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

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