“You fought for your country, so fight for your benefits.” This is a quote from a friend of mine that has stuck in my mind for months. I found many of us who have completed active duty do not apply for our benefits. After months of thinking this over, I full-heartedly support this. If you do not seek and apply for your benefits, they may not be there for the veterans of the future. We see examples throughout our country of unused benefits/funding being cut due to budget concerns from the local to the national government. Today’s younger society is associated with an entitlement society. However, veteran benefits are earned and not handouts.
Nope…it’s not a handout!
There are numerous benefits available through the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) and state/local governments. The VA has the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which most veterans know about. However, there is also Vocational Rehab, which can be used for vocational training as well as educational degrees, even after partially using your post-9/11 GI Bill. This program provides services to assist veterans with service-connected disabilities to transition at work, school, and home. One must have an “Honorable” or “Other Than Honorable” discharge and a 10% or more rating (including a memorandum rating of 20% or more). A veteran may receive 48 months of entitlements, within 12 years from the date of initial VA rating notification, but there is an exception for veterans with a serious employment handicap. One point to emphasize is NOT to miss appointments! The VA may cut your program immediately for missing an appointment. If you are interested in employment through re-employment (return to previous employment prior to joining the service), rapid access to employment (those who seek employment soon after separating from the services), employment through long term services those seeking specialized training and/or education), independent living services (those who may not currently be ready employment or currently able to pursue a vocational goal), and self-employment (running your own business) vocational rehab may be a program for you to pursue.
Your disability benefits are out there to apply to, so go do it. Some of us may have heard from a representative during our required classes while transitioning out of active duty. Further, some have may hear of a veteran applying for benefits, receiving a 50% rating, and continuing to appeal until he received a 100% rating. I used to think that was ridiculous and that any rating was satisfactory. However, I was greatly mistaken. After spending years reading the news and becoming involved in Veterans Law and Veterans Advocacy, I have found we, Veterans, are low-balled or outright denied in error. The federal government has laid out diseases/illnesses/injuries that qualify for a disability rating. Moreover, there are certain percentages for each rating, which may not reach even 50% let alone 100% per rating. Remember, even a 0% rating is still a rating. For each rating, there are certain symptoms that are a guideline to receive a rating. It is difficult to find these percentages, but with some research, you can find the symptoms for each disease/illness/injury percentage.
Looking at veteran cases with the evidence presented to the VA and the rating received, many times it does not match up. There are numerous examples of claims denied and ratings low-balled without sufficient reasoning. You owe it to yourself, your buddies, and future veterans to continue to fight for what you earned. These benefits are there for you because of the sacrifices you made and diseases/illnesses/injuries you received during your service. Furthermore, you can put in a claim to raise your rating based on the aggravation of symptoms over time. Remember, anytime you appeal or submit a supplemental claim you open the VA to reevaluate all your ratings and claims.
There are numerous resources out there to assist you with an application from legal clinics, county veteran service agencies, veteran organizations, attorneys, and claims agents. Not only can you receive money each month, but you may also receive a lump sum after you receive a rating…and did I mention it is all tax-free. There are cases where, after years in the appeal process, a veteran has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lump sum plus the monthly payments moving forward. This is potentially life-changing for you and your family.
Another benefit that is rarely heard of is if you are 100% VA disabled and married for 10 years and a day, then you die on the next day, your spouse will receive benefits on your behalf. A 100% rating also opens up special monthly compensation. Just remember, no one can claim you will receive a rating. Further, there are government regulations stating you can not be charged upfront for anyone assisting you in your claim, and a specific amount an attorney or claims agent can receive if/when you receive your money.
Medical care is an issue for everyone and the VA may not be your primary choice of care. However, if something happened and you lost your health insurance where would you go for care? With a VA disability rating, you will receive free medical care for the rest of your life for that issue with the VA. Say what you will about medical care at the VA, cost of medical care outside the VA, and anything else you can think of, but you would have the option to receive free care for the rest of your life from the VA for that disability (as stated earlier even 0% is a rating, thus free medical care). Another medical care option is Housebound Allowance or Aid and Attendance Allowance. These programs are complex and can be difficult to qualify for, but this is another option for your medical care and possibly your loved ones.
Most veterans know about Agent Orange and the issues associated with the veterans exposed to it. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now have the Burnpit Registry. All you have to do is submitted a DD-214 and input some information, the VA will then notify you of any presumptive diseases from burn pit exposure in the future. This registry is also used to track health issues associated with exposure to burn pits. This registry is expected to help streamline notification and submitting claims. Click the above link to learn more about the registry.
Looking at estate planning for when you pass away, the VA has death benefits. A veteran’s family can be paid up to $2,000 toward burial expenses, up to $796 toward burial and funeral expenses for deaths on or after October 1, 2019 (if hospitalized by VA at time of death), or $300 toward burial and funeral expenses (if not hospitalized by the VA at the time of death) and a $796 plot-interment allowance (if not buried in a national cemetery). Your dependents may be eligible for this as well, including parents. There are national cemeteries and state cemeteries you may be eligible for. Further, the government can provide for headstones, markers, and medallions. The VA also provides burial flags at no cost to drape the casket or accompany the urn for those who served honorably. Military funeral honors are also available to request upon a veteran’s passing. One more benefit not widely known is the Presidential Memorial Certificate, which is an engraved certificate, signed by the sitting President to honor the veteran’s memory through the VA.
Most veterans are aware of the VA home loan program where one may purchase a home with no down payment and no PMI (primary mortgage insurance). There may be a VA funding fee applied, but with a disability rating, the funding fee may be waived. Home taxes are also a concern for any homebuyer, but for veterans, there are opportunities to reduce your taxes based on your status as a veteran, combat veteran, VA disability rating, Purple Heart, and more based on where you live.
If you are seeking employment there are points towards employment for honorable service for federal and state positions. Furthermore, many state labor departments have a representative strictly to assist veterans with employment. Many companies have programs to hire veterans and connect with the local labor department. For those who were combat arms, you may have been told you are a grunt and have no skills for civilian employment…bullshit! You managed people and equipment under some of the most extreme conditions, how many civilians can say that. You have developed management and supervisor skills along with the additional training you received. Do not minimize the experience you have. Join LinkedIn and connect with other veterans, connect with recruiters because LinkedIn has free programs for veterans.
What else is out there to support you? There is an endless list of programs available to us no matter what situation we may find ourselves in. Regarding the criminal justice system, many jurisdictions have adopted Veterans Treatment Courts, Veterans Pods in jails, Veterans Traffic Docket in traffic courts, Veterans Legal Clinics at law schools, and Service Animals (dogs and horses) for those diagnosed with certain conditions. You may be eligible for social security disability (along with VA disability) if you truly cannot work. Colleges and universities have Student Veteran Clubs and there is the national Student Veterans of America. Are you seeking scholarship money? Research organizations because there are hundreds out there so look them up and apply. Still looking for more help than join a veteran organization from the American Legion to Team Red, White, and Blue. Join a charity or other non-profit that seeks to assist veterans and service members. There is Semper Fi Fund, Mission 22, Bob Feller Act of Valor Foundation, and so many more.
Your state has benefits as well that vary from state to state. I am currently in New York state where we have property tax exemptions, burial allowance, Gold Star Parent Annuity, Blind Veteran Annuity, EZ Pass for disabled veterans, service credit towards the state retirement system, free peddler’s license, tuition awards, scholarships, hunting and fishing licenses reduced or free, state park admission for free, state vehicle registration waiver, free nursing home, and more. Look into what your state has available. All states should have a Division of Veterans Services/Affairs to provide more state-specific information.
So what is your excuse for not fighting for these benefits you earned? You don’t think you earned them…bullshit! You don’t think you’re deserving of them… bullshit! Go out there and fight for what you earned to protect these benefits for yourself, your brothers and sisters in arms, and future generations of veterans. If you don’t, the government just may cut them.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on February 3, 2020.
Chad Lennon is the Director of the Veterans and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic in New York and a Marine Corps Major in the reserves. He is a former prosecutor and defense attorney who serves as co-chair and committee member on numerous bar association committees and an advisor for the Bob Feller Act of Valor Foundation. An avid martial artist and world record holder for the fastest 1 mile pulling a 400lb chain, he competes to raise awareness and money for the Semper Fi Fund as a Community Athlete.