Final Physical Exam….or not. Welcome to the VA!

My last post was about the Veterans Administration, and not long before that I wrote a string of posts about what I thought were my last and final physical examinations.  Oddly, I soon found out that the VA and physical examinations are inextricably linked.

Just like peanut butter goes with chocolate and peas like carrots the Veterans Administration and physical examinations go together too.  It turns out that I was right about my Final Physical Examination being the last one that I would go through in uniform, but what I didn’t realize was that it would be immediately followed by my first physical examination by the VA.

The VA, among a host of other things, is responsible for determining whether or not you are eligible for a disability rating (and compensation) for any injuries or conditions that you suffer as a result of your service.  The military’s final physical is just your last checkup on the way out the door; the VA physical is your first checkup on the way into civilian life.  In addition to finding out if you are disabled in any way the VA makes sure that you don’t have any conditions that require additional treatment once you take off the uniform.

There are plenty of examples of both disability related conditions and continuing treatment requirements; for example a disability may range from losing a limb or an eye in combat to tinnitus caused by the roar and whine of aircraft engines, while physical therapy to help recover from knee surgery is a case in point for continued medical treatment.  At any rate, the VA is responsible for caring for the veteran, and in order to determine what type of care a vet requires they need to have their doctors take a look under the hood (or hospital gown, as it were).

As my active duty days drew to a close I had finished all of my required checkups and paperwork to head out to the civilian world.  On my last day in uniform I received my official orders back to my civilian life, and with a handshake and a “see ya later” I set out on terminal leave and prepared for life back on civvy street.  One of my first stops (after recovering from the retirement party hangover) was to the VA office, where I dropped off my DD-214 (the most important document for a veteran – it is your key to benefits and it is the official proof that you served in the military) and began the process of becoming a “customer” of the VA.

Along with my DD-214 I handed over a copy of my medical record (make sure to make an extra copy- this is VERY important, because you turn the original in when you check out on your last day in uniform, and the VA needs a copy to evaluate you for a disability rating and other medical concerns), and the nice lady in the office asked me a few questions.  She then took a quick look at my records and started making some calls.  Within a few minutes she had set me up with three appointments at a contracted medical office that the VA uses to evaluate separating veterans.  She said that I would be receiving some information in the mail, and that it was now on me to ensure that I did everything necessary to complete the evaluation process.  She also said that it could take anywhere from four months (in the best of all possible worlds) to a year or longer (which is not unusual) for my case to be evaluated and any disability rating to be issued.  If I didn’t do what I was supposed to do it could take literally forever, because although the VA is there to help veterans they are not there to hold your hand and drag you through the process.  That’s up to you.

Anyhow, I left the VA office with a few appointments and the pleasant, though pointed, reminder that it was up to me now.  In order to take advantage of all of the great medical benefits that I had earned and to see if I had a disability rating I would need to take the initiative to attend appointments without anybody besides myself reminding me.  There would be no Drill Instructors to tell me what to do next.  Welcome back to the real world.

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Lessons Learned:

1.  Make at least one copy (two if you can) of your complete medical and dental records.  Your separations office on base should let you use the copier to make copies, and if they don’t, you can use the copier at the career counseling center.  If you don’t want to stand over a copier for hours fighting paper jams and toner outages, you can take it out in town to a Kinko’s or other copier business- it will cost a few bucks, but time is money.  Your original record will be turned in to get your orders home, and the VA needs another copy to evaluate.  Remember this:  the VA and the DOD are separate governmental agencies and if you think that they will coordinate your transition for you then you need to take another urinalysis test.

2.  Make sure that you leave the VA office with appointments for physical evaluations.  Your claim for medical benefits will not start until the evaluations are complete, so if you blow off or forget an appointment your case will just languish on some desk somewhere until it crumbles into dust.  If you want benefits, then you need to do the legwork to make sure the process moves along.

From Marine to Veteran

On January 1st of 2012 I officially made the big step out of my combat boots and into my flip flops.  It was indeed a significant and personal event, but it also marked a pretty significant change in my status in the eyes of the federal government.

On that day I became a non-member of the Department of Defense and the newest constituent of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  This jump is significant for a lot more reasons than I realized, and it can be confusing and overwhelming if you aren’t ready for it.

The day you become a civilian again marks the day you can no longer take advantage of many of the benefits you enjoyed in uniform.  If you are moving on after an enlistment or two and are not joining the retired rolls, then pretty much all of the benefits disappear with your short haircut.  No more tax free shopping at the Post Exchange and no more subsidized groceries at the commissary –  you are fully back in the civilian world and get to pay full price (tax included!) for your next pair of cargo shorts.

If you are retiring, however, you are still entitled to some benefits.  You can still shop at the PX and the  commissary, which is nice.  You can take advantage of many of the recreational facilities, too, such as the campgrounds, gymnasiums, and beach cottages.  Your priority slips to one peg below those still on active duty, but that’s ok.   After all, you’re retired now, so you have all the time in the world…or not, but that’s another story we’ll talk about later.

Either way, whether you are retired or simply out of the service, you still have a governmental agency that is looking out for you.

Enter the VA.

So what exactly does the VA do for you?  Well, let me fill you in.  First, a little bit of history.

The Veterans Administration’s lineage stretches back all the way to the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress made provisions for pension payments to soldiers who were disabled as a result of their service.  Over the next hundred years or so, the benefits and provisions grew with the nation’s involvement is wars at home and abroad, with the most significant being the war between the states.  Recognizing the sacrifice of those in uniform, none other than Abraham Lincoln said of the importance of the government’s duty to the veteran:

“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan…”

By the beginning of the 20th century there were many programs to help veterans.  There were veteran’s retirement homes as well as hospitals and other facilities, with the responsibility for taking care of vets shared between several federal agencies as well as the individual states.  With the carnage of the First World War, however, it became evident that a consolidated and coordinated federal system was needed to meet the demands of the many thousands of veterans and their families.

In 1930 the Veterans Administration was created by act of Congress.  It consolidated all of the federal programs and responsibilities under one cabinet level department and took the onus of care off the backs of the individual states.  With the Second World War the department expanded dramatically and became the VA as we know it today.

So what can the VA do for you?  Here is a quick list of some of their major programs:

-Home loans

-Educational benefits

-Life insurance

-Special adaptive housing benefits for wounded servicemembers

-Medical care

-Psychological care

Within those major programs are dozens and dozens of smaller ones.  Take, for example, the educational benefits.  It isn’t just for college!  There are programs to teach you trades and skills completely free of charge, and depending on your status you may even be paid a housing allowance to go to school.

So when you take off your uniform for the last time don’t forget that there is an entire government agency that still has you in mind, and there are a lot of programs that can help you as you explore what is next in your life.  The educational benefits and home loan eligibility don’t disappear on your last day of service, and depending on your disability evaluation or retirement status you may be entitled to free health care as well.  Make sure to talk to someone at the VA during your transition journey.  I guarantee you will be surprised at how much they can do for you!

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Lessons Learned:

1.  Once you hit your EAS date you no longer fall under the DOD, but instead under the VA.  This is a big deal because you can’t go back once you transition over.  I will cover more about how important this is in future posts.

2.  The benefits are astounding in many cases, but it is up to you to seek them out.  Nobody is going to come to your house and educate you on the various programs.  Go to http://www.va.gov/ and look around.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised at just what the Veterans Administration offers.

Striking a nerve…

This post has nothing to do with transition, but instead with a debate that been raging as a result of an article in the Marine Corps Gazette.

In addition to blogging, I write articles for various publications (such as the Marine Corps Gazette, the Armed Forces Journal, The Artillery Journal, and others) and recently was very fortunate to be brought on board as a columnist at the North County Times.  One of the articles that I wrote for the Marine Corps Gazette has really struck a nerve and the interesting bit is not so much the article itself, but the commentary that follows (although I am quite proud of the article!).

At any rate, here is a link to the article and the comments that follow:  http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/what-color-are-your-socks-it%E2%80%99s-time-leash-your-dogma

You may find it interesting.  If nothing else, you will see how passionately Marines feel about what color your socks are…..and I would love to hear your feedback!

The Gap

Marines don’t serve for the money.  You can’t put a price on the hardships, the time away from your family, the danger, or the camaraderie that comes with wearing the uniform in the defense of the nation.  The pay is enough to live comfortably, but certainly no one in the service is getting rich on their military paychecks.

Although you aren’t becoming wealthy on payday you are getting paid for what you do.  The government does a great job of ensuring that you receive what you are entitled to by dropping half of your monthly salary by direct deposit into your bank twice a month.  Despite the fiscal challenges that the nation faces the thought of not paying the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who keep the country safe makes lawmakers squirm and infuriates taxpayers.  Suffice it to say that just like clockwork your paycheck will find its way into your bank account on the first and fifteenth of the month (unless those dates are holidays or weekends, in which case you get paid a few days earlier – which is always nice!).

Those checks just keep on coming, at least until your last day in uniform.  Then things get a little more complicated.

The military pay cycle is pretty simple.  In employment terms, all military personnel are government employees who are paid a base monthly salary in addition to any additional benefit payments that they are entitled to.  The base salary is taxed at the normal federal and state rates, but the benefits are not.  Examples of benefits include things like Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH, which subsidizes off-base housing) and Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS, which is a meal stipend).  There are many more, like jump pay (for those who find falling out of perfectly good airplanes on a regular basis as part of their job description) and combat pay (that not-so-huge amount of extra money you receive for going to places where bad people shoot at you).

So, all of these things are added up, resulting in your gross monthly pay.  Taxes and any other allotments (allotments being automatic withdrawals from your pay for things like Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance or savings bonds) are then subtracted, and the result is the money that is due to you for your service.   That amount is divided into two equal payments, which are in turn dropped into your bank account on payday.

It is important to remember that the month is divided into two portions, with the first half of the month being paid for on the fifteenth and the second half of the month being paid on the first of the following month.  This is very important to remember as you transition, because if your last day in uniform is the end of the month then your last paycheck is due the next day, and it will include all of your service up to the day of transition.

Well, it’s supposed to.  It’s not that simple.

Your last paycheck most likely will not show up when you expect it to.  Unless you are very fortunate, it will be delayed for a few days or weeks.  Although each service has slightly different regulations on your final mustering out pay, they all have the same basic requirements: the final paycheck must include all pay and benefits due to the separating servicemember minus any obligations that he or she owes the government.

This can be pretty surprising if you don’t expect it.  What obligations can you owe the government?  The obvious ones are any fines that you incurred by getting in trouble, but if you stayed on the straight and narrow you should be good, right?

Not necessarily.  The bean counters hold your final paycheck in their possession until all of the possible ways that you could owe money are doublechecked.  These include (but are not limited to) charges for any equipment that you may have lost (remember turning in all of your gear to the Consolidated Issue Facility?) or adjustments to benefit payments (for example, it is not uncommon for your combat related payments to be properly adjusted for a few months after you return from theater, and any overpayments will be recouped by the government).  Your final paycheck will also settle up any additional amount that the government owes you for things like unused leave.  The long and the short of it is that your final settlement paycheck is most likely not going to show up on the same schedule as you are accustomed to.

If you are relying on that check to pay for necessities then you are in for a rude surprise.  No amount of begging or complaining will make that paycheck show up any faster.  You can help yourself, though, by making sure that all of your ducks are in a row as you check out.  Make sure that all of your gear is turned in, for example, and include the receipt showing a zero balance with your checkout paperwork.  Stop by your admin shop and make sure that your pay and allowances are correct before you check out- deal with any problems up front and you won’t have to wait as long for your final paycheck because you are making the bean counter’s job that much easier.

In my case, my final paycheck took 26 days from when my terminal leave expired and it showed up in my bank.  Welcome to “the gap”.

The retirement pay cycle is monthly, as opposed to the bi-monthly system that active duty personnel enjoy.  Your first retired check is due on the first of the month after you retire, which means that you are not going to receive a paycheck at all until a full month after you get out.

This can be quite disconcerting if you don’t plan for it.  When you retire you are going to have a month without a paycheck so make sure to be ready!  Don’t put yourself and your family in the sad position of having to eat sawdust and oatmeal until you retirement check shows up.  Sock a little extra into savings ahead of time or mooch a few bucks from your relatives to bridge the gap, but make sure that you are prepared to go for a month without a paycheck.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

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Lessons learned:

1.  Your final paycheck will be held up as the accountants settle up all of your accounts.  If you are relying on it to cover immediate expenses then you are in for a tough financial time.  Plan ahead!

2.  Your final paycheck will be reduced by any payments you owe the government and increased by any payments the government owes you, so it will most likely be an amount that may differ significantly from your normal pay amount.

3.  Unlike the bi-monthly active duty pay cycle, your pension is paid monthly with your retirement check arriving the first of the following month.

In is in, but is out always out?

This past weekend I had the enormously good fortune to attend a wedding.  Not just any wedding, mind you, but a full-blown military wedding with swords and dress blues and the whole nine yards.

Military weddings happen all the time, but this wedding is significant for me because it was my first as a non-uniformed guest.  I have hoisted my sword many times in honor of the stalwart groom and blushing bride, but not since I was a teenager had I been un-uniformed at such an event.  I did wear a tuxedo, which is nice, but not nearly as dashing as a Dress Blue uniform adorned with a Sam Browne belt and Mameluke sword.

I was privileged to be invited to the wedding by a Marine with which I worked during my last tour of duty.  We had served together in Afghanistan and had kept in touch after I moved on.  I was delighted to be invited to his wedding these many months after we parted company, and not just because I like weddings. The invitation was a validation of sorts that I was still part of the community.

The community of Marines (and Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen too) is a close one, but can also be a closed one as well.  When you are in you are in by the very nature of your service; the camaraderie and commitment of purpose bring everyone together as they travel through the adventure of active duty together.  Sharing the hardships and the esprit de corps is what makes it close, but that is also what can make it closed.  Just as when you are in you are in, when you are out you are out.  You can only come back in by invitation.

And my invitation came in the form of a chance to rejoin the community at the most joyful of celebrations: a wedding.

I was thrilled to be able to attend, but as my wife and I walked up to the gathering wedding party I was more than a little trepidatious.  Would it be awkward?  Would I be welcomed back into the fold or politely tolerated as an outsider?  Would people remember who I was?

It sounds a little silly in retrospect, but those thoughts rocketed through my mind as we closed in on the crowd outside the church.  The doubts and concerns vanished, though, as I caught the eye of a few Marines who were having their picture taken.  Broad grins greeted my pensive wave, and in an instant we were shaking hands and catching up.  It was like a reunion that I never really expected, but now that it was happening it was a wonderful experience.

I was not alone in my non-uniformed appearance.  I saw other compatriots from the past, and they too were embraced by the brotherhood of those still wearing the cloth of the nation.  I caught up with friends who are making the best of themselves now that they are out; a student at Gonzaga, a newly graduated lawyer, a successful businessman- every one of them following a new path but still welcomed back into the brotherhood.  I chatted with others who are still in uniform and fresh from the fight as they plan their next career move in between cocktails and trips to the dance floor with their beautiful ladies.

I saw many Marines and Sailors and Soldiers in uniform that day, and I was intensely proud to be counted as one of them despite my departure from the rigors of active service.  It was tremendous experience to be welcomed back into the fold, if even for just a few hours before we all parted company and headed back down the paths of our lives.

To Rob and Kelsey- congratulations on your wedding!

And thank you for inviting me.  It meant more than you know.

Albert Einstein, Don Draper, and Supercuts: a newly discovered dilemma

Adapting to retirement has been interesting, to say the least.  Not that I am truly retired, mind you.  My permanent address has not changed to a fishing boat on Lake Placid, and am still years away from heading to restaurants in time for the Early Bird Blue Plate Special.

Fishing and discounted dinners aside, one thing cropped up that I hadn’t really paid much attention to but needed some attention right away.  I stepped out of the shower the other day, and after toweling off my head I looked in the mirror and almost fell over.  Where for decades I had sported a closely cropped Marine haircut (although not as closely cropped as most, to be quite honest) I now saw that I was doing a pretty decent impression of Albert Einstein after he stuck his finger in a light socket.  I had hair going everywhere- straight up, sideways, backwards, you name it.  Frightening!

It snuck up on me.  Really, it did!  I had been using a comb for the first time since the ’80s, but hadn’t been paying much attention as I “did” my hair every morning.  I was able to part it after a month or so, which was pretty neat.  It started tickling my ears, too, as it grew over them.  Also pretty neat.  I toyed with sideburns.  Neat again!  But it just kept growing.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not complaining.  I am thrilled to have hair!  Plenty of my friends don’t, suffering from the relentless onslaught of middle aged baldness.  Fortunately, I come from a family unfamiliar with the ravages of excessive hair loss, and now I am reaping the rewards of such a hirsute lineage.

Anyhow, as much as I enjoyed growing out my hair it was now becoming annoyingly unsightful.  In addition to it being grey in places where it used to be brown, my attempts to tame it with brush, comb, and hair gel (!) it still managed to do whatever it wanted.

Time for a haircut.

Where do civilians get their haircuts, anyway?  I had been going to the same suite of barbers for decades.  It is a very simple process when you are in the military, and especially so in the Marine Corps.  The uniform regulations state that a Marine haircut must graduate from zero (meaning no blocked cuts allowed) up to a maximum length of three inches on top.  Not a lot of room to work with, but even so there are about a half-dozen varieties of authorized Marine styles: the “Mr. Clean” Bald look, the fresh out of bootcamp “High and Tight” (shaved around the head with a patch of hair on top) the ’50s inspired “Flat Top”, and the “I really don’t want one of those other haircuts” Regulation haircut, in low, medium, or high style (the low, medium, and high in reference to how closely you want it cropped on the side of your head).  After my overly enthusiastic embracing of the High and Tight Flat Top as a young and motivated NCO I gradually seasoned my sensibilities and embraced the sedate Senior Officer’s Low Regulation.  Just enough on top to push over one way or the other, but not long enough for the Sergeant Major to question my gender (“Gee sir, would you like some mousse to go with your flowing tresses?  When are you going to start braiding it?”).

Anyhow, I digress.  Week in and week out for years and years I had plonked myself in the fine naugahyde splendor of the base barbershop and asked for a “low reg.”.  A few minutes later, the barber’s work finished, I looked in the mirror to see myself exactly as I had looked the week before after my last haircut.  It didn’t matter if it was in Camp Pendleton, Okinawa, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the same ritual took place.  “Hello.  Low Reg.”  Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  “Done.”  And that was that.

Now I was flummoxed by what to do.  I feared going to a military barber because I knew what the outcome would be, so instead I cast my gaze to the local strip mall.  Civilians get their hair cut too, and where else but at a hair-cuttery sandwiched between Men’s Wearhouse and GNC?  SUPERCUTS, of course.

So into SUPERCUTS I went.  It was quite bewildering.  There was a little seating area with magazines; not too different from the military side, but there were no copies of Guns and Ammo or Soldier of Fortune here.  Only US and People.  Good thing I didn’t have to wait long enough to find out how many more kids Angelina and Brad adopted last week.

A very nice young lady greeted me, and after explaining that I needed a haircut, I was introduced to another nice girl with an “i” at the end of her name.  Brandi or Candi or something like that- very different from the surly and generally grumpy barbers I was accustomed to.

She sat me down in the chair (which, to be quite honest, was not a real barber chair, but then again, she wasn’t a real barber, but a “stylist”) and asked what I wanted.  I explained again that I was newly retired and didn’t want to look like Albert Einstein.  As I talked I glanced around the shop and saw a pastiche of pictures- hair models with gelled spiky hair next to mullets next to wavy haired surfer dudes.  I opted for something bit more conservative.  I asked for the “Don Draper” look from the television show Mad Men.  After she got done laughing she set to work.

“I’ll thin it out here on the sides.  You have a lot of bulk.”

Bulky hair?  Really?  I guess that explains the Einstein look.

“How about the sideburns?  How low do you want them?”

Decisions, decisions!  How low do sideburns go?  I stabbed my cheek with my index finger at about mid-ear.

“I’ll get rid of the fuzzies, too.”

Fuzzies?  Nobody wants excess fuzzies, which I learned are stylist-speak for neck hair.  Fuzzies be gone!

After ten minutes snicking scissors and buzzing clippers she was done.

“Gel?”

Sure, said I.  She worked it into my newly-shorn locks, and in no time I looked almost nothing like Don Draper but significantly less like Albert Einstein.

Victory!

I quickly paid at the register, and after turning down the generous offer to set me up with a bewildering variety of hair care products I left the shop with a freshly stamped “frequent customer” card.  Just think…nine more haircuts and my tenth one will be free!  At the current rate I’ll be claiming my free shearing some time in 2014, but who am I to complain?