Obama calls for changes to Military Benefits: Wants Current Troops to be “Grandfathered”

mc5

By Debbie Gregory.

Total military compensation now eats up about one-third of the Defense Department’s budget. Earlier this month in a letter to Congress, President Obama announced that military pay increases will be capped at 1%, instead of the 1.8%  that the House had approved.

Finding more ways to cut spending, law makers, including President Obama, are considering restructuring the military’s retirement and compensation system. The president gave instructions to the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission, a task force created by Congress, which informed its members to begin efforts to overhaul the current military pay and benefits scheme. The commission will focus on retirement, the military’s current promotion system, and force shaping tools.

Some of the proposed changes to retirement include those that would give limited retirement benefits to service members who leave the military before reaching the 20-year mark. Under the current retirement rules, service members who leave before serving 20 years of service are not eligible for retirement benefits.

These alternative programs may be attractive to younger recruits who may wish to only serve five or ten years and separate with a limited retirement benefit.

On September 12, in a letter to the commission, President Obama stated that his wish is that all service members currently serving and all retirees who are currently receiving benefits be grandfathered under the current plan, if they choose.

“The Commission’s recommendations for change must grandfather any currently serving members and current retirees in the current military retirement systems, but may allow current service members and current retirees the choice to change to your proposed retirement system,” the letter said.

The most forthright opponents to these changes, not surprisingly, come from the retired military community. In an August 8th letter to the Military Officers Associating of America, Retired Air Force Colonel Mike Hayden gave his stance on the impending proposed changes.

“You could characterize this as a divide-and-conquer-type strategy. Eliminate current retirees as well as all the currently serving troops who intend to stay for a career from the affected pool, and you limit the backlash,” Hayden wrote.

Hayden’s letter goes on to say, “Overhauling retirement — the very system needed to entice troops to endure levels of sacrifice most citizens are unwilling to accept for even one tour of duty, let alone for two or three decades — is crazy.”

Military personnel costs have nearly doubled since 2001. This is partly due to soaring health care costs, and compensation raises that Congress approved when troops were facing repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the Global War on Terror.

Congress has ordered the Pentagon to submit their recommendations to the task force by November. A final report is due to the White House on May 1, 2014. The report could very well lead to new legislation that may include substantive changes to the military’s retirement and compensation system.

No Agreement Yet on VRAP Improvements

no agreement

By Debbie Gregory.

A Veteran training program created in 2011, intended to assist unemployed veterans who don’t qualify for other veteran education program or VA disability payment, has created unintended roadblocks for Veterans who are trying to complete the program, and has lawmakers scratching their heads to find a solution.

The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP, was created in 2011 to help unemployed veterans, aged 35 to 60, by providing a one year of flat-rate GI bill benefits to those enrolled in programs providing Veteran education or Veteran training. Those attending training receive $1,564 a month in Montgomery GI Bill benefits. The program is intended to teach veterans a new, marketable skill, not provide for enrollment in a full-time degree program.

While there is money in the budget for the program and all of its 130,981 applicants, at last count, less than 59,000 veterans were enrolled. The reason for the low enrollment, Veterans say, is the program requires them to enroll in classes that have no connection to the skill or vocation that they are trying to learn. For example, a veteran interested in becoming a welder, using VRAP, is often required to take a full course load, including math, science or history courses, which don’t directly help in finding a welding job. Veterans have said that they have difficulty attending the 18-22 hours per week of this full time load of unnecessary classes.

Veterans also say that they have trouble finding accredited schools to attend. Currently only two-year public colleges are eligible, meaning student veterans cannot use VRAP at private, for-profit schools or one-year programs offered at four-year public schools.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s economic opportunity panel is seeking to change the program so that Veterans can attend school on a part-time schedule.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee wants to extend the program for two more years, and in the process make it easier for veterans to find training by adding some four-year colleges and universities to the program. A four-year college or university would be covered if the specific training program offered “is not reasonably available” at a community college or technical school, under the Veterans’ Employment Opportunities Enhancement Act, passed by the Senate committee this summer.

Meanwhile, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has approved only a modest extension. The program is now set to expire on March 31, 2014, but legislation passed by the committee in June would extend the program through June 30, 2014, which coincides with the end of the spring 2014 school term.

Also pending before the House committee is a second bill that would relax the requirement for veterans to be full-time students to receive the monthly benefit. That bill, HR 1357, would provide pro-rated payments if a veteran attends school less than full time but spends at least 16 hours a week in classes. Generally, 18 to 22 hours a week is considered full time.

Passage of the bill has been delayed while the House panel and VA work out details about how to best count class time, as some schools award credit hours while others use clock hours.

An agreement between the House and Senate is needed for any changes to occur.

Assisting Veterans with Disability Claims

va backlog

By Debbie Gregory.

The VA, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) are uniting to form a new partnership and pilot program to facilitate eliminating the backlog of Veteran disability pay claims.

The new partnership was announced at the Convocation on the Legal Needs of Military Families and Veterans at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The program provides free assistance from ABA and LSC attorneys to a targeted group of unrepresented veterans who request their help in filing disability claims.

William A. Gunn, a retired Air Force colonel, was sworn in as general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009.  Prior to his confirmation, he had a private practice in Northern Virginia, representing military and veterans.

According to Gunn, the VA needs to be modernized, and he wants to be part of that transformation.  Gunn has called for modernizing information technology so that veterans can more easily file claims, and have a better sense of their status. As general counsel, he will make sure his lawyers are briefed on the latest laws.

One of Gun’s biggest challenges is developing new ways to communicate with the VA attorneys who work in 22 regional offices.

“The backlog in Veterans’ claims is unacceptable,” said Gunn. “We are anxious to partner with these organizations and with lawyers all over the country.”

Gunn pointed out that three of the top ten needs of homeless and near-homeless veterans — eviction, child support and outstanding fines and warrants — are legal needs.

The development of the claim is often the longest part of the process that determines whether a veteran is entitled to VA compensation, often taking more than 200 days. The pilot program will offer pro bono attorney assistance to veterans who do not currently have representation, with claims pending at the St. Petersburg, Fla., and Chicago regional offices. Veterans with claims pending at other VA regional offices may also be considered for the program.

Claims more than 125 days old will be selected for this pilot program.  Claims will vary in terms of complexity and degree of completeness. The VA will accredit the attorneys who choose to participate, the ABA and LSC will provide them with specialized training, and they will be added to the ABA’s Veterans’ Claims Assistance Network. The two initial pilot sites were selected based on proximity to ABA headquarters (Chicago) and the opportunity for the biggest impact on the backlog (St. Petersburg).

In coming months, the VA will identify eligible veterans to participate in the pilot program and advise them of all their options for representation — Veterans Service Organizations, claims agents, and pro bono attorneys participating in the pilot program.

Under the partnership, the ABA and LSC will match interested Veterans and attorneys on several factors, including geographic location, complexity of the claim and the Veteran and attorney’s preferences on the scope of representation.

VA To Process Older Claims

By Debbie Gregory.

Have you been waiting at least a year for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process your compensation claim? If so, then there is good new; the VA has an aggressive new plan that organizers hope will award benefits to those veterans who have waited the longest. They are hoping this will clear out the backlog of cases by 2015.

Currently, it takes an average of 286 days to complete a claim. “Too many veterans wait too long for a decision and this has never been acceptable,” said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Claims that have been sitting in the department’s backlog for longer than a year will begin receiving provisional decisions. Once that decision is submitted, the veteran will begin receiving their monthly compensation. Those decisions will be based on the medical information provided by the veteran or gathered by the VA. If more information is needed, in the form of a medical examination, the VA will order the exam.  The veteran then has a full year after the provisional rating is made to submit additional evidence about their medical condition, and have their benefits increased, if applicable. The increase will be paid retroactively to the date the claim was first filed.

After that year, the provisional decision will be deemed the final rating.  Veterans will have to follow the standard appeals process if they feel that they have new information that could increase their benefit amount. Veterans have one year to appeal the decision.

Eligible veterans can utilize healthcare and other VA benefits while their claims are pending. Veterans of recent conflicts are eligible for five years of free VA healthcare benefits. Officials said more than 55 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans use VA healthcare, more than any previous generation of warfighters.

Veterans who are homeless, terminally ill, are former Prisoners of War, Medal of Honor recipients or who claim financial hardship will continue to have their claims prioritized through the new process.

VA claims for active duty service members leaving the military through the medical board process will be processed separately, through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System with the Department of Defense.

The VA’s fast track program, known as Fully Developed Claims, will continue to receive priority. Veterans who file their claims under this program are responsible for gathering all the information, documents and records to prove their disability claim. The VA will obtain service treatment records and federal treatment records only if the veteran identifies them. Since the VA does not have to track down the paperwork, the claim can be processed quicker.

Veterans Education Residency Legislation

By Debbie Gregory.

One of the most highly regarded perks given for military service is the opportunity to get a great education on Uncle Sam. The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill that pays for a Veteran’s education is an earned benefit, promised in the contractual agreement, signed upon enlistment. While the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill is a great benefit, many servicemembers find that it falls short when out of state tuition fees are applied.  The House Subcommittee on Veteran’s Affairs for Economic Opportunity recently met to determine the fate of Bill H.R. 357, the G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013.

H.R. 357 would allow eligible Veteran schools that issue Post G.I. education benefits to appropriate in-state tuition rates for student Veterans, despite residency status. The Veteran’s education will be charged the same rate of fees that is required for in-state residents. The bipartisan legislative bill was introduced by Chairman Jeff Miller, and ranking member Mike Michaud.

The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill is the largest investment in Veteran education benefits since World War II. The bill pays the full cost of an undergraduate education at any public college or university.

Veterans who serve 90 aggregate days of active service after September 10, 2001, qualify for the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. Also qualified are those who serve post 9/11 for at least 30 consecutive days of active duty, and receive a discharge for disability.

The Student Veterans of America (SVA) is a non-profit coalition of more than 750 student Veteran organizations on college campuses globally. SVA Executive Director of Michael Dakduk said, “The Post G.I. Bill pays the highest in-state tuition and fees. Due to military obligations, many veterans are unable to establish in-state residency for the purposes of enrolling at a public university or college.” For now, those attending a private school or a public school as a non-resident out-of-state student may benefit from the Yellow Ribbon Program, which could reimburse the difference.

The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill Veteran’s Educational Benefits provide up to 36 months of veteran education benefits that are payable for 15 years following the individual’s release from active duty. H.R. 357 will amend Title 38 of the United States Code, resulting in the Veteran’s education being charged the same rate of fees that is required for in-state residents.

The Veteran’s Education benefits of in-state tuition are contingent on the passage of H.R. 357. Contact Congress and the Senate in a show of support for this bill.

Veterans Able to Attend Ivy League Schools

By Debbie Gregory.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Veterans, who want to pursue a law career, now have the opportunity to attend a large number of elite law schools in the country for free.  NYU law student and Iraq veteran, Garen Marshall  has lobbied NYC to increase their veteran education benefits.

Military veterans who served following the 9/11 terrorist attacks can attend Veteran friendly colleges without having to pay anything for their Veteran education.  Veterans can use their Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits.  These Veteran education benefits are capped at the highest rate to attend an in state college or university.  Often the tuition at private colleges, especially Ivy league schools, exceeds this rate. Now many law schools are becoming Yellow Ribbon Schools so that Veterans can attend the best of the best.

Schools like Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School are matching the government Yellow Ribbon program.   The Yellow Ribbon program is a part of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 and provides veteran education benefits to military veterans who have served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. The Yellow Ribbon program provides those veterans who qualify additional money to supplement benefits from the Post 9/11 GI Bill.   Institutions of higher learning that voluntarily enter into a Yellow Ribbon Agreement with the Veterans Administration choose the amount of tuition and fees that will be contributed. The VA will match that amount and issue payment directly to the institution.  This program enables many Veterans to attend private schools and use their Veteran education benefits.

Our veterans have earned the right to an education. Law school is not for everyone.  The Yellow Ribbon program provides many career path options for Veterans in all types of areas with top private colleges and universities for Veterans.  This program can be used for Veteran Distance Education for online degreed programs for Veterans.

Most veterans understand leadership. They have the organizational skills, discipline, can achieve goals and complete missions while working under stress.   By using their Veteran education benefits with the Post 9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon program, they can do anything and prepare themselves for any field.  Veterans can become lawyers, doctors or pursue careers in any area of their choice.

Stop Loss Pay Extended


Dear Servicemembers,

You have earned this benefit averaging $3,500.   File for it or lose it and the deadline is October 21st.

 

Those Eligible Must Submit a Claim By October 21, 2012

The 2009 War Supplemental Appropriations Act established Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay (RSLSP), providing $500 for each month/partial month served in stop loss status. Service members, veterans, and beneficiaries of servicemembers whose service was involuntarily extended under Stop Loss between Sept. 11, 2001 and Sept. 30, 2009 are eligible for RSLSP.

To receive this benefit, those who served under stop loss must submit a claim for the special pay. Throughout the year, the services have been reaching out to servicemembers, veterans and their families through direct mail, veteran service organizations, and the media. But there is still money left to be claimed, and the deadline is approaching. The average benefit is $3,700.

 

General Procedure

Individuals who meet eligibility criteria should submit an application by October 21, 2012. By law, there is no authorization to make payments on claims that are submitted after the deadline.

Eligible members should visit their specific service’s Web site and submit their application on-line; on-line submission provides a claim number, allows for automated status updates, and provides a means for the military service to contact the applicant.

If eligible members do not have internet access, they should print, complete and sign Department of Defense Form 2944, Claim for Retroactive Stop Loss Payment. Next, choose the appropriate method for submitting the claim form and available supporting documents based on your service specifications. This information can be found on your service’s stop loss Web site.

The following documents are examples of authorized source documents but may not be comprehensive, depending on specific status and service.

 

Tell a Friend

If you know someone who separated/retired and may be eligible, remind them to submit a claim before the deadline!

 

Note on Eligibility

Effective Dec. 19, 2009, per the Defense Appropriations Act, stop-lossed servicemembers who voluntarily reenlisted or extended their service, and received a bonus for such reenlistment or extension of service, became ineligible to receive retroactive stop loss special pay. There may be rare circumstances where an individual can be eligible for this pay and have received a bonus. The Department continues to encourage all who believe they may qualify to apply and allow a service counselor to review each individual situation.

 

Source Documents

  1. DD 214 (8-09), Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty and/or DD 215 (8-09), Correction to DD 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.
  2. Personnel record or enlistment or reenlistment document recording original expiration of service date.
  3. Approved retirement/transfer to the Fleet Reserve memorandum or orders establishing retirement prior to actual date of retirement as stipulated in DD 214 or DD 215.
  4. Approved resignation memorandum or transition orders establishing a separation date prior to actual date of separation as stipulated on DD 214 or DD 215.
  5. Signed documentation or affidavit from knowledgeable officials from the individual’s chain of command acknowledging separation/deployment, etc.
  6. Revocation of retirement or separation orders.

 

Apply Now for Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay

The following service-specific sites provide more information and allow you to begin the RSLSP claim process.

Army

Marine Corps

Navy

Air Force

 

Original Photo (Creative Commons BY) DVIDSHUB via Flickr

Executive Actions to Get Veterans Back to Work – President Signs to Help Veterans and Wounded

Earlier this year, the President also announced a series of executive actions to help get veterans back to work.

These initiatives include:

Veteran HandshakeVeteran Gold Card: Post-9/11 veterans can now download the Veteran Gold Card, which entitles them to enhanced services including six months of personalized case management, assessments and counseling, at the roughly 3,000 One-Stop Career Centers located across the country.  This could help serve the more than 200,000 unemployed Post-9/11 veterans.  The President directed the Department of Labor to launch this initiative in his August 5, 2011 speech at the Navy Yard.

My Next Move for Veterans: The Department of Labor has launched My Next Move for Veterans, a new online resource that allows veterans to enter their military occupation code and discover civilian occupations for which they are well qualified. The site also includes information about salaries, apprenticeships, and other related education and training programs.

Creating a Veterans Job Bank: The Administration launched the Veterans Job Bank, at National Resource Directory, an easy to use tool to help veterans find job postings from companies looking to hire them. It already searches over one million job postings and is growing. In a few easy steps, companies can make sure the job postings on their own websites are part of this Veterans Job Bank. These resources can be accessed at www.whitehouse.gov/vets

Joining Forces: In August, the President challenged the private sector to hire or train 100,000 veterans or military spouses by the end of 2013.  The President also asked First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to lead these efforts with the private sector as part of their Joining Forces initiative. In just over 100 days, more than 1,500 private sector companies have stepped up and already employed more than 18,000 veterans and spouses.  In addition, these private sector companies have committed to hiring 135,000 veterans and spouses by the end of 2013, exceeding the President’s challenge. Also included in these private sector employment efforts is a dedicated commitment to hire 5,000 wounded warriors.

Challenging Community Health Centers to Hire 8,000 Veterans in Three Years: The Obama Administration challenged Community Health Centers to hire 8,000 veterans – approximately one veteran per health center site – over the next three years. The health reform law provides funding for community health centers to serve more Americans and hire more workers.  The National Association of Community Health Centers will also contribute to this effort and joined the Administration in announcing this Community Health Center Veterans Hiring Challenge.

Helping Veterans Become Physician Assistants: To fast-track medics into jobs in community health centers and other parts of the health care system, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) pledged to open up career-paths beyond nursing and expand opportunities for veterans to become physician assistants.  Through this initiative, HRSA will begin to give priority in physician assistant grant awards to universities and colleges that help train veterans for careers as physician assistants.

Together, these initiatives and the tax credits will lower veteran unemployment through increased hiring, improve resources for veterans to translate their military skills for the civilian workforce, and provide veterans with new tools to aid their search for jobs.

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MilitaryConnection.com commends President Obama and Congress for working together to  help our Veterans.  We also admire the collaborative efforts between various federal agencies including the Department of Labor.  We invite those who serve who are seeking employment to use the multitude of resources our web site.  There are thousands of jobs, job tips, a directory of employers, columns by top job coaches and so much more.  When the next tour is back home, it’s on MilitaryConnection.com.

Get help for PTSD

GENERAL LEADS BY EXAMPLE

Army General Carter Ham, Commander of Libya Operations Sought Help for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Army Gen. Carter Ham is the highest-ranking U.S. officer to admit seeking help for post traumatic stress syndrome.

Army General Carter Ham, is the commander of the allied operations in Libya has had his own challenges before taking on this job.

General Ham admitted to obtaining help for PTSD and sets an example for others to follow.   We need all of our troops who are experiencing symptoms to obtain professional help. The mentality has changed and getting help from a mental health pro or from your chaplain will not end your military career.  Instead, it may enable you to reach new heights as it has for General Ham.  General Ham went through this back in 2005 as a one star General and his career has prospered since obtaining treatment.

General Ham began in the Army as an enlisted infantryman in the 82nd Airborne while he was attending college.  Ham has served state side and in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Macedonia and Iraq.  He headed the U.S. African Command and now heads the U.S. military operations in Libya and the rest of the continent.

He also was involved in the survey of troops on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

MilitaryConnection.com encourages any member of the military or their family member to seek help and heal.  It takes a more courage to admit you have a problem then to ignore it.   If you have a buddy who is doing through a difficult time and won’t get help, you need to get it for your buddy.

If you cannot find the help you need, we recommend our friends at Give An Hour – They have a network of over 5,300 mental health professionals that each donate one hour a week of free and private counseling to military, veterans, family, significant others and friends.  This impacts everyone.   You can reach Give An Hour – www.giveanhour.org.

Final Deadline for Retroactive Stop Loss Pay Claims March 18th

Active Duty Military, Veterans and beneficiaries of Active Duty Military who were involuntarily extended under the stop loss program between September 11th, 2001 and September 30th, 2009 have until this Friday, March 18th, to file claims for their retroactive stop loss pay. Although this deadline has been extended a number of times, this is the now the final deadline.

The retroactive bonus pay covers 145,000 military personnel who were forced to remain on duty beyond their original discharge date, following the September 11th attacks. Congress approved back pay of $500 for each month of involuntary service; the average lump-sum due is between $3,500 and $3,800. Applications must be submitted by March 18th, 2011. Submit your application online at www.defense.gov/stoploss.