disabled, instead think of these benefits as an insurance policy to cover any health condition caused by your military service. When you volunteered to join the military, you signed a blank check to the government through which they could use you for just about anything. On the back end, VA benefits serve as one of the ways to help fix whatever broke under the U.S. government’s watch.
When it comes time to get out of the military, most of us feel pretty awesome. After all, we just served in combat and we’re still pretty bad ass. But what happens 10 years from now when we still wake up our spouse in the middle of the night with night terrors? Or what happens when that nagging back or knee pain becomes so debilitating that it requires surgery? The best thing you can do for your future health and well-being is document that these conditions originated while in uniform. Not only will it save you money in health insurance premiums and copays, but it will also result in compensation for any lost earnings potential. This isn’t an admission of weakness or exploitation of government resources. This is common-sense planning for your future health and your family’s well-being.
“I can file my claim online on my own time. Isn’t that the easiest way?”
Lots of separating service members hear that they “can” file a claim online and think that they “should” file a claim online. However, just because something is more convenient does not mean that it is the most reliable option. It’s very convenient to log into eBenefits on your own time and start filling in paperwork. It’s also very convenient to print off your own IRS Form 1040 and start filling in boxes. But much like filing your taxes, do you really enjoy reading through pages of complicated technical instructions; deciphering complex legalese; sorting through reams of health treatment records; decoding doctor’s notes; then hoping you filled out the forms correctly and accurately under penalty of perjury?
Again, just because you can do it online in your spare time doesn’t mean you should. Wouldn’t it be easier if someone had been trained to do this on your behalf? Like your neighborhood accountant, claims representatives from accredited veterans’ organizations like the VFW go through extensive training to understand the VA benefits system. The VFW alone provides every accredited service officer with 80 hours of training in understanding VA benefit regulations each year, and we also mandate two comprehensive tests in proficiency. Breaking down the numbers, this training is equivalent to at least two college-level courses every year. Moreover, service officers are accredited by VA to handle your health care information and all personally identifiable information responsibly, and their sole purpose is to represent you throughout the entire claims process. However, unlike your neighborhood accountant, this service is completely free. In fact, VFW service officers are prohibited by law from accepting any compensation from clients for their services.
During a recent visit to one of the VFW’s pre-discharge claim sites, we sat down with a young specialist preparing to leave the Army. He wasn’t fully aware of what the VFW offered throughout the process, but someone told him he had to schedule an appointment to meet with us. He asked dozens of questions about his benefits and about the process. When he left he was impressed that our representative knew so much and made it so easy. He was also relieved that he didn’t have to go online and figure it out himself.
You’re getting out of the military. You have to worry about finding a job, applying to school, buying a house, renting an apartment, or relocating your family. If you take one hour to go talk to an accredited claims representative about your benefits, that will be one less thing hanging over your head.
“If my benefits are approved, I’m taking away benefits from a wounded veteran who needs it more than me.”
This is an admirable perspective and one that the military espouses in all of us throughout our military service. At least for my fellow soldiers, one of our Army values is “selfless service.” So if I’m thinking of myself before my battle buddies, I’m a bad soldier. Well, that’s honestly not the case with VA benefits. VA compensation is mandatory funding. If you receive a disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder and bad knees, you are not taking away benefits from a fellow service member who lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Next, you have likely read about long wait times for VA care. So if you take a VA appointment for your injuries, won’t a more injured veteran be neglected? Keep in mind, this is why VA has priority groups for veterans. When VA establishes your eligibility for health care benefits, you will be assigned to one of these priority groups based on your physical and/or economic level of need. As such, keep in mind that severely wounded veterans will always be in the highest priority group, meaning they will always have the first option to receive care. You will not be stealing their appointments.
Moreover, when it comes to your care, keep in mind that private health care providers – and especially private insurance companies – hate to touch health care conditions resultant from military service. Even though an insurance company can no longer deny you coverage for pre-existing conditions, they can certainly make it financially burdensome to receive such care. Again, VA benefits are there for you because of your military service. You have a right to take advantage of them.
“But I want to go into the Reserve/National Guard and/or work for my local police/fire department when I get out. If I file for VA benefits, they’ll kick me out of the military/never hire me.”
This is a concern that we have heard repeatedly from younger service members coming off of active duty, and it can be a legitimate one, depending on the conditions you claim. However, if continued service comes at the expense of your health and well-being, you need to have a serious conversation with someone you trust about your future prospects.
Nevertheless, this should not preclude you from seeking the advice of accredited professionals who understand the benefits system. If you have questions or concerns about this, contact an accredited service officer and ask for their advice. At least for the VFW, all of our current reps serving on military installations are veterans who have been in your situation — in fact, one of them still serves in the National Guard. They can give you candid answers to your questions and advise you on a responsible course of action.
“If the VFW helps me file my claim, do I have to join the VFW?”
If you choose the VFW or another accredited organization to represent you in the VA claims process, you are under no obligation to join that organization.
Now, you may also be worried that if you seek out our services, you’ll be subjected to a hard sales pitch to join before we let you leave the office. Rest assured that all accredited service officers on military installations are explicitly prohibited from recruiting membership as part of our agreements with the military to provide our services. If we recruit when we’re supposed to be helping you with your benefits, we can be kicked off base.
Don’t get me wrong, as both a member and an employee of the VFW, I hope you would see the value in joining our organization, but that’s your decision to make. If we do a good job, you’ll probably have a better opinion of us, and maybe you’ll choose to join on your own accord.
If you have read this far, I think I’ve accomplished my mission and I hope you will consider seeking out the services available to you before leaving the military. Moreover, I hope you have a better understanding of why veterans’ benefits are in place and why you should not feel guilty about using them. Leaving the military is a life-changing transition, and accredited service officers are on military bases to make this transition easier on you.