VA Exam and Disability Rating

Over the last weekend I had the great fortune to run into a good friend of mine who retired from the Marine Corps after thirty years of active service.

He is a great guy who lived one of the hardest lives you can live in the Marine Corps; he started out as a infantryman and then became a reconnaissance Marine and then a Special Operator (meaning he began his career as a grunt who carried heavy loads long distances and lived in the dirt to a recon guy who carried heavier loads longer distances and lived in the mud).

During his career he did all of the high speed things that are the stuff of recruiting posters.  He jumped out of airplanes –  but not just enough times to earn his wings but hundreds and hundreds of times from helicopters and airplanes both at very low and extremely high altitudes.  He became an expert diver, marksman, and small unit leader.

He helped the Marine Corps blaze the trail into the Special Operations world.  He helped build what is now called MARSOC and was a critical leader in the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion.  He deployed to Kuwait and Iraq and Afghanistan to fight, and in his career he deployed thirteen times.

All of this came at a tremendous cost, however.  He suffers from a long list of physical ailments that are related to doing all of those incredible things; his ears ring from being around gunfire for years on end, his joints and back are so painful that he sometimes can barely move, and he wrestles with PTSD in the same manner as so many of us who have fought for their country and survived.

At the end of his impressive career he did what all separating servicemen do –  he went through the VA evaluation process.  He ensured that his physical problems were recorded in his medical record and was then examined by a VA physician.

With all of his maladies he was certain that he would be assigned a relatively high disability rating.  After all, many people served for far less time and in far less strenuous and physically demanding environments and had received very high disability ratings.  He wasn’t looking for anything he didn’t earn and deserve, mind you, but was just looking for what was fair.

Recently he received his disability rating announcement in the mail.


For tinnitus.  Ringing in the ears.

To say he was angry is an epic understatement, and upon taking his case to his state VA representative they agree and are challenging the ruling.

How did he end up with such a low rating when he has so many demonstrable maladies?

He attributes it to his physical evaluation.  The doctor didn’t really examine him, but instead just asked him questions about his conditions.  He did not order tests or even check for himself, but instead had a conversation and wrote down some notes.

The point is that in order to receive the most accurate evaluation it is imperative that you take an active role in your VA physical.  Demand that the doctor examine those things that you know are wrong.  Don’t just let the overworked doctor hurry through your exam.

Otherwise you may likely find yourself under-rated for your service connected disability, and to get it corrected will make an already disturbingly long process even tortuously longer.

So this is a cautionary tale.  You may save yourself a lot of time and inconvenience by taking an active role in your VA evaluation, so I recommend going into the doctor’s office with the intent of having each and every issue examined, addressed, and recorded.

After all, if you don’t do it, who will?


Another column from the North County Times

Here is last Friday’s column from the North County Times:

It has been more than a decade since 9/11, and during that time a lot of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have trained, deployed and fought the War on Terror.

They have crossed into the deserts of Iraq and climbed the hills of Afghanistan. They have battled pirates off the coast of Somalia, and have fought against insurgents in the Philippines. The last decade has found young American men and women in combat in places that they may have never even heard about before they donned their uniforms.

They have also done magnificent things outside the combat zones. Sailors and Marines rushed to Indonesia to aid the victims of the disastrous tsunami in 2004. Less than a year later, members of all the armed services were doing the same in Louisiana after the coastline was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. They have helped recover and rebuild from dozens of other disasters at home and abroad, often while their own homes and loved ones were threatened by the same calamities.

Through it all they forged a real and tangible bond with those with whom they served. They joined a brotherhood that transcends any found in the regular workforce. Like firefighters and the police, they have been in the worst possible situations and bested them by working side by side with people just like them. They have become integral members of a close and closed society that only those who have been a part of truly understand.

The experience of being in the military changes a person. There comes a day, though, when the uniform is worn for the last time. The last decade has made that change as visceral as it was at the end of the First World War and the Second, as well as Korea, Vietnam and the other conflicts that brought young Americans to foreign shores to fight for years on end.

So the day comes when the uniform comes off. It is much more impactful than just changing clothes, however, because with the shedding of the uniform comes the departure from military society. While you may still be close with your military friends, but the relationship changes: You are no longer a part of the same conversations. You are no longer training or deploying or sharing the same burdens, and over time the relationships change as you have less and less in common. Your lives move in different directions.

As a veteran, the sense of loss as you leave the warm embrace of active service can be jarring. After all, they have served, deployed, fought and done the myriad things together for years on end —- and suddenly it just stops. In many ways it is like a divorce, because you can never go back.

As a kid I never really understood what the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars were all about. I saw them as the old men who marched in parades wearing bits of uniforms from wars long over. I rode my bike past their modest buildings and wondered what went on inside. I accepted them as part of the fabric of our community, but never thought much about them.

Today, though, I understand. Veterans of active service have lived a life unlike any other, and it is often very difficult to relate to those who have not shared the same sacrifices. Veterans love their families and cherish their friends, but there are some conversations that are only for those who have worn the uniform and endured the trials, horrors and joys that come from military service.

That is why the American Legion, the VFW and so many other veterans organizations exist. That is why those old men gather; to be around others like themselves who understand that which to others is incomprehensible.

The difference today is that today not just old men gather in such places. Young men and women have joined the ranks of those who have gone before. Now stories of Iraq and Afghanistan join those of wars past in the tapestry of the veteran community. It is a place that provides a little solace and closure to a big part of veterans’ lives that stays with them no matter how long ago they put away their uniforms.

It’s time for a new career, but where do you start?

I have been writing about transition for nearly a year now, and during that time I have made the journey myself.  It has been a very interesting, sometime daunting, and often challenging trip.  I am on the other side of the fence now, and have been very fortunate to find an interesting job that helped ease my way into civilianhood.

What we are going to be talking about for the next few posts is how to find a job, or at least how to present yourself in the best way possible so that you are competitive in the job market.

In the military you started out just like everyone else.  You were a recruit or an officer candidate with short hair and very little knowledge or experience about the military.  As you progressed through training and headed out to the operating forces you learned what was expected of you and how things are done.  Over time you met people and developed a professional reputation which helped you obtain desirable and rewarding assignments.  By the end of your military career you had developed a solid reputation and a tremendously helpful network of peers, juniors, and seniors.

Once you take off your uniform, however, your reputation largely goes with it.  The civilian world and corporate sector will the thankful for your service but they will have no idea what you did because military service is a mystery to them.  While your military network will still be around it won’t help too much because you aren’t looking for a job in the military.  You just left, remember?

So the long and the short of it is that you are starting over.  Nobody is going to hire you just because you formerly wore a uniform.  You need to do the same things you did as a young recruit or officer candidate; you need to begin the process of building a new network and a new professional reputation.

We’ll start with the basics.  There are a lot of things you will need to do, and it can seem overwhelming if you try to do them all at once: Build a resume.  Craft a cover letter.  Research where you would like to live and work.  Find a rewarding new career.  Meet people.  Learn how things are done in the corporate sector.  It’s a lot, so let’s take a look at the very first and simplest things you can do to get started.

As you transition you passed through various transition courses and have probably attended some job fairs.  If you were paying attention you probably saw people chatting here and there, and at some point in the conversation they exchanged business cards.

They are networking.  You need to network too, and in order to network effectively you will need to get some business cards.  They are important because when you are hunting for a job you are competing with a lot of other people, and as you network you will be meeting men and women who can help steer you towards a new career.  They are not going to remember your name or even who you are if you don’t give them something to carry away with them; after all you may be one of many people that they meet on any given day.  I guarantee that you will not get a call from someone who does not know your phone number.  Help them and you by giving them a card. Your card.

Not all cards are created equally.  There are services that will print them up for free (with an advertisement for the company on the back, of course) and you can print them on your home computer as well.  If you don’t have anything (or even worse, if you only have cards that have your old job and contact information on them) you can use those services or print your own until you can have some quality cards made up.

I am a fan of spending a few dollars to create a high quality professional looking card.  Anybody can get free ones or print their own and that telegraphs that you are either cheap or not motivated enough to increase the quality of your business cards above the masses.  Remember –  the card is a representation of you.  It is all that the person you handed it to has to remember you by, so make sure that you leave a good impression.

I recommend going to a stationery or paper store that produces business cards.  You will be surprised at the incredible variety of products available, with myriad colors, shapes, fonts, and cardstocks to choose from.  Take a look at the catalogs from the perspective of how you want to be represented and remembered.  A rule of thumb is to be conservative because that is what is expected in the business world, which is white or off white.  A scarlet card with gold letters may make your heart glow with its familiar Marine Corps colors but it will not help you build a network in the business world because it will show that you cannot let go of your past.  Remember, you are out to make a whole new set of first impressions!

Select a font in a size that isn’t obnoxiously big or unreadably tiny.  Put on the card only the information relevant to you and your job search.  Avoid quotations or sayings that may put people off: “If you ain’t infantry you ain’t squat” may be pithy around the barracks but is actually insulting when you are looking for a job from a non-infantryman in the corporate sector.  And none of them are infantrymen.

Pick a cardstock that is heftier and stronger than the cards you can get for free.  They feel cheap.  You want something that presents you as a serious and high quality person, and a solid card is a good way to to start.

Finally, decide what you want printed on your card.  I recommend that you go with the basics at first: Your name, contact telephone number, and email address.  Don’t put your callsign or nickname because it comes across as being a bit amateurish to people who don’t understand why people call you “Smasher” or “Speedy”. It is more formal to put down your whole name, but it is OK to put down what you prefer to be called.  If you are named Patrick but go by Pat feel free to go with it.

After your name include the best contact information – after all that is why you are printing these things up in the first place.  I recommend that you put down your cel phone as that way you are more likely to be there in case you are called, but remember to update your voicemail greeting to sound professional or they will hang up before leaving a message.  Also include your email address, but like the voicemail you may need to update it in case it is incomprehensible, odd, or inappropriate.  Email addresses like “” will not get you a job.  I promise.

So go out and have some cards made up.  Carry them wherever you go because you never know when an opportunity to network will come up.  Have a few in your wallet or purse.  Throw some in the glove compartment of your car.  Have extras in your briefcase.  Always keep spares around, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and your best first impression comes with a strong handshake and a professional business card.


Lessons learned:

1.  You are starting over.  Your network from your military career is not the one that will get you into the corporate sector, so you need to start getting out and meeting people.

2.  The expected token of networking is the business card.  Get professional looking and feeling cards made professionally as soon as possible.

3.  Avoid military “-isms” on your card such as callsigns, rank, Military Occupational Specialty, etc.  You are selling yourself as a future employee, not a servicemember.

Finals Week…

Hello my reader friends. As you probably know I am pursuing my MBA at the University of Southern California, and I am knee deep in finals. On top of that my family is moving into a new home (well, new to us anyhow), so I can’t fit in a full post this week. I promise to make it up to you next week as we start talking about resumes, cover letters, and other job seeking topics!

Another column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times:

“So what’s it like over there?”

It’s a question that I get a lot. It is also a question that gets a different answer depending on who asks it.

The problem is not the curiosity expressed by the curious inquisitor, but instead with their ability to process the answer.

To be a combat veteran is to have lived through experiences that are completely outside the perceptive reality of those who have not walked in the same boots that you have. As a result, I have learned that I have to be very, very cautious when I answer such a seemingly innocent query.

“It’s pretty hot and miserable,” I say to most people, “except in the winter, when it is pretty cold and miserable. I like it here in good old America much better than over there.”

That’s what I say now, anyway. I didn’t always have such a benign response.

The first time that I realized that I needed to have a different answer for that question was a few days after I had returned from my first tour in Iraq. I had spent seven months in a tough place where I spent no small amount of time trying to kill people who were trying to kill me. So when a very nice civilian neighbor sidled up to me at a neighborhood get-together and asked what it was like over there, I made the mistake of actually telling him.

“Well, we got rocketed and mortared a lot,” I started, “pretty much every day. The insurgents were always aiming for the chow hall on our FOB, and they would hit us at meal times. One morning, a couple of Marines were walking out of breakfast when a rocket hit one of them in the chest. All we found were his boots and bits of his ribcage…”

The look of startled horror on my neighbor’s face was something that I had never even considered. I didn’t know what to say after that, and I suddenly realized that I had no way to express myself to those who had not “been there.” What was, to me, just another day in Ramadi was to a friend who had no experience in such a place a terrible shock.

It was then that I learned that such a simple question required a more selective answer.

Last Saturday I met an octogenarian at a veterans museum. After we shook hands, he asked if I had served in the military. After I told him that I had spent a little time in Iraq and Afghanistan, he visibly perked up and told me that he had fought in Korea. Then he asked that ubiquitous question:

“So what’s it like over there?”

So I told him. Not about the weather, but what it was like to fight a determined and wily enemy. He listened, nodded and told me about the frozen hills of Korea. How he had fought with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division against the North Koreans and how he and his unit had “bugged out” when they were assaulted by 150,000 Chinese soldiers from the other side of the Yalu River in 1950.

We chatted about what it was like to fight. Our wars were different, but we were the same: two men who had gone “over there” and lived to talk about it. He told me how he swore that he would never again climb a mountain but had somehow ended up retired in Colorado. I shared my desire to never see a desert again, much less live in one. He wondered at the amount of equipment we carry in the wars of today, and I marveled at how he survived the amazing experience of fighting his way through the ice and snow of the Korean winter to escape certain capture or death.

So if you ask me what it’s like over there, don’t be surprised if you get a pretty boring answer. Unless, of course, you have been “over there,” too.

Then we’ll chat.

Starting a new career, part 4

We have recently been talking about how to figure out what to do once you leave the service.  In the last string of posts we looked at what you would like to do in the future, and hopefully the exercise of listing things you like and dislike as well as what you are good and bad at helps orient you towards the future.

Now comes the second part of the equation: Where do you want to go?

This is important because it is equally important as what it is you would like to do with the rest of your life.  As a separating servicemember you are in a pretty good position to decide where you want to live; you can stay where you are or the military will relocate back where you first entered the service from at no cost to you.  However, if you decide to go someplace else the government will compensate you for the amount it would have cost to send you home.  If you settle someplace closer, though, you don’t get to pocket the difference.

The reason this is important is because aligning your career aspirations with where you and your family would like to live is critical.  Transition is a very stressful time, and there are a lot of resources out there to help you move to your post-military home and help find employment.  Unfortunately, those resources dry up pretty quickly once you are out and you cannot go back and undo the decisions you made as you transitioned.

The decision of where to live is what we are looking at more closely today.

There are three big considerations that come into play with your selection of where to end up once you become a civilian again:

1)  What will make you and your family happy?  You have likely been moving around where the military has ordered you to go, and as a result your family has made sacrifices along the way.  Your final move should be somewhere that you and your family want.  Family input is critical; after all they have supported you in your vagabond career so now it is time to listen to them.

2)  Is where you want to live consistent with your new goals in life?  You have more of an idea of what you want to do in the future, but can you do it where you end up?  If you want to be a great skiier then you may want to make sure you end up someplace with snow covered mountains, or if your life goal is to become a captain of a fishing boat then there had better be some water nearby.

3)  Can you afford to go there?  Your military relocation benefits will greatly assist you in getting to where you want to go, but once they run out you are on your own.  You really need to assess your financial situation, career goals, and family desires and make sure that you don’t make a stressful time even more so by putting yourself in a fiscally challenging environment.

These are big considerations because they all involve compromise.  To be successful it is imperative that you balance your career goals with your family and finances or you may find yourself in a tough spot without the ability to go back to the military for help.

So think about it.  Where do you want to go?  Sounds like time for another list, so take out a sheet of paper.

This time, though, give it to your family.  Ask them where they would like to live, then compare it to your goals and financial situation.

You may be surprised at how it shapes your perspective on life after the military, so take the time to really examine where you want to plant the family flag so that it is a place that you can really and truly call home.

After all, you have been serving your country for years.  Isn’t it time to get a little of the American Dream for yourself and your family?  You’ve earned it, and the best way to make sure it really is the dream that hope for make sure that your career goals, family, and finances are aligned.  If you don’t there will be a lot more stress in your future.

So sit down with your family and pull out another sheet of paper.  I guarantee you will be glad that you did.

Starting a new career, Part 3

A few posts ago I left you with four sheets of paper, each with a different title at the top.  Hopefully you have had some time to think, reflect, and list out those things that match the topic for each sheet.

The purpose of the four lists is to put on paper those things that are important enough to you to write down; the actual act of putting pen or pencil to paper is important because it is a record of how you feel about a particular part of your life.

At any rate, you should have four lists:





Now here comes the fun part.

Take the THINGS I AM GOOD AT paper and place it next to THINGS THAT I HATE TO DO.  Put the other sheets aside for now.

Starting at the top of the THINGS I AM GOOD AT sheet, look for any matches in the THINGS THAT I HATE TO DO list.  If there are any matches, then cross them off the “GOOD AT” list.

When I did this the first time it was a startling exercise because I had never really thought about my talents and skills from the perspective of whether I liked to do them or not.  On my “GOOD AT” list, for example, was curriculum management for military training and education courses.  I have a lot experience setting up and running training programs, classes, and programs of instruction.  So much experience that I was actually regarded as being an expert of sorts on the subject.  That said, on my “HATE TO DO” list I had written down bureaucratic paperwork –  and that is exactly what curriculum management is all about.  I had never really considered that I did not like to do the tasks associated with curriculum development and management, but by performing this simple exercise I came to the realization that I really didn’t want to pursue it as a future career despite having many opportunities to do so.

Now move on to the THINGS I AM BAD AT and THINGS THAT I LIKE TO DO lists.

This pairing takes a little more consideration.  Just because you are bad at something doesn’t mean that you can’t get better at it.  So for this list, start at the top of the “LIKE TO DO” list and compare it to the “BAD AT” list.  It may sound odd, but maybe you like skiing but have never had a chance to hit the slopes enough to improve past the bunny hill.

If there are any matches, then ask yourself this question:

“I really like writing (or woodworking, or gardening, or school, or whatever) but I am not good at it.  Is it something that I am willing to dedicate my energies to becoming better at in the future?”

This is important because it may be a doorway into a new career path or other life choice.  Maybe you can go to school to learn how to be better at whatever it is, or perhaps you will find an apprenticeship or some other program to enter that field.  Or, if you really want to become a better skiier, moving to a state like Colorado or Utah may be a good idea.

However, if you are not willing to dedicate your energies to get better, then cross it off the “LIKE TO DO” list.

So now your lists should be a little shorter.  Time for the next step.

Place your “LIKE TO DO” and “GOOD AT” lists next to each other.  Now look for matches.  What do you like to do that is also something you are good at?  Circle those matches in big red marker.

Now line up the “BAD AT” and “HATE TO DO” lists.  Any matches here?  If so, circle those as well.

Here is the last step: Line up all four sheets on the table, starting with “LIKE TO DO”, then “GOOD AT”, then “BAD AT” and “HATE TO DO”.  These four sheets of paper represent the spectrum of possibilities that you can pursue, based on your thoughtfully created lists.

What strikes you on the “LIKE/GOOD” side?  Do any of those circled items jump out at you?  Is there something that gets quickens your pulse?  That may be a path to a rewarding future.  How about the “BAD/HATE” side?  Is there anything there that makes you nauseous?  You probably ought to steer clear of those.

This is really an exercise in thinking about your future.  All military people, whether they serve three years or thirty, depart the service with a set of skills and talents that they have dedicated themselves to.  Just because you were really good at your job in uniform does not mean that it is the only thing you can do for the rest of your life.  If you are not careful you will become myopic and it will significantly impact your future; if all you see yourself as is an infantryman then you will have a hard time finding a job in the civilian world.

A common problem that I see with veterans I work with is that they are fixated on who they were, and not on who they could be.  Their military past so rigidly defined their persona that they have difficulty getting past their short haircuts and affectation for military jargon.

There is nothing wrong with being incredibly proud of your service and the Marine, Sailor, Soldier, or Airman that you were whilst in uniform.  To start a new career, however, means that you must be willing to accept that you are no longer in the military but instead are able to follow a new path in life.  You may have been the greatest infantryman on the planet but if you want a job in the corporate sector you need to recognize that there are no infantry units in the civilian world.

Hopefully this little exercise uncovered some opportunities that you can pursue in the future, and it showed that you are capable finding a new and rewarding career for your life after the military.

If nothing else, it gave you something to do for a couple of days.

All it cost was four pieces of paper.