Veterans Benefits: The VA Home Loan

Veterans Benefits: The VA Home Loan

Contributed by Alan Rohlfing

 

As members of the United States military community, we know that we have a host of benefits available to us, whether we give much conscious thought to it or not. Most of our benefits are administered by the Veterans Benefits Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that’s responsible for the Department’s programs that provide financial and other forms of assistance to Veterans, their dependents, and survivors. Eligibility for most VA benefits is based upon discharge from active military service under other than dishonorable conditions.

We’re most familiar with those programs that impact us personally. So many of us are well-versed in those benefits available in the healthcare arena, or in compensation and pension, or in education and training. Or perhaps it’s the insurance products, such as SGLI and VGLI, that resonate with you, or maybe it’s the burial and memorial services for which you qualify. The Veterans benefit that we’re going to spend a few minutes on now, however, is one that has a phenomenal impact on those that choose to use it…and that’s the VA home loan.

Long story short: VA direct and VA-backed Veterans home loans can help Veterans, service members, and eligible surviving spouses become homeowners (and buy, build, improve, or refinance a home). Created in 1944, the VA home loan program was part of the original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. Also known as the GI Bill of Rights, it was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was considered to be part of sweeping legislation aimed to level the playing field for those who served our country during World War II. Homeownership was at the heart of those efforts, and rather than provide Veterans with a cash bonus to help with the purchase of a home, the government decided a loan guarantee was a more powerful, long-term solution. Early on, the VA guarantee was limited to 50 percent of the loan amount, not to exceed $2,000. The average home price in 1944 was about $8,600. Loans had a 4 percent interest rate cap, and the term couldn’t exceed 20 years. All loans required VA approval.

So, what’s the big deal with the VA home loan program? Well, VA loans are some of the only loans around that offer no down payment (with more conventional loans, the buyer is required to provide up to 20% down); there’s no private mortgage insurance (PMI), which can save a borrower hundreds of dollars a month over conventional loans; there is a 2-3% funding fee, but not everyone has to pay that fee (such as those with a service-connected disability); and the loan limits are pretty generous. Beginning this year, there is no maximum amount for which a home buyer can receive a VA loan, but lenders may set their own limits.

As a rule, the VA isn’t a bank or a mortgage company (except for the Native American Direct Loan Program). VA Home Loans are provided by private lenders and the VA guarantees a portion of the loan…if a VA-backed home loan goes into foreclosure, the guarantee allows the lender to recover some or all of their losses. This lets the lender view the transaction as a little less risky and give the borrower more favorable terms.

As with most benefits programs, there are some pretty tight eligibility criteria. Who’s eligible for this VA program? Well, surprising to some is that VA loans are available not only to Veterans, but also other classes of military personnel. The list of eligibles includes active-duty Servicemembers, members of the National Guard & Reserve, surviving spouses of Veterans, and a few other groups.  You’ll need a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) to demonstrate eligibility to a lender, and you’ll need to meet standard VA loan requirements, such as income and employment verifications. Just because you have a COE, however, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a VA loan; it just shows the lender that you’re eligible for the VA guarantee. You can obtain a COE through eBenefits, by mail, and often through your lender. Another good thing is that your eligibility never expires…Veterans who earned their benefit long ago are still using the program to buy homes.

There are several different financial products in this broad Veterans benefit. VA-guaranteed loans are available for homes that Veterans purchase for primary occupancy or to refinance, such as the Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan (IRRRL). The IRRRL is generally performed to lower the interest and reduce the monthly payment on the existing VA guaranteed loan. There’s also the Native American Direct Loan (NADL) Program, which helps Native American Veterans purchase, construct, improve, or refinance a home on Native American trust lands; and the Adapted Housing Grants program, where the VA helps Veterans with certain total and permanent disabilities related to military service obtain suitable housing.

While the particulars of the home loan benefit have changed some over the years (and who’s to say there won’t be some modification next month or next year), here are some other factoids about the program, in excruciatingly little detail:

-A VA loan can be used to buy a detached house, condo, new-built home, manufactured home or duplex, triplex or four-unit property or to refinance an existing loan for those types of properties. You might also be able to borrow extra money to make repairs or improvements to the home; or, make it more energy efficient;

-You cannot use a VA loan to buy a home in a foreign country. You are only permitted to purchase homes located in the United States or a U.S. territory or possession;

– You can’t use a VA loan to buy a rental property, but you might be able to use a VA loan to refinance an existing rental home you once occupied as a primary home. An exception to this rule is the IRRRL, which can be used to refinance an existing VA loan for a home where you currently live or where you used to live, but no longer do;

– Federal regulations do limit loans guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to “primary residences” only, however, “primary residence” is defined as the home in which you live “most of the year;” and

– Lenders follow VA standards when making VA-backed home loans, such as requiring a high enough credit score or getting an updated home appraisal (an expert’s estimate of the value of your home). The VA does not set a minimum score for home loan approval, but experts say most lenders will require a score of 620 or higher.

I first used this benefit in the early 1990s, and I still have a VA-backed home loan today (different house, different loan). I’ve always viewed it as a great way to transition from home renter to homeowner, but I get that it’s not for everyone. If owning your own home is something you plan on experiencing in the near future, I encourage you to take a closer look at a VA home loan. I’ve read that the VA has backed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million home loans, and the program just turned 75 years last spring…I doubt it’s going away anytime soon. If you’re eligible for this benefit, it can help deliver the joys of home ownership to your doorstep, too.

 

Celebrating the Month of The Military Child

The lives of military children are marked by a unique culture and set of circumstances, oftentimes making them feel isolated from their non-military counterparts. The sacrifices these children make are easily overshadowed by the experiences of their active-duty family members. But make no mistake – a military kid has an inner strength like no other. 

Coping with the deployment of one or both parents to war zones, frequent moves, living in cultures far different from their own – these types of experiences can set military children apart. 

Studies show that there are some potentially positive outcomes of living a military life as a child. Military children tend to be very adaptable and resilient. They often have an increased cultural awareness and acceptance that can only come from connecting with various parts of the world first-hand. These kids tend to roll with the punches and shift gears with minimal stress because change is nothing new to them. 

Of course, there are two sides to every coin. Along with the upsides of a military childhood come some potential struggles. The transitory lifestyle many military children live can hinder their ability to develop concrete relationships, which may be problematic both early on and later in life. Additional concerns can stem from the variations in availability of educational resources or even just educational paradigms within which military children must work as they move from place to place. 

It’s fair to say that from a young age, this unique group of children faces challenges most civilians won’t ever have to navigate in their lifetime. 

In an effort to honor the challenges faced and sacrifices made by our military kids, former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger established April as The Month of The Military Child. Not only is this a month to focus on military child support via special programs and activities, it is a time to honor the incredible resiliency this group of young, unsung American heroes displays every day. 

Where Can I Learn About The Month of The Military Child Activities and Events?

Many of this months’ events will be hosted or sponsored by military communities across the globe. Check with the Office of Public Affairs on base to get started. Military Readiness Centers, on-base Child Development Centers, and The Department of Defense Dependent School can also be great resources to learn how your community is celebrating. 

Creative Ways to Celebrate the Month of The Military Child

Wear Purple – April 22nd is Purple Up! Day. This is the day for communities, military and non-military alike, to don purple in a show of support for military children. Purple indicates that all branches of the Military are represented. 

Eat Purple – Similar to green foods on St. Patricks Day, prepare a purple meal to show your military kids that they mean the world to you. Food coloring can easily transform everyday foods or beverages into a special treat. Think purple milk, purple mashed potatoes, or purple rice. If you want to go the more natural route, try adding purple cauliflower, grapes, or berries to your military child’s plate. 

Make a Video – Make a purple- or military-themed video in honor of The Military Child Month, and then share it on your social pages. TikTok is a fantastic platform for creating videos with all kinds of fun effects. 

Use Facebook – Engage your community online! Ask your kiddo a military-inspired question and post his or her answer. Call on other military parents to do the same and ask them share their childrens’ answers in the comments. A few ideas: 

  • What does it take to be a hero? 
  • What do you love most about being a military kid? 
  • What does being a child of the military mean to you?
  • What does honor mean to you?

Tap Into Hashtags – Don’t forget to tag your posts with the best military child hashtags around. Here are some to get you started: 

  • #kidsservetoo
  • #militarychild
  • #purpleup
  • #motmc
  • #militarykids
  • #monthofthemilitarychild

Present an “Official” Thank You – Search the web for printable certificates in honor of Month of The Military Child, or just use this one. Fill in your military kid’s name, print, and present it to him or her in a creative way. 

Decorate! – Celebrate your military child with a special space in your home. It could be his or her bedroom door, the kitchen bulletin board, a wall in your dining room or anyplace else they see regularly. Add photos of them with their military family member, mementos from different places they’ve lived, maybe even some military memorabilia that has meaning to them. 

Resources for the Military Child (and Their Families)

Whether you are expecting your first or transitioning your last to college, there are a plethora of resources available to support military children and their families.

Military Kids Connect – A place for military kids to connect with each other. The site offers opportunities for children to develop and build relationships with friends who understand what it’s like to be part of a military family. 

Focus Project – FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) provides resilience training to military children and their families by teaching practical skills to help overcome common challenges. The program helps build on each child’s current strengths and teaches new strategies for communication, problem solving, goal setting, and creating a shared family story.

Military Installations New Parent Support Program – Helps military parents, including expectant parents, transition successfully into parenthood and provide a nurturing environment for their children. The program offers support and guidance for many of the unique challenges that face military families.

MilitaryChildcare.com – This secure DOD website provides a single location to find comprehensive information on military-operated and/or military-approved childcare programs worldwide. Once you create an account and household profile, you have access to all of these resources at any time from any location. 

Military OneSource Digital LibraryYou’ll find ebooks and audiobooks on every topic imaginable. Also available are databases and reference books to help you learn a new skill and keep kids engaged.  

Celebrate Your Military Child

There’s a reason that the dandelion is the unofficial flower of the Military Child. These incredible kids bloom everywhere the winds carry them. Regardless of how you choose to celebrate The Month of The Military Child, remember the goal is simple: remind military children across the world of how incredibly important they are to our country and to their families.

PTSD Service Dogs

It’s no surprise that dogs can soothe us when we feel troubled. But research shows bonding with dogs has positive benefits even on a biological level. Dogs elevate levels of the hormone oxytocin in our bodies, which promotes feelings of trust and well being. Oxytocin also heightens the ability to interpret facial expressions, helps one overcome paranoia and can have positive effects on social interactions.

A specially trained PTSD service dog can provide an extra sense of security and have a calming effect on veterans, help with episodes of depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as being loving companions. These dogs can sense a PTSD veteran’s mood and will know when it’s a difficult day for their veteran, sometimes before the veteran may even fully realize their own emotional state. Additionally, these service dogs are trained by qualified organizations to respond to a PTSD episode and help bring their humans back to a relaxed and coherent state. 

 

Experts agree that approximately 20% of veterans experience PTSD after their time serving on the front lines of the military no matter their branch of service. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined as a mental health condition triggered by a terrifyingly traumatic event – either witnessing it or experiencing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks and nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts related to the event…and those are just a few of the symptoms and challenges veterans surviving with PTSD face each and every day.

 

From the VA, “Veterans with substantial mobility limitations associated with a mental health disorder, PTSD,  for which a service dog has been identified as the optimal way to address the mobility impairment may be eligible for  veterinary health benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Mental Health Mobility Service Dog Initiative. A diagnosis of substantial mobility limitation indicates that most common life and work activities (i.e., leaving the house, or getting to medical appointments, using public transportation, etc.) are impaired or prevented for the person more than half the time. Under the Mental Health Mobility Service Dog Initiative, this benefit has been offered for Veterans with a mental health condition. It provides comprehensive coverage for the canine’s health and wellness and any prescription medications necessary to enable the dog to perform its duties in service to the Veteran.” 

 

While the VA does not pay for the adoption or purchase of a trained service dog, there are many organizations whose mission is to help veterans obtain and learn to work with these canine companions. The VA, however, does provide, for qualifying veterans living with PTSD, a Veterinary Health Benefit and equipment for the working life of the trained PTSD service dog. This benefit is administered via the Offices of Mental Health Services and Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service at [email protected] and once a veteran is approved they are directed to an ADI-accredited agency to apply for a service dog. The VA does NOT pay for grooming, boarding, food or other routine expenses associated with dog ownership.

 

Among the many reputable and amazing organizations dedicated to helping match veterans with highly-skilled service dogs, including specialized PTSD service dogs, is K9s for Warriors. K9s for Warriors rescues and trains shelter dogs to be paired as service dogs for warriors with service-connected PostTraumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual Trauma.The goal of their work is helping to end veteran suicide and return our nation’s brave veterans to a life of independence and dignity. They are the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for disabled American veterans. To date, the organization has rescued over 1,000 shelter dogs and paired them with over 600 veterans in need. 

The non-profit organization provides PTSD service dogs of the highest quality at no cost to those participating in the  program in order to help restore their physical and emotional independence.  Their focus is on healing – helping the veteran and paired service dog build a bond to facilitate healing and recovery.  As the healing takes place, the reintegration to society begins. Warriors can return to their communities with a new “leash” on life as productive citizens who make a positive difference. After completing their three-week training program the veterans have gained the emotional means to repair their relationship with themselves, their families and their friends. 

Roughly 90% of their service dogs come from shelters or are owner-surrendered. Instead of a life of abandonment or euthanasia, they are given a new purpose.  With each graduate pair, K9’s for Warriors save two lives; they rescue the dog, and the dog rescues the warrior. 

Currently, K9’s for Warriors works exclusively with veterans disabled serving during or after 9/11/01. While the disability does not need to be combat related, applicants must have a verified, clinical diagnosis of PTSD, TBI, or MST to qualify for the program. At this time, K9s For Warriors does not provide Service Dogs to individuals who are legally blind or hearing impaired. They accept applications from all 50 states. Before being matched with their new PTSD service dog, applicants participate in a phone interview to assess their needs, discuss their lifestyle, work environment, personality and family. Veterans also must agree to a background check before acceptance into the program and meeting their dog. Experts working with the organization pair candidates with the service dog best suited for them. Veterans do not get to choose their dog nor supply their own dog to the K9s for Warriors for training.  

Once accepted, the training program takes 21 days to complete. Veterans travel to one of the organization’s two campuses in Florida for the duration of the training. Since this is a full immersion program, veterans stay and have their meals at the campus. During this three week period humans and canines learn to work together and bond to each other in order to effectively mitigate the precise needs of the veteran. 

 

PTSD service dogs can be specifically trained to calm their veteran when they are having a flashback or panic attack, use their bodies to prevent their veteran from feeling anxious and uncomfortable when out in society and alert them to sounds and lights that may go unnoticed when they are in the midst of an episode, like a smoke or house alarm.They can remind their veteran to take their medications, provide emotional support that may help lower instances of substance abuse and so much more. Many people, veterans living with PTSD, and otherwise find comfort in the unconditional love a dog provides and have an easier time allowing them to provide that comfort, companionship and assistance than with another person aiding them. 

For more information about the K9’s for Warriors organization,  visit https://www.k9sforwarriors.org/

 

 

 

ROTC & You

As a teen, one who attended an all girls private school, I only heard the letters ROTC in passing. We had a neighbor whose son, around my age talked about possibly joining the program at his school. Enter the social media age in the 2000’s and the occasional friend posts photos of their child(ren) participating in ROTC drills or activities. Flash forward another handful of years, my son as a boy scout knows several older scouts participating in ROTC programs at their high schools yet I have still no clue what the program is or does other than to have an affiliation with our military services.

 

ROTC is an acronym for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and its goal is to train young adults for a future in the branches of the U.S. Military. The Army, Air Force and Navy each have their own ROTC program offered at more than 1700 colleges and universities throughout the US. In exchange for a paid college tuition and a guaranteed post-college career, cadets commit to serve in the military after their college graduation.The Air Force also has a Jr. ROTC program offered at many public high schools throughout the country. 

 

The JROTC and ROTC programs share a point of origin: the National Defense Act of 1916. The passage of this legislation united military training resources under a single federal umbrella. This allowed high schools and colleges to obtain military training instructors and supply funding from a single ROTC organization. Title 10 Section 2031 of the U.S. Code describes how JROTC programs provide students with at least three years of military instruction, along with access to uniforms, academic materials, and instructors who have served as U.S. Armed Forces officers. According to numbers published by the U.S. Army, over 500,000 high school students serve as JROTC cadets across all the branches. 

 

Often, the strongest reason for students to enroll in a ROTC program is the benefit of paid college tuition, fees, books and other necessities of college life. While the offset of these costs is certainly helpful, it is important to remember that ROTC scholarships come with the commitment of mandatory active duty service after completion of a bachelor’s degree program. In addition to the financial benefits, enrollment in an ROTC program provides young adults the opportunity to develop technical and leadership skills, a structured path to a career after college, specialized professional training for military officer positions after college and long-term career guidance and continued professional education.

 

Even if a student has not participated in high school JR ROTC, they can still apply and participate at the beginning of their college career. At the collegiate level, each branch (minus the Coast Guard which has its own similar program) has its own specialized ROTC program. 

 

The types of training programs, service commitments and possible career specialities vary from branch to branch. The Army’s program, arguably the most popular among college students and offered at over 1000 colleges and universities, cadets receive training in army leadership, military tactics, principles of war and combat survival training. Cadets commit to serve for three to eight years, depending on scholarship level. Among the many career paths within the Army cadets pursue futures within the infantry, military intelligence, civil affairs and the medical corps. The Air Force’s program is nearly as popular and offered at just as many colleges and universities across the country. Participants train and study laws of armed conflict, international security, aerospace studies and field training among other studies and areas of concentration. Individuals serve between four and ten years depending on contract cadet appointment. Cadets can pursue a future in air battle management, aircraft maintenance, cyberspace operations, piloting and tactical air control. The US Navy and the Marine Corps share one program for both branches offered at over 150 institutes of higher learning across the country. Cadets participate in summer cruise training, surface warfare orientation, flight time on navy aircraft, and maritime self-defense programs. Cadets commit to serve between 3-12 years of active military service, depending on scholarship acceptance and degree level. After completion of the program cadets can pursue futures in submarine, explosive ordnance disposal, US Marine Corps, Navy Nursing Corps among other careers within both branches. 

Many young adults considering a path in the armed forces choose to participate in Junior ROTC programs at their local high school. Students may be eligible to enroll as early as the 9th grade. Each branch of the military has their own program for this age group and are available throughout both public and private high schools as well as alternative learning centers throughout the country. Citizenship, leadership, character and community service are the core tenets of high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, or JROTC. Those values are at the heart of the JROTC Cadet Creed that emphasizes working to better the cadet’s family, school and country. The primary goal of the Junior ROTC program is good citizenship. Students who participate in JROTC are not required to join the military after high school and the program is not a military preparation class. JROTC programs are taught by retired service members. Course work includes military history and customs – which is typically branch-specific – and students are required to wear a uniform that mirrors what military personnel wear in their respective branches. Students typically only need to wear their full uniform once per week throughout the entire school year and part of their grade is dependent on their compliance with the uniform policy. Full uniforms must always be worn for JROTC events outside of the classroom. Among other activities students often take part in physical fitness training and drill instruction. 

 

Joining the ROTC or JROTC can be a fulfilling experience for many young adults about to embark on their futures. It is important to keep in mind, at the college level, that active duty service is mandatory as part of the program. That choice may not be right for everyone. For those who have the dedication and drive to embark on this journey it is the unique chance to have a head start in their career with the military. ROTC cadets (students in training) cannot be called for service until they graduate and finish the program, so there are no interruptions while in school for an undergraduate or bachelor’s degree. There are many opportunities for postgraduate education and scholarships for ROTC graduates after fulfilling active duty, so the program can also prepare cadets for a life and career after their service.