In order to access the most from the VA and your military benefits, first you must have a plan. Ask yourself where you want to be in a few years, what you are hoping to gain, what hurdles you are currently facing as well as ones that may come up. Think big picture as you start to piece together how you see everything fitting together. This is a good time to start gathering all the documents you will need in order to pursue ANYTHING from the VA. I’ll get into more details later in this article.
I realize most people have already done this. However, some of us are results driven and want immediate results. Starting to think about how you would like to see yourself in a few years helps in becoming comfortable with the fact, this isn’t something that will happen overnight and unless you are properly prepared, could take much longer. This will be a marathon, not a sprint and the sooner you accept that, the more realistic your expectations will be regarding the process. Over the past year, the VA has put quite a bit of effort into streamlining the process of accessing benefits. Claims have traditionally taken six months to even be looked at. Now, the time is around 30-60 days, which has been great in comparison. When your entire “life plan” revolves around a claim’s decision, a few months makes a huge difference. A good timeframe to expect to see some progress is about 3-4 months. I too, wish it could be sooner, but there is just no way around it. Unless, you are willing to accept that – you will be constantly frustrated and more likely to give up. Try to remember these benefits are YOURS and if you don’t pursue them, they will not pursue you. Don’t give up or you will only hurt yourself. Are you ready to get started? If not, go back and read the first part again, and again until you are.
The two main takeaways from this post will be 1) How to start planning for what you want from the VA and 2) How to gather the documents you will need.
First, let’s get into what you would like from the VA. The VA has tons of benefits for disabled vets. From complete and total retraining (Vocational Rehabilitation) to grants for home modifications and adaptive vehicles, to healthcare for you and your family. There is a plethora of items available. My suggestion would be to visit the following site: https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/learn. This site will give you a good understanding of all the programs available to you as a disabled veteran. You will certainly have access to at least some of them. As with anything else, there will be programs you are simply not entitled to, so keep that in mind when reviewing it. However, reviewing the contents will help in determining what you would like from the VA and how it “could” possibly help. Another good strategy is looking into what careers might interest you. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/ will show you what current job markets are like, what careers are good to get into, what is involved to become trained for those positions, the typical work day, etc . . . Be sure to pay attention to the career growth percentage over the 5-10 years. If you need schooling, you must realize you won’t be entering that job market for another 4-5 years, so you want to make sure what you choose will still be relevant, if schooling is your goal. If school is important to you, I would suggest contacting the VA department at the closest community college to you. Try to stay away from job specific trade schools. You can earn a more robust and acceptable degree with a community college than you can with most of those “quick” programs. Community colleges usually have an entire department dedicated to helping veterans. Send an email if you don’t have access to going there in person or just call them. You might have to wait for a return call, but at least take the time to make the contact. It will pay off in the long run and from what I have experienced, the people in these schools have been great in their efforts. Next, I would suggest finding the closest VA healthcare facility. You will, no doubt, be required to go there for at least a few appointments. Knowing where it is and visiting the facility is a good step to take. The often have information desks that can answer a TON of questions and help get you information about the process.
Next is gathering the required documentation needed for any claim/benefit application. The DD-214 is essentially, your lifeline to everything. I spent years tracking mine down and finally, by dumb luck I was able to speak with someone who had access to a saved copy of it in their system. If you don’t have a copy of yours, get one and don’t stop until you do. Without it, you are at a dead stop. If you do have a copy of yours, save it somewhere safe. Digitize it, save it in the cloud, put it in the freezer, bury it, buy a safe for it, get a dog to guard it, whatever you must do in order to never lose it. It is HELL to try and get a copy of it. I still think it may be intentionally hard to acquire considering so much depends on it, but without it you are screwed. If you have access to your medical records, great! You are already one step ahead. If not, it’s not mandatory, but you might want to try and access it. That is really the only document you need in order to get the ball rolling.
Next week, I’ll get into how to begin and submit your application for some of the most popular benefits as well as how to structure everything in order to ensure you don’t waste an excessive amount of time. Until then, enjoy looking into what benefits are available to you and how you see yourself in a few years.