Another perspective on PTSD

Here is my latest column on PTSD.  It is in today’s North County Times:

In my last column, I wrote about the differences in perspective regarding Combat Operational Stress Injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The civilian world has come to accept that COSI and PTSD exist, and has largely embraced the inevitable truth that not all scars can be seen. In the military, however, there is a very real and tangible stigma against the perceived weakness that accompanies the admission of psychological trauma.

What those in and out of uniform agree on, though, is that psychological injuries are real.

But who suffers from these injuries? Is it only those who carry rifles and do the killing, or are others affected by their experiences in war?

The answer may surprise you.

At the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, there was a young Israeli soldier home on leave when his nation was attacked —- and as any soldier would do, he went to the sound of the guns. Unable to link up with his armored unit, he gave aid to the wounded until a recently repaired tank came available for him to take into the fight. Over the next 20 hours he fought nonstop, destroying more than 20 enemy tanks while having a half dozen shot out from underneath him. When his tank was destroyed, he would jump from the burning hulk and find another so that he could remain in the battle.

Time and time again he cheated death. He fought and killed and watched his crewmates die, and still he went back into the fight. He fought until he could fight no more; climbing from his tank, he fell to the ground, muttering “I can’t anymore …” as he collapsed. He could go no farther.

For a soldier to experience savagery on such an intimate and visceral level leaves him with scars that only he sees. He still carries those scars, decades later, and deals with them by sharing his experiences with the youth of his nation.

But what about veterans who have not killed for their country? What about those who don’t carry a rifle or fight in a tank?

Let me tell you about a young Marine who spent seven months at an airbase in Iraq. He worked on the flight line from which his squadron’s helicopters flew casualty evacuation missions. Day in and day out they came and went, and at the end of the mission the aircraft would be parked and serviced.

This Marine’s job was a simple one —- all he had to do was clean out the back of the helicopter. Day after day he washed blood and brains and bits of shredded uniforms from the back of the helicopter so that it would be ready to fly.

Now, years later, he cannot close his eyes to sleep without seeing the bloody decks he scrubbed. Although he left that base in Iraq, it never leaves him.

How about the young Air Force radio operator who hitched a ride with some soldiers in an armored vehicle? As they traveled across the Iraqi town of Ramadi they were ambushed, and the airman watched the crew burn to death after an IED ripped through the fuel tank and sparked an inferno before they could bail out.

And then there are the doctors and nurses who worked in Charlie Med. On one particularly bad night, a squad of Marines was hit by a tragically effective attack in which a devastating IED literally cut them down at the knees. The surgical team amputated more than a dozen legs and feet that night, and the coming dawn found them huddled outside the door, shaking as they smoked cigarette after cigarette next to a pile of shredded limbs.

Do these people have psychological injuries?

Yes. I know because I was there, and like them I have my own burdens.

And like the tank commander, I will share them, too.

Read more: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/columnists/grice/grice-ptsd-doesn-t-only-happen-to-front-line-troops/article_15ba65b4-d552-52de-b236-2198ca773928.html#ixzz1qcOH3Iqg

GI Bill part 2: Transferring benefits from the MGIB to the Post 9/11 GI Bill

I wrote in my last post about the GI Bill.  It is a great benefit that really helps veterans like myself obtain an education or get vocational training that will provide the tools we all need to enter the civilian workforce. I am using the Post 9/11 GI Bill to help defray the costs as I pursue my MBA.  Having served before the attacks on the twin towers, however, made me eligible for two GI Bill programs: the  Montgomery GI Bill  (MGIB) and the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both bills, and it is important to do your homework and fully understand the nuances of each.   GI Bill comparison  is a great side by side comparison of the two bills, so click on over and take a look.

In my case, I transitioned from the MGIB to the new bill because it resulted in me being entitled to an additional 12 months of benefits that I otherwise would not have been able to utilize.  While it was a good idea for me, it may not be good idea for everyone.  Here is why:

The MGIB has many provisions, but for the sake of this post I will talk about the two major parts of the bill: the Active Duty benefit (aka MGIB-AD or “Chapter 30”) and the Selected Reserve benefit (aka MGIB-SR or “Chapter 1606”).  As the titles indicate, there were different programs for active duty personnel and those in the reserves.

In my case I was in the Organized Marine Corps Reserve when I was working on my undergraduate studies.  During that time I used all but about two months of benefits from the MGIB-SR, meaning that I received about 34 months of benefits and had about two months worth left over.  Since a vet can only use 36 months of benefits under that program I initially thought I was out of luck.  Fortunately, there is a provision that allows for vets like me to transfer between programs and take advantage of an additional 12 months of benefits.

A veteran is eligible for a total of 48 months of benefits.  That said, the individual programs may offer shorter benefit periods, and in the case of the MGIB and the Post 9/11 bill this is the case because they are both 36 month programs.  A vet can get the additional 12 months only if he or she is eligible for the both the MGIB and the Post 9/11 bills because the only way to get the extra time is to convert from the MGIB to the Post 9/11.  There is no bill for the Post 9/11 to convert to, so there are only 36 months of benefits available.

There are two scenarios for transferring from the MGIB to the Post 9/11, and they have enormously different ramifications, so PAY ATTENTION TO THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS IF YOU WANT TO TRANSFER OVER!!!

First, the MGIB-SR (Chapter 1606).  This was my situation.  I used up about 34 months of benefits as a reserve Marine and had about two months left.  The VA simply added my remaining balance of about two months to the 12 additional months of Post 9/11 eligibility and presto!  I had 14ish months of eligibility under the new bill to use towards my education.  All I had to do was complete the Veterans On Line Application (click here: VONAPP) and indicate that I wanted to apply for the new GI Bill.  Once my application was approved I received my updated entitlement.

For the MGIB-AD eligible veterans the situation is VERY DIFFERENT!  In their case, their 36 months of benefits is really 36 months of benefits.  If they have never used their MGIB-AD and they switch over, they will receive 36 months under the new bill.  If they use 35 months under the MGIB-AD and apply for the new GI Bill they will receive only one month under the new GI bill.  Here is the key: in order to get the additional 12 months you must completely exhaust your MGIB-AD benefits, and I mean completely- use up every day because if you have only one day of eligibility left and you apply for a transfer you will get one day of benefits under the new bill, and the decision is irrevocable!  Once you have used up the MGIB-AD you can then re-apply for benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill using  VONAPP and receive 12 months under the new bill.  Make sure that you do it right because as I said, once you apply and are accepted for a transfer there is no going back.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

It is easy to see how much of your MGIB you have used.  All you need to do is call the VA at 1-888-442-4551 and ask the counselor which program you currently fall under and how much eligibility you have left.  Once you have that information, you can decide if you want to transfer over or not.

Good luck!

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Lessons Learned:

1.  The old and new GI Bills are different, and there are a lot of ins and outs that you need to consider before you pull the trigger on a conversion.  Make sure to do some research and find out what works best for your situation.

2.  Once you do pull the trigger on a conversion from the MGIB to the Post 9/22 GI Bill it is irrevocable and final.  There are no “do-overs”.  Make sure you are committed to the decision you make!

3.  If you are uncomfortable with completing an online application, you can download the fillable .pdf document here – http://www.vba.va.gov/pubs/forms/vba-22-1990-are.pdf. All you need to do is complete it and mail it in to the address listed on the form.

4.  If you have any questions, call the VA.  You will be on hold for a while, but they have a nice callback service which you can use; the counselor will call you back so you don’t have to listen to cheesy ’70s disco cover tunes while on hold.  I recommend calling early in the morning as my wait times went from an hour to a few minutes when I called as soon as they opened the lines.  Here is their contact information:

Telephone number:  1-888-GIBILL-1 (1-888-442-4551).

Be advised this line only accepts calls from 7:00 AM – 7:00 PM central time Monday – Friday and you may experience long hold times.

The GI Bill

As I wrote in my last post I am pursuing my MBA at the University of Southern California’s Marshall Business School, and I truly appreciate all of you who helped out with my research project.  Getting an education is expensive these days, and fortunately for me, and for all honorably discharged veterans, the VA is there to help out with the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the GI Bill, here is a quick rundown of how it came about and evolved into what it has become today:

The GI Bill originated with the end of the Second World War.  In 1944 the U. S. Government passed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act.  Apparently calling the new law by its formal name was a mouthful, so it quickly became named after the people it was designed to help- the GIs returning from the war (GI was slang for anyone in uniform, coming from the term “Government Issue” or “Galvanized Iron”, depending on which story you believe).  Anyhow, the veterans coming home from Europe and the Pacific were able to take advantage of a wide array of benefits which included home, small business, and farm loans, unemployment compensation, and educational benefits.  As a result of the program a staggering sum of nearly 8,000,000 veterans (almost half of all who served during the war) pursued higher education.

Over the following decades GIs went to war again and again, and as they did the GI Bill was there to help veterans when they came home from places like Korea and Vietnam.  In the 1960s benefits were opened up to veterans who did not serve in war, and over time the GI Bill dwindled until it was a shadow of its former self, essentially offering a small stipend to help defray college expenses.

That changed with 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  With hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines serving tour after tour in harm’s way the Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, which quickly became known as the “Post 9/11” or “new” GI Bill.  It focuses primarily on educational benefits for veterans (as shown below, which I adapted  from their website  at http://www.gibill.va.gov/benefits/post_911_gibill/index.html):

– The GI Bill will pay an eligible veteran’s full tuition & fees directly to the school for all public school in-state students. For those attending private or foreign schools tuition & fees are capped at $17,500 per academic year.  For those attending a more expensive private school or a public school as a non-resident out-of-state student, a program exists which may help to reimburse the difference (the “Yellow Ribbon” program).

-For those attending classes at the greater than ½ time rate, a monthly housing allowance (MHA) based on the Basic Allowance for Housing for an E-5 with dependents at the location of the school. For those enrolled solely in distance learning the housing allowance payable is equal to ½ the national average BAH for an E-5 with dependents ($673.44 for the 2011 academic year & $684.00 for the 2012 academic year)

-An annual books & supplies stipend of $1,000 paid proportionately based on enrollment.

-A one-time rural benefit payment for eligible individuals.

As you can see, the new GI Bill is pretty generous.  Not everyone is eligible, however.  In order to take advantage of the benefits the veteran must meet the following criteria:

-You must have served at least 90 aggregate days on active duty after September 10, 2001, and you are still on active duty or were honorably discharged from the active duty; or
– released from active duty and placed on the retired list or temporary disability retired list; or
– released from active duty and transferred to the Fleet Reserve or Fleet Marine Corps Reserve; or
– released from the active duty for further service in a reserve component of the Armed Forces.
You may also be eligible if you were honorably discharged from active duty for a service-connected disability and you served 30 continuous days after September 10,2001.

In my case, I was originally eligible for what was known as the Montgomery GI Bill when I enlisted back in the early 1980s.  I used it to help pay for tuition and fees for my undergraduate work, and I received payments of about $150 a month or so, depending on how many credits I was signed up for.  Now that I have transitioned out of uniform I am eligible for the new GI Bill, but there is a catch.

Of course!

There is always a catch.  It turns out that veterans are only allowed to take advantage of GI Bill benefits for a total of 48 monthly periods.  If you are in school for a full year, then you use 12 months of benefits.  If you take summers off, you use up nine months.  In my case, I used up 45 months of my benefits while I was enlisted, and that didn’t leave much for me to use after I got out!

Fortunately, the new GI Bill recognizes that there are a lot of us in that position.  The VA authorizes an additional year (12 months of benefits) for vets like me who used up a lot of their alloted time.  For me, the fifteen or so months works out pretty well because my program is nineteen months long.  Fortunately I had been saving some money to prepare for my post-military education –  otherwise I would have been out of luck.

So the GI Bill is a tremendous benefit for veterans who are eligible.  I highly encourage any separating or retiring servicemember to look into it, and to do so soon.  It is an expensive proposition for the government to pay for such a generous program, and it probably won’t last forever…

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1.  As with any VA program you must register for benefits.  Go to www.va.gov and complete the VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application) in order to get started.  You can complete the paperwork at any time, so get started as soon as you can in order to draw benefits as soon as you start school.

2.  There are different rules for public and private schools.  Basically, the VA will pay up to the highest state school rate for the state you attend college, but for private schools there is a cap on tuition and fees.  Make sure to surf the VA GI Bill website to find out what pertains to your situation.

3.  A great benefit is the housing allowance that you receive while attending school.  It only pays while you are in class (no spring break or summer payments) and it is also not allowed it you are still on active duty.  It may be to your advantage to start your education after you get off terminal leave if you want to receive the full benefits available.

Looking for a little help with some research….

As you know I am working through my transition from active duty life on the other side.  What you may not know is that I am taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill in order to pursue an MBA from the University of Southern California’s Marshall Business School.  One of the many things that I am working on is a term paper on organizational culture; specifically, how does the Marine Corps successfully imbue the culture of the Corps into newly minted Marines?  How is the recruit training process so very effective in transforming civilians into Marines?

This is where you come in – if you are a graduate of Marine Corps recruit training, that is.  If you earned the title of United States Marine at MCRD San Diego or MCRD Parris Island I would very humbly like to ask if you would be kind enough to take a survey about recruit training.  I am garnering data to support my paper, and there is nobody more qualified to talk about how Recruits become Marines than those who suffered the terrors of the yellow footprints and the joy of graduation day.

So if you would be so kind to do so, follow this link and take the survey.  It is anonymous, and you would truly be helping a fellow Marine (albeit a retired one) out!  Thanks!

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JVT8FDH

Semper Fidelis!

 

Combat Stress and PTSD: My latest column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times.  As a veteran of multiple tours in two wars I have personally experienced and witnessed first hand the the wide spectrum of combat related stress and the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  To me it is a truly important subject, and I am writing about the subject as a columnist in our local newspaper.

 

Stigma still attached to PTSD

Every person who goes to war brings a little bit of it home. For some, they carry memories of their adventures and some stories to tell. Others, however, bring home a burden that weighs upon their psyche and may accompany them for the rest of their lives.

Even though two combat veterans may have been in the same places and experienced the same stresses, joys, horrors and camaraderie that are all factors in the personal experience of warfare, they will return home affected by their participation in very different ways.

There is a wide range of emotional and psychological effects that result from an individual’s involvement in conflict. No veteran returns home without some change within themselves, and in that regard they are no different from any other person who experiences a stress and separation for extended periods of time. Research and common sense both irrefutably show that prolonged exposure to stress, as well as involvement in terrifyingly brief but immensely stressful situations, results in psychological change. Just how much change varies with every person, and the effects of the experience differ for each and every person who goes through such an event.

These effects are not limited to participants in war. Anyone can suffer from long-term exposure to stress or from short-term specific events. Battered women who endure abusive relationships agonize long after they leave the abuser, just as survivors of disasters such as plane crashes or earthquakes endure inner turmoil even though the actual event has come and gone.

Veterans of war share the same inner conflict and anxiety as anyone who has been through the emotional wringer.

Does that mean that we have over a million sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder? Nope. The majority of veterans return from the combat theater with no psychological damage, but instead with a broader perspective on life that shapes their worldview and subtly alters their thought processes and reasoning as they move on with their lives. They live as they did before they left, except for a greater reservoir of experience to draw from.

That said, a significant number of combat vets experience real difficulty adjusting to life at home when they return from overseas. They suffer from combat operational stress injury, or COSI. Their symptoms range from mild to severe, and from acute to chronic. Some sufferers require little assistance to overcome the challenges they face when they come home, while others are completely incapacitated by the ravages of PTSD.

To the tremendous credit of the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration those who suffer from COSI are encouraged to participate in treatment that is comprehensive, effective, non-attributional and free. Active-duty personnel can take advantage of Deployment Health Centers that offer a wide range of assistance and treatment options that are designed to help the service member understand and cope with their stress injury while still wearing the uniform. The Veterans Administration likewise offers a wide array of services for veterans who are no longer actively serving; all a veteran needs to do is contact the Veterans Affairs office for assistance.

And therein lies the rub.

There are dozens of programs in the DOD and VA to help people who have fought for their country, but surprisingly few actually seek help even though they really need it. The programs are free, so there is no financial reason to stay away. They are also non-attributional, meaning that there is no official retribution or black mark on a person’s record should they seek help.

Why, then, do so many fail to seek treatment?

The answer is simple. Even though society has come to accept that the mind can suffer injury just as the body can, the same cannot be said for the members of the armed forces. There is a very real stigma attached to those who seek mental help while in uniform, and the perception of the stigma follows closely behind servicemen and servicewomen as they transition back to civilian life.

So why does the stigma still exist in the military when society has largely come to accept it?

The military exists to fight the nation’s wars. Sure, it does a lot of other things, too, like perform humanitarian missions at home and abroad and provide employment —- but the true purpose of the military is to fight.

In order to go to war and win requires that the people in the military be aggressive, fit and mentally inured to hardship in order to do the things required of them in combat. The cultures of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all revolve around things like strength, resilience, aggressiveness and toughness. Any form of weakness is contrary to the warrior culture, and individuals who exhibit weakness are viewed as lesser beings in the eyes of their peers.

Seeking help for stress injuries is viewed as weakness. Even though thousands of people really need help, they won’t pursue it. The official DOD policy states that seeking help is non-attributional and that there will be no detriment to a person’s career, but the truth is different. Warriors don’t want to be seen as mentally frail, so they just suck it up despite all of the opportunities to help overcome their injuries. They fear ostracism, so they just hide their pain and soldier on.

I know, because I have seen it first-hand. I’ll explain in my next column.
Read more: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/columnists/grice/grice-stigma-still-attached-to-ptsd/article_5639a06a-f763-5388-b605-e7eed42844fc.html#ixzz1pOevCsqn

Behind the curtain: The VA Claims Process

In my last post I wrote about my experience with the Veterans Administration during my physical exam process.  It took a few months to get through the paperwork and and to actually see doctor or two, and now I am waiting for the results.  And I am now in month three of waiting…

So why does it take so long?  Sure, there are zillions of us new veterans entering the system, but there must be a method to their madness.  After doing a little research, I found out that there is indeed such a method and that is what this post is about: the VA Claims Process.

My faithful readers have already seen the first part of the process in previous posts, but to make sure nobody gets left behind I will recap my adventures up to this point for those who are just joining the party:

The purpose of the VA medical evaluations and claims process is to document any injuries or physical issues that were caused or exacerbated by military service.  The evaluation is important for two specific reasons; first, if a servicemember is injured while on active duty it is important for that injury to be documented in case it requires treatment after they get out of the military and second, in cases where the servicemember has incurred chronic conditions or disabling injuries they are eligible for financial compensation.

If a veteran breaks his ankle while on active duty, for example, and gets out while while he is still going through physical therapy he isn’t out of luck.  His injury still requires treatment, so it is annotated during the physical exam and he will be able to use the VA medical system to get through the necessary physical therapy and get back on his feet.  Once he is better he goes on his way and he may never need the VA again.  However, since the VA evaluated his ankle and documented the injury, in case the veteran needs future treatment he is in the system and can still have that service-related injury treated by the VA in the future.  Taking the example further, if the veteran with the broken ankle is left with a limp for the rest of his life he will likely be evaluated as having incurred a disability.  Depending on the rating that the disability is assigned (I will devote an entire future post to disability assessment and ratings- don’t worry!) he may be eligible for a small disability check every month.

So being evaluated by the VA is important!

Back to my case.

I started my VA evaluation process as soon as I went on terminal leave, and before my EAS I had completed all of my physicals.  As I posted earlier, however, I slowed down the evaluation and claims process because I submitted the incorrect DD-214, which was caught by the case manager and rectified after I sent in the correct copy.  Although it seemed a bit random to me, there actually is a pretty well defined process that claims go through, which shouldn’t have surprised me because after all the VA is a governmental agency that runs on thoroughly bureaucratic processes.

Here is a breakdown of just what those claims processes are, starting from when my claim was initiated in my first meeting with the VA representative after going on terminal leave:

“Claim Received” – Your claim has been received by the VA. If you applied online with VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application – the web based application for VA benefits) Direct Connect, you should see receipt in your list of Open Claims below within one hour. If you applied through the U.S. mail, please allow mailing time plus one week for us to process and record receipt of your claim.  (Note – the process steps and descriptions are from the VA website)

“Under Review” – Your claim has been assigned to a Veterans Service Representative and is being reviewed to determine if additional evidence is needed. If we do not need any additional information, your claim will move directly to the Preparation for Decision phase.

It is during this phase that my errant paperwork was discovered.  It took about a month, but the system works because the claims representative discovered that I had submitted the incorrect paperwork and notified me.  It cost me a little time, but once I sent in the right documentation, my claim continued along to the next step.

“Gathering of Evidence” – The Veterans Service Representative will request evidence from the required sources. Requests for evidence may be made of you, a medical professional, a government agency, or another authority. It is common for claims to return to this phase, should additional evidence be required.

“Review of Evidence” – We have received all needed evidence. If, upon review, it is determined that more evidence is required, the claim will be sent back to the Gathering of Evidence phase.

I was contacted during this phase to provide a more detailed description of how I incurred an injury while in Iraq.  Again, the system works because the VA identified, through their due diligence, that I did not have enough documentation to support a portion of my claim.  So I filled out the form and described the situation in greater detail, and with receipt of the completed form my claim moved further along the path to completion.

“Preparing for Decision” – The Veterans Service Representative has recommended a decision, and is preparing required documents detailing that decision. If more evidence is required, the claim will be sent back in the process for more information or evidence.

This is where my case currently sits.  It has been there for a couple of months.  I did receive a letter last week from the VA apologizing for the delay in processing, so I know that my file isn’t lost behind a filing cabinet or being used as a doorstop.  I do appreciate that they took the time to let me know that they were just behind schedule and that they were still working on my case.

“Pending Decision Approval” – The recommended decision is reviewed, and a final award approval is made. If it is determined that more evidence or information is required, the claim will be sent back in the process for more information or evidence.

“Preparation for Notification” – Your entire claim decision packet is prepared for mailing.

“Complete” – The VA has sent a decision packet to you by U.S. mail. The packet includes details of the decision or award. Please allow standard mailing time for your packet to arrive before contacting the call center.

So I have three steps to go, and hopefully it won’t take too long!  The good news is that I am eligible for VA healthcare because I am a veteran regardless of when they complete my package.  Having it done will be helpful, however, because then all of my information will be in the system.  It will also be good to know if any of the mileage that comes with a 27 year career in the Marines results in a disability rating…

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Lessons Learned:

1.  It takes time.  A lot of time.  I have been working through the process for six months, with the clock starting with my first VA appointment.  It is important to meet with the VA as promptly as possible once you have your DD-214 in your possession because the process is so lengthy.  You procrastinate at your own peril…as I wrote about in a previous post, if you can get your case initiated within 60 days before your EAS you will have your case reviewed by the locally by the VA instead of having it sent to their main evaluation center.  The anecdotal difference is about eight months- I was informed that it should take about four months after all of your information is provided for a local review as opposed to a year or so for a national level review.  It pays to be prompt!

2.  Get all of your ducks in a row before you initiate your package.  Missing or incorrect paperwork will stymie you progress, so avoid having the VA go through the nutroll of contacting you to update the package.  In my case, I provided the incorrect DD-214 and had to provide greater detail about an injury, and both of those transactions took time.  I recommend that when you fill out the pre-appointment paperwork that you go into excruciating detail in regards to any injuries that you suffered. The few extra minutes that you take filling out the form may save you the loss of a month in processing time later.

Final Physical exam finally finished!

I left you, my constant reader, pensively hanging after my last post about my Veterans Administration physical.  How did everything turn out, you wonder?  Well, I am still wondering how it all turns out too.

The VA has become a very busy governmental agency during the last few years.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the dynamic growth of all of the armed services, and now as combat in Iraq has ended and Afghanistan winds down there are many thousands and thousands of new veterans leaving the service.  The burgeoning numbers are compounded by the government’s budget deficit and military belt tightening as the growth that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines experienced in the latter part of the last decade retrenches and the population of the armed forces shrinks back to pre-war levels or lower.  Add all of us new veterans to those from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the Cold War and pretty soon you have a pretty huge population of veterans for the VA to oversee.

At any rate, the meteoric rise in the VA population has slowed some things down, and one of those things is the completion of the disability rating evaluation.  The disability evaluation is performed by the VA to document and, if required, compensate veterans for physical or mental conditions that were caused or aggravated by their military service.  The process is a pretty fair one but it requires the veteran to put some effort into ensuring that all of the documentation is in their record and that they attend all of the required appointments.

In my case, I initiated the process right after I checked out of the Marine Corps and started my terminal leave.  On that day I turned in all of my required files (including my original medical and dental records) and received my orders back to civilian life as well as two versions of my DD-214, known as “Member 1” and “Member 4”.  With these documents in my hands I then went to the Veterans Affairs office on base and made a walk-in appointment to see what to do next.

After waiting about a half hour to see a counselor, I went in and professed my utter ignorance of what to do and laid myself before the mercy of the VA.  Fortunately, the lady who took my case had seen plenty of knuckleheads like me before and she professionally ran me through the requirements.

“Do you have your DD-214?”

I handed it over.  Well, actually I handed her a copy.  The original is probably the most important document you will receive during your transition because it is the only universally recognized form of proof that you served in the military, and it is your ticket to the dance that is the VA.  As an aside, when you check out make sure to ask for a half dozen or so “Certified True Copies” of your form because some agencies will not accept a FAX or photocopy.  The admin shop will make copies and stamp them as certified, which will come in handy later.  Trust me.

“Do you have your medical record?”

I patted the thick folder on my lap.

“Have you been pre-screened?”

I explained that my record had been evaluated by the Disabled American Veterans counselors during my Transition Assistance Class, and I showed her the form that they filled out.

“When do you EAS?”

I told her that my last day was New Year’s Eve, and she paused.  In a speech that she had obviously given hundreds of times before she explained how the timeline for VA claims works.  It is important to file at the right time, she said, because depending on when a vet files has a tremendous impact on how quickly the case will be evaluated.  Based on your EAS if you file too early, your package gets sent off to a regional evaluation center and it may take up to a year to get evaluated.  In my case, since I was three months from my EAS I fell into the “too early” category.  If you file too late your package gets sent off to the same place and it will likely take a year.  Too late is defined as after your EAS.  She explained that if you submit your claim 60 days or less before your EAS then your case will be evaluated by the local VA office, and that the turnaround rate is about four months.

My choice.

She smiled at me across the desk and sweetly inquired if I would like to submit my claim today or if I would like to submit it in a month or so….

A month later I was sitting across the same desk from the same nice lady.  Since I was now in the “sweet spot” of claim submission I presented her with all of my information and got started.

Here is what she needed to get initiate the claim:

1.)  Photocopy of my medical and dental record.  These accompany your claim during the evaluation, and you will eventually get these back.

2.)  Copy of the pre-screening checklist that was performed at the Transition Assistance Class.

3.)  Copy of your DD-214.  Not just any copy, mind you, but the “Member 4” copy.  Why do I know this?  Because I submitted the wrong one, of course, and had to resubmit the correct one a month later (which slowed down my claim).

With the thick packet in front of her she began making some phone calls.  Although I had completed my military physicals I now had to have my VA evaluations completed.  After ten minutes or so of coordinating dates and times, she handed me three appointment reminders for the three evaluations that I would need to complete in order for my case to be adjudicated.

These three appointments were totally on me.  I was required not just to show up, but to complete the pre-appointment paperwork, which was basically a questionnaire that asked about each and every item that I had identified as a malady or injury that was incurred during my service.  Things like a dislocated shoulder (When did it happen? How?) to a broken ankle (what treatment did you receive?  Any surgery?).  The paperwork was a little daunting, but without it your claim will not see the light of day.

Anyhow, I made it through all three appointments, and by the time my EAS came and went my claim was wending itself through the local VA office.  It has been about four months now, and I have been eager to see what the result will be….

…and yesterday I got a letter in the mail from the VA.  Wow, I thought, she was right!  Less than four months and I got my results.  Sweet!  Smugly I opened the letter.

Not so smugly I read what it said.  “Dear Michael,”  it read, “we are sorry to inform you that your case is still under review….”  D’oh.  It looks like I still have a month to go, but that’s OK.  The good thing about being retired is that time is not necessarily one of my problems.  I can wait.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.)  Talk to a VA counselor as soon as you can.  Make an appointment while you are still on active duty if you can, because even if they can’t help you until you go on terminal leave they can explain the processes and procedures that you will need to follow to obtain evaluations and benefits.

2.)  Schedule a meeting immediately after going on terminal leave.  You can officially start your evaluations and benefits requests when you have your DD-214 and final orders.  It really behooves you to start as early as you can because the VA is a bit overwhelmed with the huge number of new veterans applying for benefits.  If you wait all you do is compound the problem.  It is a first in, first out system that is irrespective of military rank or position.  Don’t think that your uniformed high ranking muckety-muck status means anything to the VA because it doesn’t.

3.)  Get as many “certified true copies” of your DD-214 as possible.  I have had to give out several so far, and it is easy to get them when you check out.  Much less easy later, trust me.

4.)  Make sure to provide the correct documentation to the VA.  It cost me a month because I submitted a “Member 1” vice a “Member 4” DD-214 with my claim.  What’s the difference?  As far as I can tell there is one additional block of information on the “Member 4” version.  Apparently it is a pretty important block!