I’ve Known You For Five Minutes: Will You Be My Emergency Contact?

It’s almost the first day of school and I’m faced with a stack of registration forms. I have my smartphone with me and slips of paper tucked into my purse with names and addresses. Truth be told, I even need to look up my own mailing address because we just moved and the old address 3,000 miles away is what I recall.

I feel pretty on-top-of-it for putting our new address and phone number into my cell phone. That’s a win. Thankfully, I remembered to print out the pediatrician’s contact information. I have a copy of my son’s birth certificate and feel, for a moment, I’m rocking filling out these registration forms.

Then, comes the tough request: Please provide the name, address and phone number of two local emergency contacts. The emergency contact must be within 25 miles of the school.

Oh, dear. Beads of sweat form above my brow. I nervously glance around the school office and watch the other parents filling out their child’s forms. I look for the tell-tale sign of another military spouse, parent – someone who appears to be stressed by the requirements for a local emergency contact. I’ve only been in town a week. I can’t navigate myself around the base let alone have I had time to meet anyone who might be willing to let me add their name to a form as my child’s emergency contact?

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Why can’t I add my mom’s cell phone number and skip the address part? Because, the receptionist politely handed back the forms to me and said, she understood I may be new to town, however, the school has had more than one occasion where neither parent has been available and they needed to contact someone local – not someone several states away- who could immediately pick up a child. Other well-meaning parents had provided contacts out of the local area and the kid was sent to child protective services.

Fast forward three schools later and I’ve become a pro at spotting a potential emergency contact. Before we move, I check with my network of friends and ask who is the area or knows someone in the area. I exchange emails, Facebook messages, and text messages with people who I have never met screening them as potential emergency contacts. If there is a school event, such as a registration day, I chat nervously with folks in line and try to find someone in my situation – another non-local eager to make friends and willing to be an emergency contact for my child in exchange for me being a contact for her child.

The key, I’ve found, is offering to be a contact for someone else.

I know it can be nerve-wracking to ask a near stranger to be an emergency contact. I find that most moms are relieved when I offer to be a contact for their child as well. After I establish a network in the area, I update the registration emergency contact information. I keep a list in my smartphone and on a virtual drive and make sure each emergency contact has a copy of my list and specific information related to my child. If I’m listed as an emergency contact, I ask the parent for contact information and specifics about their child, just in case.

I remain cordial with emergency contacts and several have become great friends. It turned out there was a flash flood in our local area and another parent couldn’t make it to the school in time to pick up her child. Her spouse was deployed and she didn’t have anyone else in the area. I told her not to worry; I was listed as her emergency contact and my path to the school wasn’t washed out by the flash flood. I was happy to help and she was relieved she didn’t have to worry about her child’s safety.

In our mobile lifestyles, it isn’t uncommon to ask a near stranger to be an emergency contact. What other tips would you offer to military families?

katiePosted by Katie Savant, Government Relations Issue Strategist

The Post-9/11 GI Bill: What Can Spouses Actually Use?

I know, I know. Shouldn’t you save the Post-9/11 GI bill for your kids? Or your spouse? I can’t help you get over the guilt of using your service member’s Post-9/11 GI bill (that’s a private convo for you two to have), but I can tell you how the benefit works if you decided to use it.

There is a lot of confusion about what the benefit provides if a service member is using it, or a veteran, or a spouse, or a child. Remember, the rules vary depending on two factors: (1) who is receiving the benefit and (2) the service member’s active duty status when the benefit is being used (i.e. is your service member on active duty or a veteran?).

How Does it Work?

For a spouse to use a transferred benefit a service member must:

  • Have 6 years of service and agree to serve 4 more;
  • Complete a “Transfer of Education” benefit form; and
  • Be on active duty. (There are no exceptions to this rule.)

The benefits a spouse will receive when using a transferred benefit will depend on whether the spouse uses the benefit while a service member is on active duty or in veteran status.

Spouse beneftis table

A spouse can access the benefit while the service member is on active duty for up to 15 years after service member leaves service. Tuition and fees are covered at the in-state tuition rate at public schools, or a maximum cap at private schools. The private school maximum cap is adjusted annual and as of August 1, 2016 is $21,970.46. A spouse is also eligible to receive a $1,000 book stipend prorated based on enrollment. Keep in mind – if you do not attend full time, you won’t receive the entire $1,000 book stipend.

A new law to be aware of is the Choice Act. Under the Choice Act, public schools may only charge in-state tuition and fees (not the out-of-state rate) to a veteran spouse using the benefit within 3 years of service member leaving active duty. While the Choice Act does not apply to active duty spouses, a spouse of an active duty service member can receive in-state tuition where the service member resides or is permanently stationed, regardless of whether they are using the GI bill.

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The housing allowance is for a veteran spouse only. You can’t access this stipend when the service member is on active duty because the service member already receives a basic allowance for housing. The housing rate is paid at an E-5 with dependents rate for your school’s zip code. To receive the full rate, you must attend more than 50% of the time, and in-person. If you attend online the housing allowance is a flat rate of about $800 per month for the 2016 academic year.

The Yellow Ribbon Program is only open to veteran spouses and is used by select private schools. Schools that participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program agree to pay additional funds to help buy-down the cost of tuition at private schools. This means a student receiving Yellow Ribbon funds, would receive funding beyond the annual private school cap. There are several nuances with the Yellow Ribbon Program. Ask early and ask often – there may only be a limited number of Yellow Ribbon spots. Spots vary by school and degree program. For example, a school may only have 5 graduate student spots, but an unlimited number of undergrad Yellow Ribbon seats.

Are you a military spouse or veteran spouse using the Post-9/11 GI Bill? What other tips would you share with families?

katiePosted by Katie Savant, Government Relations Issue Strategist

Survive and Thrive: San Diego

San Diego, California is America’s amusement park–filled with trails to hike, beaches open to camping enthusiasts, and a fun nightlife. Don’t trust anyone who said they were bored in San Diego because this city will keep you on your toes.

It is one of the few military stations where landlords are willing to negotiate the rent, and rightfully so. San Diego can be expensive, but as long as you know how to budget, this city can be yours.

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Here’s a few tips  about living in San Diego:

Negotiate.
Can’t negotiate or refuse to negotiate? I suggest you tighten your belt and ask your future landlord to negotiate the rent. You must quickly move on from landlords who refuse to budge on the rental. San Diego has a 1% sales market. This means the city has few houses available for sale, making it a rental market.

I was able to negotiate  lower rent with lawn service included! What’s the secret to negotiating? Smile when you bid low. As a renter, the options for rent can be vast, depending on what you’re looking for.

Groceries.
Who needs community supported agriculture when you have community conscious grocery stores like Sprouts, who support local farms with their affordable, abundant and the freshest fruits, vegetables, herbs and legumes.

For my pantry, I shop at the commissary. The commissary has the best quality and prices on their selected meats, poultry and fish. Their birthday cakes are delicious. The best part of the commissary is that they routinely offer bulk items so my pantry was always stocked with the best.

Love ethnic food? San Diego offers the best ethnic grocery stores supporting cuisines from Iran, Korea, Vietnam, India, Japan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Italy, and many more. San Diego’s international grocery stores are the the United Nations of grocery stores!

San Diego is the queen of consignment shops.
You will soon realize that most people in San Diego are fashion forward. Don’t fret if you don’t have the cash to keep up. Just graze the local thrift shops, like Amvet, Goodwill, and independent consignment shops, to see what you can find! I bought all of my swanky ball gowns at the consignment shops on Spring Street in La Mesa.

Side note: get your hair and makeup done at the many salons that cater to Quinceañeras and weddings. You’ll be the envy of the ball!

MWR is the key to the city.
Want to see a play? Concert? Ride the roller coasters? A panda is pregnant at the San Diego Zoo and you like to witness the birth? Want to take a selfie with your favorite princess at Disney? Maybe your team is playing in San Diego? A museum that needs your viewing? Want to tour the wineries in Temecula?

Visit MWR for all of your recreational activities. They have the best deals to movies, plays, concerts, museums, zoo entrance, theme parks and tours. I suggest you also cross reference with the places you like to visit to see who offers the best deal.

Don’t forget to ask everyone about their military discount. Don’t be shy!

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Weather.
Chuck that raincoat. Break the umbrella. Pin all the ways your galoshes can be beautiful planters.

Say hello to constant sunshine. Just like winter, constant sunshine can become depressive, too. To combat depression, make sure you find a healthy activity to keep your mind and body refreshed. I suggest spinning on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado, yoga at Mountain Hawk Park in Chula Vista, or paddle boarding around Mission Bay’s shore.

Make sure you have extra hats, sunscreen, rash guards and light long-sleeved cardigans to shield yourself and your family from the sun.

Social clubs.
San Diego is very social. Voted the best place to host conventions, San Diego thrives on all kinds of enthusiasts, from hikers, to bikers, and Comic Con cos-players. There’s a club to cater your hobby. Check meetup.com to find your new best friend.

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Beaches.
There are several beaches. The best are on the military installations in the San Diego area. My favorite beach was Breakers Beach on Coronado in the North Island Naval base. Breakers offers us a private beach, allowing my kids to roam freely without fearing strangers stealing our stuff or bothering us.

You can camp on Camp Pendleton’s beach, or rent their beach cabins. You can rent boats, paddle boards, and  kayaks at the Marine Corp Recruiting Depot in Point Loma.

I can truly go on forever about all the activities in San Diego but it’s best for me to allow you to explore for yourself. You know you’re home in San Diego when you find your favorite taco and craft beer.

Have you been stationed in San Diego? What did you love about it?

Posted by Fari Bearman, National Military Family Association Volunteer

Dear New Teacher, It’s My Military Child’s First Day of School

Dear New Teacher,

Today my child enters your classroom for the first time in a new school. It might be the first day of the school year, or it might be inconveniently smack-dab in the middle of a grading period. He likely knows no one in his homeroom class, likely no other children in the school.

Every child has a story to tell, and mine is no different. I am hoping to share a bit of his story with you since you will be with him, teaching and guiding him, this year. His story includes attending preschools in three different states. He will be in second grade next year. And he will be preparing to move again to a new school, his third elementary school since Kindergarten.

His daddy deployed to a combat zone when he was very young, and has been home for the past few years. But my son knows what soldiers do. He knows that someday his daddy will likely deploy again to a place he can’t yet find on a map for more days than he can count, for reasons nearly impossible for a child to understand.

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He didn’t choose this life.

But I asked him if he ever wishes that he weren’t a military kid, and he said, “No, why? What would Daddy do if he weren’t in the Army?” You see, this is the only life he knows. He is a happy, resilient, funny, sweet kiddo. I’m so proud of each obstacle he has overcome.

We do have bad days, though. He misses his old friends, our old home, our old church, and our old routines. He occasionally asks when we can go visit our old houses, and the restaurants and parks in a town we used to live in. To be honest, military life is downright difficult sometimes. But this is one thing I’ve learned: military children are so very strong. And so very brave. Military children are resilient. They simply don’t know how to be anything less.

Please keep in contact with me and let me know if he has any difficulties in school during (and after) this transition. The purpose of this letter is not only to inform you of my son’s background but to affirm our family’s commitment to support him, and you, his teacher.

Thank you for answering the call to educate the children of our great nation. What a truly noble and worthy profession you have chosen! Thank you for loving children who aren’t your own, and shaping their lives forever. And thank you for supporting our military-connected child, during yet another transition for him. Because of your support at school and the support of our community, my spouse is able to commit fully to his own calling: serving our country.

Sincerely,
Mama of a Military Child

What would you tell your child’s new teacher? 

teresa-bannerPosted by Teresa Banner, military spouse and NMFA Volunteer

“Go To Your Happy Place,” and Other PCS Lessons Learned Towing a Trailer

PCS season may be winding down for the majority of military families, with schools starting back, and pools getting their last straggling visitors. But for other military families, they’re still on the move! This summer, my family was one of the many leaving one community and arriving in another. We have moved a number of times, but I always learn something when we move.

This time, I learned about driving a vehicle with an attached trailer. My husband handles a majority of the move’s logistics, and this meant he was organizing our partially procured move. One day while I was really busy with a work deadline, a new recipe and maybe giving the dog a bath (not exactly all at the same time…but almost) he asked if I could drive our SUV and pull a trailer behind it during our move.

“Sure!” I said. I was obviously focused on something else. No problem! I didn’t give this another thought until my husband returned from the UHaul place with the trailer. The trailer was larger than I thought it would be. A lot larger. Uh oh!

Image: MovingInsider.com

What do you do when faced with situations like this? You ask another military spouse who has trailer-pulling experience! My good friend told me she towed a sail boat up the East Coast during one of their moves…in the middle of a hurricane! I thought she would certainly have some words of wisdom and comfort that would apply to my current situation.

“If something goes wrong on the road, just go to a happy place and don’t hit the brakes!” she shared.

I was really hoping for more substantial advice, but I honestly needed the laugh more than the actual advice. Thank goodness for good friends. She also told me I could absolutely do this.

The next morning, the trailer was attached to my vehicle and off we went. We were a two vehicle, two trailer caravan of two people and one slightly worried puppy. The dog was with me and may have sensed my “go to a happy place plan.” He is pretty smart.

Along the way I noticed something: I was not alone.

We stopped at several hotels and there were other military families all along our route. There were other military spouses with vehicles packed with children and suitcases and several of them were also driving a vehicle with a trailer. I wasn’t alone! This made me laugh. I looked around and thought, “If they can do this, I can too!

I may have been extremely careful, not ever putting myself in a position to need to go in reverse, but overall, we had a great trip. I was driving fairly intensely with no music in the vehicle, no driving too fast and I had a death grip on the steering wheel…but we arrived safely!

During our move I learned I can drive a vehicle and tow a trailer, if I need to. I absolutely learned I need to listen a bit more intently when we are dividing our move related tasks! I also learned to have a lot more respect for anyone who drives a really large vehicle for a living!

What have you learned during your recent PCS?

Ann HPosted by Ann Hamilton, Volunteer & Community Outreach Manager

Basics of Money We Can Learn From Kids

As part of becoming a personal financial counselor, I had the privilege to teach the financial literacy program, “Money Management” to the Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona Cochise County for two years. I entered this teaching opportunity naively thinking I would teach these young girls about money. Ultimately, these girls reminded me of the basics of money. A subject that we have simply forgotten.

Here are two things you can learn from them too:

What is a need versus a want?
The Girl Scout Brownie Curriculum says a need is something you must have to stay healthy and safe. A want is something you enjoy and want to have, and is not a need.

This was easy subject matter to teach children. They understand they need food to stay healthy and a home to stay warm and safe. However, according a blog called “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans,” adults have forgotten this over time. This blog asked individuals whether they could come up with $2,000 within 30 days for an unanticipated expense. Slightly more than one-quarter could not, and another 19% could do so only if they pawned possessions or took out payday loans.

The conclusion: Nearly half of American adults are financially fragile and living very close to the financial edge. Households are living paycheck to paycheck, or in other words, beyond their means. Have we forgotten this basic concept?

One girl scout’s solution: ask yourself when you go shopping, “Is it a need or a want?” If it’s a want, maybe it can be saved for another day, or perhaps a birthday or holiday gift of some sort. Too often, we fulfill our wants, leaving our needs to be tightly met by a small amount of remaining funds.

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What is a savings account?
According to the Girl Scout Money Management program, a savings account is used to deposit money in a bank and earns interest over time. The purpose of this account is to save money that one does not need for daily use. This account is the easiest account to open because of its simplicity.

When I asked the girls if they owned a piggy bank, all the girls’ hands went up and they described their piggy banks to me. Some owned a butterfly, a frog, and one even owned a hippopotamus. While a piggy bank is not a savings account since it is not growing interest, it teaches children the importance of putting money away for use later. A recent Forbes.com article said 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. This means that families are resorting to charging to a credit card or borrowing funds in order to meet the cost of the unexpected event.

Why do children grasp the concept of money, yet, as adults we decline to follow the very basics of money management? We are the example for our children and yet we allow instant gratification and fulfillment of our wants to get in the way of our savings. Next time you take a look at your shopping list, take a moment to take a step back to basics! We are our children’s most powerful teachers on how they will view and manage money, learn a little from them as they learn a lot from you!

Have you learned any money tips from your kids? Leave us a comment and share it!

Cynthia Giesecke is a candidate for the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE), a Girl Scout Money Management volunteer and part of the “Military Family Matters” blog team for NMFA

Soldier to Civilian: Establishing VA Benefits

My husband, Clay, recently retired after more than 20 years of service in the United States Army. Over the past 20 years of his career, his life was reminiscent to the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere.” He has been stationed, or 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.

Our family’s transition was fairly easy. Clay has 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.

Are you a military family nearing retirement and transition? Do you know a family who is transitioning from active duty to civilian? One thing that can be difficult for some is healthcare in the VA system. So, to help, I wanted to share a list of helpful information for you prior to your transition from the military to civilian life in regards to VA Benefits. Here is my checklist that helped our family:

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  • Document EVERYTHING! 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.  You must approach the VA as if you are the person scrutinizing your own claim.
  • Make copies.  The VA requires a copy of your medical records. If you’ve served one day in the military, you already know paperwork gets lost. Don’t be a statistic. 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. When the military medical system went online, your medical records went digital are are now kept on a secure server. If you’re like my husband and enlisted prior to 2005 (and when medical records went digital), part of your records are 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 the medical records we were keeping. 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!
  • E-Benefits. Each branch of the military as some sort of class that help the service member transition back into civilian life. Part of the Army Career Alumni Program process is establishing an account on E-Benefits. This website allows the service member to track and manage your benefits. You can also establish care at the closest VA medical center through this website. Take time to navigate through the website and familiarize yourself with the information provided – there’s a lot of info!
  • Disability claims. Claim everything. Sore knees? Claim it. Injured your wrist in training? Claim it. 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 representative can help you fill out the paperwork.
  • Service Officer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) 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. And 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.
  • Do not waitGet your medical documents together as soon as possible. When Clay retired, he retired from an assignment in South Korea. The wait time to obtain a copy of his records was about a month. 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.
  • Be prepared. I wish I could tell you why the VA approves and denies claims. I’m as confused concerning the approvals and denials of benefits, too. 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 VFW Service Officer to assist you in the claims process. Continue to ask questions as they arise and research on your own.
  • Be patient. The process 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 in a few other states. The point I’m trying to make is to be patient. Monitor the process through E-Benefits. You can call the VA everyday, 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.
  • VA Appointments. When your service member is retiring, they will receive a call from the VA to schedule their VA appointment prior to their official retirement date. Ensure the service member’s 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. Be prepared for the appointment to last at least 2 hours. Your service member will be asked a plethora of questions and will be checked physically from head to toe. If your service member is claiming a mental disability claim, they will also be seen by a psychologist or licensed therapist. If a service member is not retiring, the process is the same, but the appointments may or may not occur prior to your official retirement date.

I hope this list assists your family during the transition process. Reach out to other veterans to learn from their experiences and visit your local VFW. The guys and gals in the VFW are loaded with helpful information.

Do you have any helpful tips for other transitioning military families? Share them with us!

laura-prater-headshotPosted by Laura Prater, National Military Family Association Volunteer and blogger at Raising Soldiers 4 Christ