Hello all. My name is Laura Prater. My husband, Clay recently retired after 20+ years of service in the United States Army. Over the past 20 years of his career his life was reminiscent to the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere.” Clay PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station – military lingo for pack up and move because the Army said so) from one side of the country to the other, literally. He has been stationed or have trained on just about every military installation in the continental United States, not to mention assignments in South Korea and Germany. Oh, and there were the deployments, training exercises and more deployments. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I wanted to share with you a piece – a checklist if you will – of helpful information for you prior to your transition from the military to civilian in regards to VA Benefits. This transition comes easy for some, but difficult for others. Some of the information I provide you may already know. However, my hope is that this information will benefit you.
These items I list are in no order of importance. Please disregard the line item numbers. This is to help me stay the course and provide streamlined information as accurately as possible.
Here is my Checklist:
- Document EVERYTHING! I don’t care how minor the issue, go to sick call and get it documented. When you begin your transition, the VA requires a copy (digital or hard copy) of your medical records. It’s difficult to claim a disability when you’ve never gone to a doctor or physician and had it documented. I say it’s difficult because it’s not impossible; it’s highly unlikely. You must approach the VA as if you are the person scrutinizing your own claim. Having said that, document everything!
- Make copies. As mentioned above, the VA requires a copy of your medical records. It behooves you to make a copy of the records. If you’ve served one day in the military then you already know paperwork gets lost. Don’t be a statistic and do yourself a favor by making copies. In the event you need to file an appeal with the VA, you will need those records. Never give your only copy away. Also, around 2005 (give or take a year or two), the military medical system went online. That means your medical records are on an online medical system server. If you’re like my husband and enlisted prior to 2005, part of your records are hard copies. Worse yet, he spent four years of his military career as a recruiter. That means he had medical records from a civilian doctor. What we found out was that the military medical system frowned upon civilian records. For example, he was stationed at Fort Bliss, TX, after recruiting. When we left Fort Bliss, all Clay’s civilian medical records were missing. Luckily, he had made copies and inserted them back into my medical jacket. However, every time we PCS’d, the same happened to his civilian medical records. If you remember nothing else from reading this, remember this: MAKE COPIES!
- E-Benefits. Each branch of the military as some sort of ACAP (classes that help the service member transition back into civilian life). Part of the ACAP process is establishing an account on E-Benefits. The website is https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/homepage. This website allows you (the service member) to track and manage your benefits. You can also establish care at the closest VA medical center through this website. There is a lot of information provided. Please take time to navigate through the website and familiarize yourself with the information provided.
- Disability claims. Claim everything. Sore knees? Claim. Injured your wrist in training? Claim. You can not get approved a disability claim unless you claim a disability. Do not be shy, timid, or think the claim “isn’t that bad.” If you have had an issue with your health (physical or mental) caused by your service, or the underlying condition could become worse as time goes along, claim the disability. Your VA reps can help you fill out the paperwork.
- Service Officer. The VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) offers assistance when filing VA claims. The claims process can be confusing and one that service members and veterans shouldn’t try to navigate alone. VFW Service Officers are trained experts, helping veterans develop their case with ease by reviewing and applying current law, pertinent legislation, regulations and medical histories. As skilled professionals, they assist in filing for disability compensation, rehabilitation and education programs, pension and death benefits, and employment and training programs. Furthermore, they won’t hesitate to request hearings before the VA and the Board of Veterans Appeals to present oral arguments when needed. This is a service the VFW is proud to offer–free of charge–to anyone seeking assistance with the claims process.
- Do not wait! Get your medical documents together as soon as possible. When Clay retired, it was out of South Korea. The wait time to obtain a copy of his records was about a month. If you wait until the last minute, there could be a delay, or worse, a denial of benefits. Get seen by medical professionals, get your concerns documented and request the records.
- Be prepared. I wish I could tell you the rhyme or reason why the VA approves and denies claims. Frankly, I’m as confused concerning the approvals and denials of benefits as you may very well be. Having said that, be prepared to appeal. Chances are you may not have to appeal; however, be prepared to appeal. It’s always better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Keep copies of your medical records secure. The copies that will be provided to you will more than likely be digital copies. Continue to monitor, manage and track the VA claims process through E-Benefits. Don’t hesitate to contact a VFW Service Officer to assist you in the claims process. Continue to ask questions as they arise and research on your own. There is a wealth of information that service members like yourself have shared.
- Be patient. The process could take up to 6 months before you receive your disability rating. There is absolutely nothing you can do to speed along the process. Every VA area is different in regards to timing. We decided to retire in Tennessee. The wait time for my disability rating was a lot quicker than most of our friends who retired in other states, yet slower in a few other states. The point I’m trying to make is to be patient. Monitor the process through E-Benefits. You can call the VA everyday, but it makes no difference. When the VA gets to you, they will get to you. Remember there are hundreds of other service members who are going through the same process as you. Be patient.
- VA Appointments. If you are retiring, you will receive a call from the VA to schedule your VA appointment prior to your official retirement date. Ensure your information is up-to-date with the VA through the E-Benefits website. Whatever phone number you designate as your point of contact, try to keep it until your appointments are complete. The last thing you want is a missed call or missed appointment. These appointments will take place as the nearest VA medical facility. You will also receive a small travel reimbursement for the mileage it takes to drive there. Be prepared for the appointment to last at least 2 hours. You will be asked a plethora of questions and will be checked physically from head to toe. If you are claiming a mental disability claim, you will also be seen by a psychologist or licensed therapist. If you are not retiring, the process is the same, but the appointments may or may not occur prior to your official ETS date.
Our transition was fairly easy. Clay was blessed with a tremendous VA staff while undergoing this process in South Korea. He was shown how to properly complete the paperwork and they handled my case with the utmost importance. Unfortunately, not all service members receive the same care in this process. I hope my “Checklist” aids you in your claims process. Reach out to other veterans and visit your local VFW. The guys and gals in the VFW are loaded with helpful information.
Good luck and God speed.
Clayton Prater with his wife Laura