The little things, part 3: Dental insurance. Who knew?

A few posts ago I addressed the need to sign up for health coverage now that I have crossed over into the land of the transitioned.  It also left you, the constant reader, hanging on the edge of your seat to find out just what I would do for dental insurance.  The suspense must be killing you, so I’ll get straight to it.

TRICARE offers dental coverage, but it is under the moniker Delta Dental.  I don’t know why they call it that, but they do.  At any rate, the Delta Dental program is pretty much the same on active duty and when retired, with the principle difference being that now the retiree has to pay for it.  Before transitioning, dental care was the same as medical care – all you needed to do was go to the dental clinic and you were taken care of.  Your family, on the other hand, needed to be covered by Delta Dental in a similar manner to how they were covered by TRICARE, so it isn’t that much of a change for them if they were using the plan already.  It is a bit of a change, however, if they weren’t.  In case your family has not been using the dental plan or in case you are moving to a new home, you will have to follow the same protocol as TRICARE enrollment and find an in-plan dentist.

The decision to enroll is time sensitive, because if you wait too long there are some significant ramifications to your coverage in the form of limited coverage.  If you enroll within four months (120 days) of your retirement date then the entire range of treatments are covered (with varying deductibles and whatnot) immediately.  If not, you have to wait a year (365 days) for some expensive little things like crowns and bridges and implants and orthodontic work.  Hmmm….you say.  I don’t need braces, so maybe I’ll just roll the bones and wait to enroll until I really need dental care.  Maybe that works for you, but what about the kids?  Your decision to delay enrollment may seriously impact their ability to get orthodontic work, or more likely it will seriously impact your wallet when you find that they won’t be covered for a year because you chose not to enroll.  Probably a good idea to go ahead and sign up!

The cost is pretty reasonable, and the coverage is competitive with other dental plans.  For an individual the cost is around $45.oo per month, and for a family of four it is around $150.00 or so.  The actual rates vary by location, but these are good ballpark figures to work with.

Here is what your hard earned money gets for you:

Exams and cleanings are fully covered.

Fillings are 80/20 (meaning that Delta Dental covers 80% and you pay 20%)

Endodontics, Periodontics & Oral Surgery (root canals, gum treatment & extractions) are 60/40

Dental Accident Coverage is 100/0

Cast Crowns & Onlays, Bridges, Dentures, Implants, Orthodontics are 50/50

Deductible: $50 per person, $150 cap per family, per benefit year (Oct 1 – Sep 3o)

Maximum: $1,200 per person, per benefit year

Dental Accident Maximum: $1,000 per person, per benefit year

Orthodontic Maximum: $1,500 per person, per lifetime (good for kids with crooked teeth!)

You can check out all of the ins and outs of Delta Dental at their website.  Here is a link to a very informative pamphlet that explains the plan in much greater detail:

To get started, you must pay the first two months’ premiums up front, and you can enroll by mail, online, or by telephone.  Very convenient!  It helps if you ask the dentist that you would like to use if he or she is in the network, before enrolling.  It will make things a lot simpler because then you don’t have to play “find the dentist”.  Ask around – everyone has a dentist they like, and if your friends are former military then the odds are that they are using an in-plan provider.

So get out and find a dentist – and get moving quickly if you want to ensure immediate full coverage for you and your family.  Don’t wait for a filling to fall out or for a tooth to start aching- if you do then you will be out a lot of money that you could have saved with a phonecall and a few minutes of your time!


Lessons Learned:

1.  You are not automatically covered with a dental plan when you transition.  It is not lumped in with the TRICARE medical plan, but instead is a separate and distinct insurance product.  You need to sign up for Delta Dental just like you did for TRICARE.

2.  Time matters.  If you miss the 120 day window you are assuming some risk that can end up being very expensive should you need emergency care or braces for the kids.  Preventive care is free, so don’t wait for your teeth to start falling out!

3.  Ask around.  People generally like their dentists and are happy to share who they are.  A quick call to their office will let you know if they participate in Delta Dental (and in my experience most of them do). Once you enroll, a stop by the office with your documentation will get you into the dentist’s system and set you up for your first post-service appointment.


Networking and the MEA

The other night I had the opportunity to attend a Marine Executive Association (MEA)-West meeting.  What is the MEA, you ask?  I’m glad you did, because it is a great resource for transitioning servicemen and women because it leads to something we all need: jobs.

The MEA is a networking organization where people like me who are leaving the service can meet others who are transitioning as well as business people who need quality people to join their organizations.  It is informal (after all, the only rank anyone has after they get out is “Marine”) and informative, because most of transitioning military types really don’t know that much about civilian employment.

Here is the writeup about the association from their website (

“The Marine Executive Association is a national, volunteer, non-profit organization of former and current active duty Marines who provide assistance to Marines transitioning from active duty to reserve/retired status, leaving the Corps at the end of obligated service or moving from one civilian career/job to another. Transition assistance includes: Resume review; Job hunting and interview tips and techniques; Job posting by employers to the MEA web site; Resume posting by Marines for employer download; and resume and interview coaching by volunteer Marine. The MEA provides a weekly E-Mail list of all jobs that have been posted during the previous week and resumes posted for employer download, review and screening.”

The association is open to all services, and in the most recent meeting that I attended there were Air Force, Army, and Navy vets there too.  Transition is the great equalizer and now that we all dress the same we share the same concerns and have the same need for employment, so the inter-service rivalry goes right out the window.  We’re all in the same boat now.

The meetings are monthly occurrences.  On the third Wednesday of the month the attendees gather to socialize and have a drink at Iron Mike’s, which is the Staff Noncommissioned Officer’s club located in Camp Pentleton’s South Mesa events center.  After a half hour or so, we all migrate over to a meeting room where a guest speaker will talk to the crowd about what it’s like on the other side of the fence.  Our speaker for the last meeting was Kim Shepherd, the Chief Executive Officer of the Alfred P. Sloan award winning placement firm Decision Toolbox.  She gave us tremendous insights into the business world, with a strong emphasis on how to evaluate yourself in order to find what you are really interested in doing in your next career.  Kim was followed by a group of business leaders from the Los Angeles area who are interested in helping veterans learn more about the business world.  They are a group of great Americans who want to help vets find jobs, and they shared some great ideas and recommendations to help veterans make it from job seeker to job finder.

One of the great aspects of MEA meetings is that we get to hear about the corporate sector from corporate professionals, and the insights that they give are priceless.  It isn’t every day that an industry leader takes the time to mentor a pool of job seekers, but it happens at the MEA.  Research has shown that roughly 80% of jobs are found through networking – so getting to know people is certainly in your best interest as you transition!

After the guest speakers are finished we all introduce ourselves.  This is a chance to give your “elevator pitch”, which is a thirty to sixty second sound bite about yourself and what you are looking for.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and by standing up in front of a room full of people it gives you a little practice.  It also lets the employers in the room know if you are someone that fits their needs, and I have personally witnessed vets get job interviews on the spot after the introductions are finished; such is the power of networking!

The introductions are the last part of the structured meeting.  Once they are completed the formal part of the meeting is done it is a little like a high school dance as job seekers work their way across the room to meet up with businesspeople who have pitched the opportunities available in their organizations.  It is also when old friends catch up and new friendships are forged, or in other words, the networking tree grows a little stronger and new branches sprout.

It is a great opportunity to get out there and see what the job market is like.  Once you get plugged into MEA-West, you can begin receiving emails from the head of the organization.  He sends out dozens of emails each week, and each one contains anywhere from one to ten or twenty job opportunities.  Many of these opportunities are first listed in Steve’s emails, and a lot of veterans have found employment through the MEA.  One former Marine who left active duty in the 1990s shared that every job he has taken since taking off his uniform has been through MEA-West networking, and he is far from alone.  Even in this tough employment market there are jobs out there.  Networking with the MEA will help you find them, so find out where and when the next meeting goes and belly up to the bar!


Lessons Learned:

1.  Networking works.  In today’s economic uncertainty there are literally millions of resumes flying around, and the stories about people who have submitted hundreds or thousands of resumes without finding a job are constantly in the news.  The vast majority of employment opportunities are found through someone you know, so increase your chances by getting out there and meeting people.

2.  Help yourself as you network.  If you don’t have personalized business cards yet, then get some printed up.  I personally recommend that you go to a stationary shop and have a set professionally done with only your name and contact information printed on the card.  This is for two reasons: first, you are looking for a job, and it is not the best idea to use the card from your current job to find a new one and second, handing a professional looking and feeling card with your name, phone number, and email address saves both you and the person you are interacting with from writing that info down on a cocktail napkin.  Anybody can print out a flimsy card on their computer, but remember that the first impression is the most important.  Do you want to be remembered as the cheapskate with homemade cards or the kind of person who puts some effort into finding a job?

3.  Carry a resume.  I will write a lot in the future about how to prepare a resume, but attending a networking meeting without your resume (and personalized business cards) is a bit like going to a nightclub in your pajamas – sure, you’re there but you aren’t really ready to participate.  Many employers are looking to immediately fill positions, and the guy or gal with a resume will get the job before the one who doesn’t.  Don’t be that person with empty hands when an employer asks for your resume!

4.  There are countless networking organizations out there.  MEA is just one, but there are commensurate organizations for all branches of the armed forces, for federal employees, civic organizations, etc.  They are all tremendous resources that you can tap for free, and you will certainly meet some great people along the way that will help you along the path to employment.


Yesterday was a big day.  In December I wrote about running, or more specifically how running is important to my sanity as well as being critical in my desire to eat more pizza than salad.  At the end of the post I asked for help raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society as I prepared to run the Carlsbad Half Marathon.  There was a great response, and I was able to meet my fundraising goal –  so a special shout-out goes to my Mom, Royce, Dan, Ron, Linda, Lee and Valerie for their generosity.  It was a great motivator to get out and pound the pavement for a couple of hours on a Sunday morning!

The race went well.  It wasn’t too cold, and a gossamer veil of clouds kept the sun from baking us as it rose.  It was really a great experience to join up with 8,500 or so new friends and go for a genteel run along the coast.  There were bands playing and lots of volunteers handing out water and sports drinks and snacks and whatnot, and the overall feel of the race was really positive.  We started off after a Camp Pendleton Marine sang the National Anthem (and she did a great job!), and it was heartening to see so many people having such a great time.

The course is an out-and-back, which means that you run out to a turnaround point and then head back to the finish line – which is right back where you started (as opposed to several other races, like the La Jolla or America’s Finest City half marathons that start in one place and run to another).  It was very humbling to see wheelchair competitors coming back the other way; it really puts your life into perspective when you see someone with no legs peddling their racing wheelchair like mad and doing something so incredibly positive.  It really makes so many of the problems in life seem petty and small and it also shows the strength of the human soul.

Not far behind the wheelchair competitors came the “Elite Runners”.  These people are more cheetah than human because they were running faster after ten miles than I could in a dead sprint on my best day.  Good for them!   Fortunately, they had nothing to fear from me, except maybe a wrestling match over gatorade at the finish line if they were still hanging around.  They are all pretty skinny, so I think I could take them…

As with all half marathons there were all kinds of people there – kids, grandparents, and everyone in between.  I saw several people I knew lining up to race and even more in the crowd that cheered us on.  I would especially like to thank the lovely ladies in spandex and purple tops for taking my mind off the pain in my feet by giving me something to concentrate on as I ran.  Thanks, ladies!

So thank you all for your support in my efforts to raise money for a worthy cause and continue to maintain my sanity – I really appreciate it, and so does the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society!

The little things, part 2: Health insurance. Who knew?

As a uniformed member of the U. S. Armed Forces I have been very fortunate when it comes to health care.  No matter what malady I came down with or injury I suffered medical services were always there, and they were always free.  Everything is covered, from bullet wounds to brain surgery to chipped teeth.  Pretty nice benefit to have, particularly considering the occupational hazards that come with fighting our nation’s wars.

I have never had to really think of healthcare as something outside the purview of my job, but with my transition from active duty to retirement it rose in prominence from “interesting” to “important”.  The need to obtain health coverage was discussed at the various transition briefs, but I didn’t really pay close attention because the actual date of my reintroduction to the civilian world seemed so distant.  Time passed, though, and before I knew it my EAS was just around the corner.  So, after spending some time rooting through the enormous pile of transition related pamphlets, booklets, and notes that I had amassed over the last few months I found what I was looking for: a handout from the TAP/TAMP class that had “TRICARE: Transitioning from Active Duty to Retirement” emblazoned across the top.


I read the handout, and it had just enough information to point me in the right direction so that I could find a real person to explain it all to me.  In my case, that person is a very nice lady who works on the 6th floor of the Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital, and she took pity on my when I showed up in front of her counter in my quest to ensure that I didn’t enter civilian life unprepared and uninsured.

She also educated me on the ins and outs of health insurance.  It turns out that there are several different insurance products that I could choose, and each had advantages and disadvantages when compared to the others.  Although I am eligible for healthcare through the Veterans Administration, my family isn’t.  Needless to say taking care of myself and not my family is a non-starter, so I had some decisions to make.

The first decision was which level of TRICARE did I want?  There are three basic levels.  As a retiree my family and I are automatically enrolled and covered in two plans:  TRICARE Standard and TRICARE Extra.  These plans don’t have monthly or annual fees, but instead are pay as you go, or “cost for use” plans, so although they are free if you never use them, it can get expensive if you need medical care.  The difference between the two plans is based on providers; for Standard you can be seen my doctors outside the network, but you pay higher cost shares than Extra, in which you select providers within the network and receive a discount.  Here is a link to a TRICARE flyer that gives much more information on the programs:

The other available product is TRICARE Prime.  For Prime you have to enroll and pay an annual fee of $520 a year, which seems like a lot when compared to the free healthcare options is incredibly inexpensive when compared to what people in the private sector have to pay for similar coverage.  That said, it is a benefit that military types have earned it the hard way through at least twenty years of service, a lot of which is hard on the body.  As a result, many retirees have conditions (such as combat wounds, partial deafness, and early onset osteoarthritis for example) that could be classified as “pre-existing conditions” and limit accessibility to a new healthcare provider.  So it all works out.  Here is a link to another flyer that has information on all of the available TRICARE options (of which there are a lot more than I cover in this post):

I made my decision.  Prime it would be.  As with all things governmental, though, there are a few wickets to hit in order to enroll.  The first and most important is that you must enroll before your last day in the service in order to avoid any gaps in coverage.  If you don’t seek out the TRICARE office, fill out the paperwork, and give them a check before your retirement date your level of coverage defaults to Standard or Prime.  It can be quite a risk because the potential costs associated with care of you and your family can be staggering should something happen when you are not covered by Prime.  If you don’t get around to enrolling, however, don’t despair.  You can still sign up, but you will have to wait until the next month for coverage to start.  TRICARE follows what is known as the “20th of the month” rule, which means that as long as you enroll by the 20th of the current month your coverage will begin on the 1st day of the next month.  Wait until the 21st, however, and your coverage begins on the 1st of the following month.  Needless to say, it behooves you to sign up before you get out.

There are several factors to consider when you sign up for TRICARE Prime.  As a Marine I never had to select a doctor; all I had to do was go to the Aid Station or hospital and I would be taken care of.  As a retiree, however, the option of wandering into a Regimental Aid Station to be seen evaporated.  I needed to determine who my doctor would be.

Noting my puzzled expression, the very nice TRICARE administrator talked me through the process of selecting a provider: first, she checked to see if there was a clinic within 30 minutes of my home.  If there was a clinic, then that is where I would go for care.  It turns out there was a clinic, but she quickly determined that its patient load was full, so I would have to find another provider.  She printed out a list of possibilities (including pediatricians), and after a quick telephone conversation with my spouse we picked providers.  This step is particularly important for retirees who are moving to a new home because they may or may not have access to a clinic or even a TRICARE provider.  For those moving back to the country or out of the country (because TRICARE is administered differently overseas) make sure to surf through the TRICARE website to see what options pertain to your situation:

So, after about a half hour with the most helpful and cheerful TRICARE administrator I had completed the application process.  She typed my information into her computer and presented me with a filled-in application which I reviewed and signed.  I handed it back along with a check for $130.00 to cover the first quarterly premium.  She gave me some advice, too.  “Call the TRICARE toll free telephone number in about a month,” she said, “to confirm that you are enrolled and that they received your payment.  If you don’t double check and something doesn’t go through you are not covered.  So do yourself a favor and double check!”

Sound advice.  She had obviously been around government agencies for a while.

So off I went, happy as a clam.  And then I remembered that there didn’t seem to be anything about teeth in the flyer.  Hmmm…

Sure enough, another lesson!  Medical care is different than dental care, so if I wanted my family and I to have dental coverage, I would have to apply for that, too.  And pay for it.  Retirement is getting expensive!


Lessons Learned:

1.  Do some research.  There is always a table piled high with flyers and pamphlets at transition courses and seminars, so do yourself a favor and grab one of eveything that is available.  Then, over a cup of coffee or a cocktail, sort it all out and file it away because you never know when one of those bits of paper will prove worth its weight in gold.  For me, it was the TRICARE transition flyer because it was like the Rosetta Stone of post-service healthcare.  It gave me the basic information I needed to find the right people and ensure that my family and I were covered.  The internet is great, having a sheet of paper with all the info you need precludes frantic Google searches.

2.  Don’t let your retirement date pass without enrolling in TRICARE Prime or you are taking a serious risk.  Even if you don’t want Prime, find out where your base TRICARE office is and sit down with one of the helpful administrators – they are pros who will make sure you fully understand what you are entitled to as well as what the various programs offer.

3.  If you are moving then it behooves you to closely examine which option pertains to you.  This is particularly important for those going overseas because it gets complicated very quickly.  So, if you are headed back to the family homestead on the great plains or the mountains of Tibet make sure to get all of your questions answered before you pull chocks and hit the road – TRICARE administrators are difficult to find at the base of Mount Everest.

4.  Talk it over with your family.  They get a vote.  Healthcare is a big deal; indeed a much bigger deal than I had thought.  Make sure you make the best decision for you and your family that you can.

The little things, part 1: A new ID card

So it had finally happened.  The big day had arrived and I found myself suddenly thrust back out into the real world.  Crossing the threshold of transition is more than just metaphorical, however.  There are still quite a few things that have to be accomplished before the process of becoming a civilian again is complete.

One important “little thing” is obtaining the official token of retirement: the blue identification card.  It is the key to your benefits after leaving active duty; benefits like health care, shopping at the base exchange or commissary, and the proof of your service that allows you to drive onto base.  Unlike your active duty ID card, however, it doesn’t require renewal every three years.  It expires on your 65th birthday, where upon I suppose I will have to drive down to the Pass and Identification office and obtain a new card (65 is the magic age when retirees become eligible for Medicare, and thus require a new form of identification).

So it is important to get one’s retired ID card as soon as possible after the last day of terminal leave has vanished into the night.  Technically, if you don’t, you are violating the law because the Armed Forces Identity Card has a few features that your random state issued ID or driver’s license doesn’t.  For example, it is a “smart card” with a chip inside that can be used to access government computers.  Not that you can really do anything particularly nefarious with such access, but with your transition comes the end of your right to get on government computer systems.  It also contains your official Geneva Convention status in case you are captured by the enemy (although this is particularly unlikely in Southern California, you never know when it might be useful).  In my case, I was Category IV, which meant I was a commissioned officer.  When I was enlisted was a Category III.  I know that because it said so right on my ID card.  Again, not a huge deal, but with my retirement I became uncategorized.  Had the US been invaded on New Year’s Day and I had been captured and the invader checked my ID card then I would have been  thrown in a POW camp instead of being released.  That in and of itself is reason enough to get my new ID.

So off to the Pass and ID office I went.  It seemed to be a straightforward process: go to the office and turn in your active ID for a retired one.  It was straightforward, but in typical fashion it wasn’t so simple.

I showed up and signed in on the clipboard that sat beneath the proclamation “SIGN IN HERE”.  I then sat down in a government issued plastic chair with about a dozen other people who were waiting for new identity cards.  I was halfway through reading the September issue of Consumer Reports (always a good read) when my name was called.

I walked up to the counter.   “Can I help you?” asked the clerk.  “Sure.  I need to turn in my active ID card for a retired one,” I answered as I reached for my wallet.

“OK.  Two forms of ID please.  And your DD-214.”


ID’s I had.  My DD-214 I didn’t.

The DD-214 is the single most important document that a separating serviceman or woman will ever receive.  It is the source document that proves your service; it shows when you entered and when you left active duty as well as the recording your eligibility for VA benefits, healthcare, reenlistment (in case you can’t handle civilian life and want to get back in) and apparently also a retired ID card.

I resigned myself to another trip to the Pass and ID office.  I should have known better, but I didn’t.  The thing about being on active duty is that you tend to take a lot of things for granted; after all, you are in every computer data base imaginable.  All anyone has to do is look at your ID card, input your social security number, and pull your data up.  Unfortunately, once you retire the great big data eraser comes in and purges you from the system, as was the case for me on the first business day after the New Year’s Day weekend:

03 Jan 2012 @ 0243  MOL  LTCOL GRICE, MICHAEL D. was dropped from your unit

With that pithy little message I was erased.  With my erasure rose the importance of the DD-214, because it was an artifact of my service that could not be summarily deleted.  And without it, as I found, things were much more difficult or impossible to accomplish.

So the next day I returned with my two forms of ID and my DD-214.  I was able to finish reading the September issue of Consumer Reports (good thing, too!  I was wondering which bottled water I should be drinking) before I was beckoned back to the counter.  With a cheery smile I turned over my documents, and within a few minutes I had a shiny new retired ID card.  Complete with a cheesy picture of myself that I  would be looking at for the next few decades before I turn 65 and the proclamation of my newly earned RETIRED status.  No POW camp for me!


Lessons Learned:

1.  Your DD-214 is the most important document you will have after you transition.  I recommend that you keep a copy of it with you at all times when you are conducting transition relate business.  Have the administrative shop that completes your transition provide you a few extra copies, and make sure that they are stamped “CERTIFIED TRUE COPY” at the bottom.  That will ensure that you don’t have to make extra trips like I did.

2.  Buy a binder or folio (nifty word for folder that has a zipper on it to hold all the stuff inside) and keep all of your working transition paperwork inside.  That way you can whip out your DD-214 or whatever other document you need at a moment’s notice and avoid going back and forth to get things done.  You will need other documents, too, like your checkout sheet, medical appointment reminders, etc., and having an organized notebook will help a lot.

The Big Day

New Year’s Day is a day for change.  You get to break out a new calendar and do your best to keep those resolutions that you made between glasses of champagne the night before.  For me, January 1st 2012 is particularly important because it marks an incredibly significant day in my life.

New Year’s Day was the day that I became a civilian.  27 years and 21 days after I raised my right hand to swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States I found myself back to where I was that December day in 1984.  I officially became a former Marine; “former” because once you become a Marine you are one forever.  There is no such thing as an “ex-Marine”.  Ex-soldier, yes.  Ex-Marine, no.

New Year’s Eve was a party.  It was a celebration with friends that marked the end of a tiring and, for many, a challenging 2011 and the bright beginnings of a new and shiny 2012.  We rang in the New Year with a lot of noise and a lot of champagne – in particular an enormous bottle that was given to me by my great friend Chris to mark my transition.  My headache the following morning indicated that I had indeed made a dent in the reservoir of bubbly that it poured!

Waking up the next morning was a little odd.  I have been a Marine for the better part of three decades, and despite my newly found “Former” Marine status it was striking that I no longer had any official tie to the Corps.  I would be receiving a pension, which is great, but no longer would I be watching the news with the same level of interest in world events as I had been.  The probability that I would find myself in some pestilential third world hotspot suddenly became zero, and the odds that I would have to leave my family for months on end for a deployment disappeared.  I was now back in the society that I had served for so long, with all of the benefits that make it the greatest nation on the planet.

It is a little like being that 17 year old kid who enlisted while still in high school.  I have the rest of my life in front of me, and I have the opportunity to choose what comes next.  It is almost like being given another whole new life; I can do anything I want.  Except maybe professional sports.  I’ll cede that option to the practical realities of starting life over at the age of 44!

I leave my military career with a wall full of plaques and a mind full of memories.  Being a career Marine was the best career that I could have pursued because it took me places that I would otherwise have never seen and challenged me to levels that exist only in the most dire of circumstances.  I have made lifelong friends and learned more about life than I thought possible at the ripe old age of 17 when I signed up.

So it is with a certain level of eagerness that I look forward to the next great adventure.  I am not certain where the road ahead will lead me, but I am excited to take the first steps in a pair of tennis shoes.  Like me, my combat boots are retired from active service.  Time to try something new…