Army Announces Changes to Tuition Assistance

Army Announces Changes to Tuition Assistance

By Debbie Gregory.

On December 4th, the Army issued a formal statement, announcing the much anticipated changes to their Tuition Assistance (TA) program that will affect all Soldiers in the active and Reserve components. The statement announced that there will be new restrictions and limitations put in place for Army TA, beginning January 1st, 2014.

According to the changes, TA will not be available to Soldiers until one full year after they complete Initial Entry Training (IET). Soldiers in their first year of service in the Army will no longer be able to use the benefit, and will have to wait until their first year has been completed.

The Army also implemented a tighter limit on the type and amount of units that Soldiers utilizing TA can take. Beginning the first of the year, Soldiers can take up to 16 semester hours per fiscal year. Also, a Soldier must complete 10 years of service before using TA to earn a post-baccalaureate degree. However, if a Soldier earned their Bachelor’s degree without using Tuition Assistance, they do not need to wait the 10 years.

Most other policies remain the same. Soldiers are still allowed up to $250 per semester hour. Bachelor’s degrees are capped at 130 units, and Master’s degrees are still at 39 units. And Soldiers who use TA must still utilize an approved degree plan on their GoArmy Ed website.

TA will also remain with the same rules as far as degree/certificate eligibility. TA cannot be used to gain any form of second degree, if a Soldier already possess an equivalent degree from another school or in another subject. For example, if a Soldier already has a Bachelor’s degree, they cannot use TA to get another Bachelor’s degree. And TA still cannot be used for a Soldier to gain such degrees as a PhD, MD or JD. These degrees are considered “first professional degrees”, and the Army has other full-funded programs to aid Soldiers in attaining them. TA will still allow Soldiers to obtain one post-secondary certificate or diploma. TA can also continue to be used for courses leading to initial teacher certification programs.

These changes to Army Tuition Assistance are unfortunate and will affect the education of thousands of Soldiers. But we should be reminded that Tuition Assistance was meant to be a retention tool for the Army, first and foremost. Soldiers are supposed to utilize TA in their off time in order to further their education so that they can rise through the military ranks, not their future civilian careers. These changes were a necessary measure, made to ensure that Army money was spent on the Army and its future. American Soldiers still have access to the greatest education benefits in the world, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

A Real Captain America and Alliance of Super Friends?

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By Military Connection Staff Writer Joe Silva.

Comic books, movies and TV shows have produced thrilling stories that inspire children and motivate adults. The heroes of these fantastical epics are usually born on another planet or possess some type of genetic mutation that grants them some type of extraordinary power. Utilizing their awesome powers, these superheroes save the Earth. We adore them and try to emulate their greatness.

Men do not always need super powers in order to overcome adversity and achieve greatness. US Army Captain Iván Castro is proof of this.

Iván Castro was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1967. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1988. As an enlisted soldier, Castro deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm, and then was deployed to Columbia, Belize and Ecuador.

In 2004, Sergeant Castro finished his BA degree and attended the Army’s Officer Candidate School. He was then deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, and to Iraq in 2006. During this second trip to Iraq, an enemy mortar round landed near Castro, killing two of his men and sending shrapnel through several parts of his body. Castro fractured several bones in his face, losing his right eye and received numerous metal fragments in his left eye.  Additionally, he suffered collapsed lungs, received excessive damage to his shoulder, and  lost one of his fingers  in the blast.

Castro was alive, but his body was broken, and his sight was taken from him. Many mortals would have given up at this point and accepted their fate to a life of convalescence. But Iván Castro literally soldiered on. Now, Captain Castro has a permanent assignment at the Army’s Special Operations Command, at the 7th Special Forces Group Headquarters located at Fort Brag NC.

Castro’s transformation was not the typical change that most superheroes experience. But his change unleashed a power within him that every superhero requires and every mortal admires– fortitude.

Unlike superhuman abilities found in comic book heroes,  Castro’s power, his existence and his feats are real. Despite his injuries and despite losing his sight, not only is Captain Castro still serving his country, but he has also completed dozens of marathons and long distance races.

Currently, our real life Captain America has teamed up with some fellow super-friends to compete in the 2013 Walking With the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge. This competition is comprised of teams of wounded warriors from the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Commonwealth. Three teams will trek 208 miles through Antarctica to the South Pole, through temperatures reaching -49°F and 50 mph winds, in order to raise awareness and funds to help wounded, injured and sick Allied Veterans around the world.

Captain Castro is joined on Team U.S. by fellow wounded warriors: Air Force Veteran Therese Frentz; Army Veteran Mark Wise, and Army Veteran Margaux Mange. Team U.S. is mentored by the competition’s co-founder, Ed Parker, and led by their guide, Inge Solheim.

Team U.K. is made up of wounded British Veterans Duncan Slater, Ibrar Ali, Kate Philp and Guy Disney. Their mentor is Richard Eyre, and their leader/guide is Conrad Dickinson. The patron of Team U.K., joining the team on the trek, is Prince Harry of Wales.

Team Commonwealth is made up of Wounded Veterans Heath Jamieson of Australia, Seamus Donaghue of Australia, Alexandre Beaudin D’Anjou of Canada, and Chris Downey of Canada. Team Commonwealth is mentored by Simon Daglish and led by Eric Philips.

This Alliance of super heroes, much like their fictional counterparts, inspires us to be greater than our mortal selves. Their fortitude is a real “Super Power”.

The Basics of USERRA LAWS

USERRA LAWS

By Debbie Gregory.

Veterans have rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). They should be aware of their civilian employment rights and their re-employment rights under USERRA.

Did you know that employees who satisfy the eligibility requirement under USERRA are entitled to re-employment, as long as they are a member of the U.S. Armed Services and meet the following conditions?

  • The Veteran employee must have civilian employment.
  • The Veteran employee must have given their employer notice prior to military service.
  • The Veteran employee’s time away from employment due to military service must be less than five years.
  • The Veteran employee must have at least a General Discharge under Honorable Conditions. Although generally, personnel seeking USERRA protection are required to have an Honorable Discharge from the military.
  • When discharged, Veteran employees must report back to work within a certain specified period of time.

Veteran employees must have given notice to their employer before leaving the military. Notice to the employer may be either written or oral, and does not need to follow any particular kind of format.

Veteran employees should know that they do not need to have received the employer’s permission before leaving for military service in order to protect their re-employment rights. Veteran Employees do not even need to have made a decision whether or not to return back to work when they ship out for military service.

Under USERRA, eligible Veteran employees are to be re-employed, not in the same job that they had, but what job they could have attained had they not been absent for military service. Veteran Employees are also to be provided with the same seniority, status and pay, in addition to other rights and benefits, determined by the seniority they would have attained.

USERRA requires that reasonable efforts be made to train returning Veteran Employees in order to help them qualify for re-employment.

Veteran employees are required to notify their pre-service employer of their intent to return to their previous position by either reporting to work or submitting a timely application for re-employment.  Applications do not need to be in writing.

Veterans who fail to comply with USERRA’s application requirements are not automatically disqualified for entitlement to USERRA’s protection, but shall be subject to the conduct rules, established policy, and general practices of the employer pertaining to explanations and discipline with respect to absence from scheduled work.

The US Congress enacted USERRA in order to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of military service, as well as to provide prompt re-employment to those individuals who engage in non-career service in the military.

Christine Fox New Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense

Christine Fox New Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense

By Debbie Gregory.

Department of Defense is set to receive its highest ranking female ever. With the departure of  Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, President Obama appointed Christine Fox to serve as Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense.

In her former position of Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation for the DoD, Fox was part of the  Strategic Choices and Management Review. In that capacity, Fox helped find ways to reform military spending and determine how it would affect the department and its assets.

Earlier this year, Fox left the Pentagon to become a technical advisor at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Since September, Fox has served as an unpaid advisor to former Deputy Secretary Carter. Previous roles with the DOD have assisted Fox with her appointment as the DoD promotes personnel continuity.

Ms. Fox has been an outspoken critic of the way that political leaders handled their impasse over the national budget.  “Pretending that the ongoing political stalemate that perpetuates that the sequester is not harmful is the most harmful thing we can do,” Fox wrote for a Defense News opinion piece in September.

In the past, Fox has also called for restricting the growing degree of compensation for DOD personnel, in order to achieve savings.

“Going where the ‘real money’ is invariably leads to compensation … The 2000s saw substantial military pay and benefit increases leading to a compensation package that cannot be sustained under today’s budget circumstances — at least without making truly damaging (and dangerous) cuts elsewhere … Significant savings are possible in the compensation category that could mitigate the sequesters’ damage — between $50 billion and $100 billion over the next decade if riskier and more controversial [budget reform] options are included,” she said in Defense News.

Due to her intricate knowledge of the department’s budget, programs and operations, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expects Fox to contribute from day one. Hagel said that Fox will serve as Acting Deputy Secretary “pending the nomination and confirmation of a permanent successor to Deputy Secretary Carter.” Fox assumed her new position on December 5th.

VA Launches New Dental Insurance Plan

VA dental

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made arrangements to make dental insurance available to Veterans at an affordable price. Starting November 15th, the VA launched a partnership with Delta Dental and MetLife, called the VA Dental Insurance Plan (VADIP). The VADIP allows Veterans and dependents who are receiving medical care under the Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA) to purchase dental insurance. CHAMPVA participants are usually dependents or survivors of Veterans with a VA rating of “permanently and totally” disabled through a service-connected condition.

There are currently more than 8 million Veterans and 400,000 dependents enrolled in VA healthcare.  This new program is designed for those Veterans with no dental coverage, or for Veterans who are eligible for VA dental care. Veterans who meet the criteria can now choose to pay for dental insurance. Enrollment in VADIP is not mandatory and participation in the new program is not supposed to affect entitlement to VA dental care, services and treatments.

The VA’s new dental insurance provides Veterans with dental services that include diagnostic, preventive, surgical, emergency and endodontic/restorative treatments.  Those who participate in VADIP are  responsible for the premiums, ranging from $8.65 to $52.90 per month, depending on the plan.  Copayments and other charges also may apply.

The new dental insurance is not linked to priority assignment or rating of service-connected disability. The VA will also continue to provide free dental care to Veterans with dental issues derived from a officially certified service-connected ailments.

Veterans who are interested in finding out more, or wish to fill out an application for the new VA dental insurance should inquire online at Delta Dental or MetLife.

Veterans who are not currently enrolled in the VA health care system can apply at any time by visiting the VA’s enrollment webpage or by calling 1-877-222-VETS (8387).

How Employers Can Help Veterans

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By Debbie Gregory.

There are thousands of companies that say they want to hire Veterans,  and hundreds of companies that have stated missions to hire Veterans. But by their own criteria, many of these same companies often eliminate many Veteran job candidates who are qualified for the posted positions. Here is a list of measures that EMPLOYERS can implement in order to help meet their goals of hiring Veterans:

Get familiar with Military training and experience

Every job requires “experience.” But too often, Veterans aren’t hired for positions because their military experience isn’t up to a hiring manager’s standards. Veterans have more experience in following directives, learning new skills and completing tasks than their civilian competitors. A Veteran’s time spent in-service should never count against him or her. But many employers dismiss a Veteran’s experience level because that experience was not gained in an office or industrial setting. Employers who are truly interested in hiring Veterans will get up to speed on what military jobs and pay-grades equate to the level of experience they are looking to hire.

Make your company known to Veterans

While it’s true that Veterans are the ones looking for employment, and they should be the ones seeking out companies to hire them, companies shouldn’t look past the fact that its employees are its greatest asset. And the most dedicated and productive employees come from the military community. So a company that claims that it wants to hire Veterans and wants the best assets working for them will seek out and hire Veterans. These companies will have representatives at job fairs, and will make themselves known at colleges, employment offices and Veteran centers, making it known that they WANT Veterans working for them.

Make your company Veteran-Friendly-

Taking care of Veterans doesn’t end with a job offer. Veterans are patriotic, family-oriented workers and leaders who like events that honor their country, their families and their service. If your company doesn’t already do so, start participating in national holidays. Recognize Veterans on Veterans Day and the 4th of July, honor the fallen on Memorial Day (and please don’t thank living Veterans on this day), and hold special functions that welcome all of your employees’ families to participate throughout the year. Your employees will appreciate this.

Demand more from your Veteran employees-

Just because your employee is ex-military doesn’t make them perfect. Military life molds its members into adaptability. If you provide a workplace atmosphere that has low expectations, your Veteran employee could settle into cruise mode. In order to get the most out of your Veteran employee and help them succeed in their career, you should set ambitious goals and expectations for them to reach. You will be surprised at the reaction you will get when you place a mission in front of a Veteran.

Set the trend-

Currently, the unemployment rate for Global War on Terrorism Veterans is over 10%. And the DOD projects approximately 200,000 more active-duty members will separate from the military each year for the next five years. Companies who set the precedent of hiring Veterans now will be able to create and improve their programs for Veteran employees. This will help them get the most out of each wave of fresh Veterans. Those who set the bar now will be looked back on from the future as innovators and successes in their fields, with their able workforce made up of U.S. military Veterans.

California Loves its Veterans

California Loves its Vets

By Debbie Gregory.

Currently, almost 2 million Veterans live in California. And the Golden State is also home to more than 30 military installations. California’s past and present hold strong ties to the U.S. military and those who serve, have served, and their families. California state government provides many benefits that ensure a strong bond going into the future as well.

State agencies have many programs and discounts available to eligible Veterans that many may not be aware of. Here is a brief list of some of the many ways that the State of California provides for its Veterans:

College Tuition Fee Waiver- Non-residency fees are waived for all Military Students at any University of California, California State University or Community College. Tuition fees for disabled Vets and their dependents are also waived. (Does not cover books, housing or parking.)  See your school’s Veterans Affairs office for eligibility.

Veteran Housing and Home Loans- The California Department of Veterans Affairs can provide low cost residential housing, assisted living or medical care facility housing for aged or disabled Veterans. There are also direct loans from the state for Veterans who wish to purchase a home or farm. Interested Veterans should inquire at their local CalVet office or visit the website at http://www.calvet.ca.gov/HomeLoans/Default.aspx.

Vehicle Registration Fee Waiver- Free vehicle registration on one passenger vehicle for Medal of Honor recipients, former Prisoners of War, and Disabled Veterans. Fees for Handicap placards and plates for 100% disabled Vets will also be waived.

Veteran License Plates: “Honoring Veterans” CA license plates that feature your branch’s emblem as the first of your 7 digit plate number can be purchased. For sequential plates, the initial cost is $50, with a $40 a year renewal. To personalize the remaining 6 digits on your plates the initial cost is $78, with a $40 a year renewal. For more information visit your local CA DMV office or visit the CA DMV website.

Employment and Unemployment Insurance Assistance- All Veterans can utilize state offered assistance for obtaining training and finding employment, as well as state unemployment insurance. Contact your local CA Employment Development Department (EDD) office for more information.

Preference in Civil Service Examinations- Veterans receive additional points added to their scores when taking  Civil Service Entrance Exams.  Contact your local VA office for more details.

Disabled Veteran Business Enterprise (DVBE) Opportunities- Veterans with a minimum 10% disability rating, who own 51% or more of their business, can participate in a statewide goal of awarding 3% of all state contracts to disabled Veterans.

Fishing and Hunting Licenses- Veterans with a 50% or more disability rating may qualify for reduced annual fees for fishing and hunting licenses. First time users will have to show proof of VA disability rating.

State of California Veterans Cemetery- Veterans and dependents who are eligible to be buried in a national cemetery can be buried in a California Veterans cemetery. Eligible Veterans will receive full burial service at no cost, services for dependents are only $500.

Registry at the California Veterans Memorial- Every Veteran from the state of California is entitled to add their name, rank and branch of service to the CA Veterans registry that is displayed in a kiosk at the California Veterans Memorial, at no cost. For a minimal fee, CA Veterans can include a photo ($35) and a 100-word statement ($15).

For the Sake of Veterans, Lawmakers Must Pass the Vow to Hire Heroes Extension Act of 2013

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By Debbie Gregory.

MilitaryConnection.com fully supports the passage of the Vow to Hire Heroes Extension Act of 2013 H.R. 3395. This bill is good for business, employers and Veterans. It is also good for our nation and the economy. It should receive the full support from both sides of the political aisle.

Veterans are a valuable resource that American employers should be utilizing. Doing so improves business and product quality. Today’s Veterans are military-disciplined workers and battle-hardened leaders who are better served in a company’s chain of command than in an unemployment line. Veteran employees can also bring employers tax breaks, if the Vow to Hire Heroes Extension Act gets passed through Congress.

Just as much as companies need Veterans, employment is also essential for a Veteran’s morale. Studies have proven that employed Veterans are less likely to have drug and alcohol addictions, and are also less likely to commit suicide. An employed Veteran is more likely to help their company succeed with their financial missions. An employed Veteran is a pillar of their community, a testament to the Great American Dream.

Since 2011, companies that have hired Veterans have been rewarded through the VOW to Hire Heroes Act.  Through the act, the U.S. Government has extended these companies tax breaks, ranging from $2,400 to $9,600 per unemployed Veteran hired, depending on their length of unemployment and other specifics. This program has paved the way for thousands of Veterans to find meaningful careers in the civilian world, and thousands of companies to find quality employees and financial gains.

The original Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 was  bipartisan, bicameral comprehensive legislation designed to lower the unemployment rate of current Veterans. The act focused on education and training current and future Veterans in order to help them transition into the civilian corporate world. These measures included improving the military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP).

Approval of the Vow to Hire Heroes Extension Act will extend the current benefits and tax credits through December 31, 2016. The new bill will also feature improvements from the current VOW to Hire Heroes Act. Previously, employers and Veteran job-seekers had to utilize an employment agency in order to verify the company’s legitimacy and the Veterans’ unemployment and disability statuses. Under the new bill, an agency is permitted, but is no longer required.

The new bill will also allow qualified tax-exempt organizations to make credit available against payroll taxes for hiring Veterans. It will also allow for-profit organizations who have not generated profits for the three previous consecutive years to make credit against payroll taxes for hiring a Veteran.

The U.S. government should be doing everything to help businesses and Veterans in this struggling economy. Businesses and Veterans can help themselves by supporting and promoting the Vow to Hire Heroes Extension Act.

Please join me in contacting your elected officials at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov and urge their support. Time is running out.

Debbie Gregory,
CEO, MilitaryConnection.com
Founder, VAMBOA.org

USA Warriors: A Team of Heroes

USA Warriors

By Debbie Gregory.

Americans love their sports. Since childhood, sports ingrain in our brains the competitive force that drives Americans to be winners. Playing sports tests our physical abilities and hones our mental strength. Americans love to watch sports because the victories of our favorite teams or athletes inspire us to achieve such greatness for ourselves.

There is one team heating up the ice in Maryland and all over the country. This team’s greatness is not measured in wins and losses. The very existence of the team is a triumph. Those who see this team on the ice want to emulate the mental strength and physical fortitude of its athletes.

The USA Warriors Ice Hockey team has been inspiring Americans since 2008. Not only is the team made up entirely of US military Veterans, but all of the Vets have been injured in combat. Most of the team members have been awarded the Purple Heart, and half of them are amputees.

The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program was developed as a non-profit organization, operating solely for the benefit of those wounded while serving the country. The program is designed to “educate, train, motivate and encourage” service-wounded Vets though athletic training and competition. According to its website, the program’s mission is to “organize and administer [for wounded Veterans] an ice hockey program that provides a recreational, therapeutic experience and education.” The program is a participant of both USA Hockey, Inc and the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, Inc.

The player roster for the program is broken down into two teams, “standing” and “sled” players. The standing players play by rules that many hockey fans will recognize with standard equipment.

Sled players are players who have a disability that prohibits them from standing up. For the USA Warriors, this includes amputees from the Global War on Terror. Instead of skating, players are seated on a sled made of aluminum. Instead of one long hockey stick, sled players use two smaller sticks (of up to 100 cm max). These sticks are used to pass and shoot the puck as well as to propel themselves on their sleds.

This team of heroes practices constantly as part of their therapy. The team also flexes its greatness by competing against other teams. Just recently, the Warriors Sled Team was backed by the Washington Capitals in the annual USA Hockey Sled Classic. For the second year in a row, the USA Warriors (aka Washington Capitals) Sled team were champions of their division.

The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program is completely staffed by volunteers, both on and off the ice. These volunteers ask for no salary or compensation for their time or efforts. And the program never asks the wounded Vets who participate to pay for equipment, ice time or anything program related. This great charity is funded by Disabled American Veterans and through donations by those inspired by this team of heroes.

Veteran Homelessness Down Due to VA & HUD Measures

Veteran Homelessness Down

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have announced that the latest national report has found that Veteran homelessness has gone down 24% since 2010.

Prepared by HUD, the 2013 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness reports that there were 57,849 homeless Veterans as of January, 2013. Homeless Vets account for 12% of all homeless adults in America. While these numbers are staggeringly high, the homeless Vet toll for 2010 was 76,329, the highest in recent years.

In 2009, President Obama and the VA announced the launch of the Homeless Veterans Initiative, which had a goal to end homelessness among Veterans by 2015. The president declared that even one Veteran without safe and stable housing was one too many. The VA has implemented campaigns designed to raise the awareness of their services and benefits for homeless Veterans and those Veterans who may be in danger of becoming homeless.

The results of their efforts have been a steady decrease in homelessness among Veterans since 2010. Veteran homelessness went down 8% between 2012 and 2013, dropping by 4,770 individuals. The 24% drop between 2010 and 2013 means that 18,480 Veterans during this time were homeless and now have homes. The VA and HUD and their efforts are to thank for many of these successes.

In May, the VA and HUD announced that they were awarding $70 million in grants to further assist battling Veteran homelessness. The two departments have partnered, combining rental assistance from HUD with case management and clinical services by the VA. Since 2008, the partnership has helped find homes for 43,371 Veterans that were homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. And since the battle against Veteran homelessness isn’t over, the efforts continue.

In July, the VA announced that $300 million in grants would be awarded to 319 community agencies in an effort to help homeless and at-risk Vets. The VA has also announced that $8.8 million in grants will be used to upgrade 164 existing Veteran housing projects. And the VA recently awarded $4.9 million in grants for 25 community-based projects to enhance services for Veterans. The money from the grants will be used to promote housing stability among homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families.  The grants can have an immediate impact, helping lift Veterans out of homelessness, or providing aid in emergencies that put Veterans and their families at risk of homelessness.

For more information about Veteran homelessness or how the VA can help a homeless Veteran, please click here.