I’m going to talk about my husband as a soldier to civilian. My husband, Clay, retired after 20+ years of service in the United States Army. Over the past 20 years of his career, his life was reminiscent of the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere.” Clay PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station – military lingo for pack up and move because the Army said so) from one side of the country to the other, literally. He has been stationed or has trained on just about every military installation in the continental United States, not to mention assignments in South Korea and Germany. Oh, and there were the deployments, training exercises, and more deployments to a handful of countries around the world. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I wanted to share with you a piece – a checklist if you will – of helpful information for you prior to your transition from the military to a civilian in regards to VA Benefits. This transition comes easy for some, but difficult for others. Some of the information I provide you may already know. However, my hope is that this information will benefit you.
These items I list are in no order of importance. Please disregard the line item numbers. This is to help me stay the course and provide streamlined information as accurately as possible.
Soldier to Civilian – Checklist for Establishing VA Medical Benefits
Here is my Checklist for going from a soldier to civilian:
I don’t care how minor the issue, go to sick call, and get it documented. When you begin your transition, the VA requires a copy (digital or hard copy) of your medical records. It’s difficult to claim a disability when you’ve never gone to a doctor or physician and had it documented. I say it’s difficult because it’s not impossible; it’s highly unlikely. You must approach the VA as if you are the person scrutinizing your own claim. Having said that, document everything!
As mentioned above, the VA requires a copy of your medical records. It behooves you to make a copy of the records. If you’ve served one day in the military then you already know paperwork gets lost. Don’t be a statistic and do yourself a favor by making copies. In the event you need to file an appeal with the VA, you will need those records. Never give your only copy away. Also, around 2005 (give or take a year or two), the military medical system went online. That means your medical records are on an online medical system server. If you’re like my husband and enlisted prior to 2005, part of your records is hard copies. Worse yet, he spent four years of his military career as a recruiter. That means he had medical records from a civilian doctor. What we found out was that the military medical system frowned upon civilian records. For example, he was stationed at Fort Bliss, TX, after recruiting. When we left Fort Bliss, all Clay’s civilian medical records were missing. Luckily, he had made copies and inserted them back into his medical jacket. However, every time we PCS’d, the same happened to his civilian medical records. If you remember nothing else from reading this, remember this: MAKE COPIES!
Each branch of the military as some sort of ACAP (classes that help the service member transition back into civilian life). Part of the ACAP process is establishing an account on E-Benefits. The website is https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/homepage. This website allows you (the service member) to track and manage your benefits. You can also establish care at the closest VA medical center through this website. There is a lot of information provided. Please take the time to navigate through the website and familiarize yourself with the information provided.
Claim everything. Sore knees? Claim. Injured your wrist in training? Claim. You can not get approved a disability claim unless you claim a disability. Do not be shy, timid, or think the claim “isn’t that bad.” If you have had an issue with your health (physical or mental) caused by your service, or the underlying condition could become worse as time goes along, claim the disability. Your VA reps can help you fill out the paperwork.
The VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) offers assistance when filing VA claims. The claims process can be confusing and one that service members and veterans shouldn’t try to navigate alone. VFW Service Officers are trained experts, helping veterans develop their case with ease by reviewing and applying current law, pertinent legislation, regulations, and medical histories. As skilled professionals, they assist in filing for disability compensation, rehabilitation and education programs, pension and death benefits, and employment and training programs. Furthermore, they won’t hesitate to request hearings before the VA and the Board of Veterans Appeals to present oral arguments when needed. This is a service the VFW is proud to offer–free of charge–to anyone seeking assistance with the claims process. You will also have at your disposal a Veteran Service Officer (VSO) in your county. They are also a great benefit to have when filing for disability. They are also trained experts, helping veterans develop their case. Other organizations you can find Service Officers are DAV (Disabled American Veterans), American Legion, and AMVETS, just to name a few.
Do not wait!
Get your medical documents together as soon as possible. Clay’s last duty assignment was South Korea. The wait time to obtain a copy of his records was about two months. If you wait until the last minute, there could be a delay, or worse, a denial of benefits. Get seen by medical professionals, get your concerns documented, and request the records with ample time to spare.
I wish I could tell you the rhyme or reason why the VA approves and denies claims. Frankly, I’m as confused concerning the approvals and denials of benefits as you may very well be. Having said that, be prepared to appeal. Chances are you may not have to appeal; however, be prepared to appeal. It’s always better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Keep copies of your medical records secure. The copies that will be provided to you will more than likely be digital copies. Continue to monitor, manage, and track the VA claims process through E-Benefits. Don’t hesitate to contact a Veterans Service Officer to assist you in the claims process. Continue to ask questions as they arise and research on your own. There is a wealth of information that service members like yourself have shared in forums and social media groups. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a military buddy who has retired.
The process to go from a soldier to a civilian could take up to 6 months before you receive your disability rating. There is absolutely nothing you can do to speed along the process. Every VA area is different in regards to timing. We decided to retire in Tennessee. The wait time for Clay’s disability rating was a lot quicker than most of our friends who retired in other states, yet slower than a few other states. The point I’m trying to make is to be patient. Monitor the process through E-Benefits. You can call every day, but it makes no difference. When the VA gets to you, they will get to you. Remember there are hundreds of other service members who are going through the same process as you. Be patient.
If you are retiring, you will receive a call from the VA to schedule your VA appointment prior to your official retirement date. Ensure your information is up-to-date with the VA through the E-Benefits website. Whatever phone number you designate as your point of contact, try to keep it until your appointments are complete. The last thing you want is a missed call or missed appointment. These appointments will take place at the nearest VA medical facility. You will also receive a small travel reimbursement for the mileage it takes to drive there. Travel reimbursement forms are available at the VA medical facility. Be prepared for the appointment to last at least 2 hours. You will be asked a plethora of questions and will be checked physically from head to toe. If you are claiming a mental disability claim, you will also be seen by a psychologist or licensed therapist. If you are not retiring, the process is the same, but the appointments may or may not occur prior to your official ETS date.
Our transition was fairly easy. Clay was blessed with a tremendous VA staff while undergoing this process in South Korea. He was shown how to properly complete the paperwork and they handled his case with the utmost importance. Unfortunately, not all service members receive the same care in this process. I hope my “Checklist” aids you in your claims process. Reach out to other veterans and visit your local VFW. The guys and gals in the VFW are loaded with helpful information. The DAV, American Legion, AMVETS, and local VSO’s are available as well.
Hopefully, this helped you understand more of the details of what happens when you transition from a soldier to civilian.
Good luck and God speed.