Thousands of people, both young and old, have been galvanized to take to the streets with signs, to march in solidarity in the name of various important social issues, but sadly, nobody is marching to protect our veterans, or to guaranty them the safe and comfortable future they have so rightfully earned through their selfless service and sacrifice.
It is indeed tragic, and unforgiveable that approximately 50,000 veterans are homeless and living on the streets. This number represents close to 10% of the entire U.S. homeless population. Additionally, as of 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) estimates that 722,000 veterans were unemployed and unable to find a job in the civilian marketplace. Finally, as of 2014, almost 3.8 million veterans possessed a service-connected disability (1.1 million have a disability rating of 70 or higher out of 100) and are in desperate need of medical and/or physiological care, economic and vocational assistance.
While every citizen should feel the obligation to do a better job of helping our veterans reintegrate into society, veterans must also take on the personal responsibility to help themselves, as well as their fellow brothers and sisters. Perhaps the most important first step toward realizing independence and success after separation from service and in the transition to civilian life is the knowledge and understanding of the programs, services and benefits available to assist veterans who have been discharged under honorable conditions. While it may be true that wading through all of the information, rules and requirements can be challenging, complicated and confusing, as a veteran, you have been trained to be self-reliant. You have been taught to be resourceful. You have been drilled to adapt and overcome. You may have once used this training and skill to survive and prevail on chaotic battlefields, but now, as a civilian, you must also use the same lessons to work for you in a number of different ways.
Utilizing your veterans’ benefits will assist you in creating a solid post-service foundation for success and wellness. However, you must first understand what benefits exist, and whether your service qualifies you to obtain them.
Remember, you’ve served your Country honorably. Now that you have separated from service, you may be entitled to take advantage of significant benefits and assistance. Learn about your rights now and make sure to take use of each and every benefit to the fullest extent possible. These valuable benefits exist to help you, and your service to our great Nation has paid for those benefits in full. Use them, you’ve earned it!
WHAT BENEFITS ARE AVAILABLE?
The VA administers the many programs of benefits and compensation schemes afforded under the United States Code, Title 38. These benefits are arranged into several categories and include, among other things:
- compensation for service-connected disabilities or death (Part II, Chapter 11, § 1101 to 1163);
- Dependency and indemnity compensation for service-connected deaths (Part II, Chapter 13, § 1301 to 1323);
- Pensions for non-service-connected disability or death or for service (Part II, Chapter 15, § 1501 to 1562);
- Hospital, nursing home, domiciliary and medical care (Part II, Chapter 17, § 1701 to 1787);
- Insurance (Part II, Chapter 19, § 1901 to 1988);
- Benefits for Homeless veterans (Part II, Chapter 20, § 2001 to 2067);
- Specially adapted housing for disabled veterans (Part II, Chapter 21, § 2101 to 2109);
- Burial benefits (Part II, Chapter 23, § 2301 to 2308).
Other programs and services administered by the VA include, but are not limited to: (i) vocational rehabilitation and employment services to help with job training, employment accommodations, resume development and job seeking skills coaching; (ii) home loan guaranty benefits to help veterans and eligible surviving spouses buy, build, repair, retain, or adapt a home for personal occupancy; and (iii) VA education and training benefits, including the post-9/11 GI Bill. These benefits provide tuition and fee payments directly to the education institution, monthly housing allowance and a books and supplies stipend.
As you can see, the VA administers a very broad range of benefits, programs and services that can be of great help in learning a trade, obtaining an education, buying a home and protecting your family with insurance and healthcare. Once you have identified the benefits you need, you must next determine the extent of your eligibility.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I QUALIFY?
Basic eligibility for VA benefits depends upon the type of military service performed, the duration of the service, and the character of discharge or separation. The VA looks at the “character of discharge” to determine whether a person meets the basic eligibility requirements for receipt of VA benefits under Title 38 of the United States Code. Any discharge under honorable conditions satisfies the character of discharge requirement for basic eligibility for VA benefits (for instance, honorable, under honorable conditions, general).
On the other hand, certain types of discharges, along with the circumstances surrounding those discharges, bar an individual from basic eligibility for VA benefits (for instance, bad conduct, other than honorable, dishonorable). Under Federal law (38 U.S.C. § 5303), a release or discharge for any of the following reasons constitutes a statutory bar to benefits, unless it is determined that the Service member was insane at the time he/she committed the offense that resulted in the discharge:
- sentence of a general court-martial;
- being a conscientious objector who refused to perform military duty, wear the uniform, or otherwise comply with lawful orders of competent military authority;
- resignation by an officer for the good of the service;
- absence without official leave (AWOL) for a continuous period of 180 days or more, without compelling circumstances to warrant such prolonged unauthorized absence (as determined by VA); or
- requesting release from service as an alien during a period of hostilities.
This means that if an individual is discharged for any of the above reasons, the law prohibits the VA from providing any benefits.
Other types of discharges require the VA to make a character of discharge determination in order to assess basic eligibility for VA benefits. The VA does not consider character of discharge until it receives a claim for benefits. A claim for benefits may be in the form of a request for medical treatment received at a VA medical facility, or it may be an application for compensation or pension received at a VA regional office. The VA cannot make a final decision regarding entitlement to benefits until the character of discharge issue is resolved. In rendering a character of discharge determination, the VA will review military service records, including the facts and circumstances leading to the discharge and will look to a number of factors, including but not limited to:
- any mitigating or extenuating circumstances presented by the claimant;
- any supporting evidence provided by third parties who were familiar with the circumstances surrounding the incident(s) in question;
- length of service;
- performance and accomplishments during service;
- nature of the infraction(s), and
- character of service preceding the incident(s) resulting in the discharge.
Once the VA has made a decision on a claim, it will mail a letter to the veteran and the veteran’s representative, if any, indicating whether the claim has been granted or denied. If you are dissatisfied with the decision, you will have a right to file an appeal (called a Notice of Disagreement, or NOD). The submission of a NOD is a very important first step to any appeal, which overall, can be a long, complicated and confusing process. Depending on the benefits you are seeking, and the basis for your appeal, you may wish to consult with an attorney who specializes in veterans affairs and benefit issues. The right attorney can assist you with filling out forms and explain the best way to present your case.
Our nation owes a true debt of gratitude to military members, veterans and their families. As a veteran, you willingly put yourself in harm’s way in order to protect the freedoms and liberty we all hold so dear. Too often, our society fails to do enough to protect our veterans when they come home from perhaps years of service abroad. As a consequence, veterans must carry on independently, as they always have historically, as the guarantors of their own rights. As noted above, the most important first step is awareness of the unique opportunities and benefits made available to veterans as thanks and reward for honorable service.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Craig H. Handler, Esq. is a Judge Advocate assigned to the 7th Legal Support Detachment, 88th Brigade, New York Army Guard. Mr. Handler presently holds the rank of Captain, and is honored to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with their legal needs.
For more information, go to: https://www.va.gov