What are the best military benefits?

What are the best military benefits? The answer to that question likely depends on your focus. Those who are interested in education will have a higher priority in that area, but those who are more interested travel, living overseas, or buying a new home have different needs. In general, there are benefits that can help no matter what your immediate interests may be.


Education

Why is education at the top of our list? Because unlike purchasing a home, or getting access to specific types of healthcare in the military medical system (or via civilian providers through TRICARE) education benefits can be used nearly anywhere a military member winds up being assigned.

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Alexander Rector
U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Rector.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill® is the best-known education benefit, and while it’s true that the GI Bill can be used for online education, it’s not the only military benefit available to those in uniform. Each branch of the service offers its own tuition assistance program – the Army’s program is a great example. The Army’s tuition assistance program has specific restrictions (it cannot be used for “a lower or lateral degree program from the one the Soldier currently possesses”) but also provides financial assistance to help complete a high school degree where necessary.

These programs can be used for, among other things, courses available on-base where offered. Overseas duty locations may have more options for on-base college courses, but every duty assignment is different. Those who wish to pursue off-duty education at stateside assignments should check with their orderly room, First Sergeant, or on-base Education Office to see what programs might be available at that installation.

There is also help available for military spouses and dependents. The Department of Veterans Affairs official website has more information on how to register for these programs.


Transition Assistance

Here’s another area you might wonder about in terms of being included at the top of a “Best Military Benefits” list-why is transition assistance one of the most important military benefits if you don’t use it until the end of your military career? Simply put, you have help waiting to help you begin and continue the process of switching from life in uniform to a civilian career. The long-term effects of your transition should not be taken lightly, especially for those who have their eye on a civilian career in the federal jobs system, Civil Service, or as a government contractor.

Military members find they are scheduled for a number of transition assistance briefings as a required part of their out processing, but there are resources retiring or separating military members should explore long before they start working on those out processing checklists. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers programs under the heading of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment. that can help you get resume help, job training, or career change coaching.

In the eyes of the DoD, transition assistance is a far-reaching concept that includes both physical, mental, and educational aspects, so if you’re just starting to explore your options in this area, be prepared for a wealth of information about a well-rounded approach to your new life in the private sector.


VA Home Loans

In our previous article about the best military benefits, we covered education and transition assistance, but the VA home loan benefit deserves a special look for one important reason; military members commonly use VA home loans to purchase property over the course of a military career, but VA loans provide some not-so-obvious help for those who know to explore their options.

VA home loans are a unique benefit for military members because the VA loan program allows eligible borrowers to apply to get a home loan, but does not guarantee one to all applicants. You must be financially qualified to be approved for a VA home loan the same as with any mortgage. But for those who do qualify, lower interest rates and more consumer friendly terms await. What does “consumer friendly” mean?

One example-you cannot be penalized for paying off your mortgage loan earlier than the full term of your loan. Borrowers who want to pay more than their minimum mortgage payment can do so without fear of being “dinged” at payoff time with fees or charges that act as a penalty for paying in full early.

But one of the best “hidden” benefits of VA loans? The ability to purchase a home with multiple units (up to four) and rent out the unused units to others. VA loans have an occupancy requirement, so you can’t buy property as an investment that you never use as your primary address. But you can occupy one of the units and rent out the rest.

Another “hidden” benefit-you can use a VA home loan to build on land you already own. You do not have to purchase an existing structure with a VA loan if you have a participating VA lender willing to work with you in this area. Not all participating lenders may offer VA construction loans, but for those who do, this is definitely an option. It’s good to know that borrowers cannot go the opposite route with a VA loan-the rules do not allow you to buy “unimproved land” with no plan or start date to begin construction on a new home.

Some borrowers want to know if they can purchase mixed-use property that combines residential and non-residential features. This is permitted as long as the residential use of the property is the main feature and the non-residential use of the home does not exceed 25% of the total floor area. This can be an advantage for borrowers who are considering running their own business out of the property such as a storefront, but the space limitation must be reckoned with when planning this kind of purchase.

VA loans are always intended for owner-occupiers, so any plans you have for a VA mortgage must include your using the property as your home in addition to other purposes. Talk to your chosen participating VA lender about the many options open to you with a VA home loan. You may find that a VA mortgage offers you a wider range of possibilities than just the purchase of a typical single-family suburban home.


About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


Military Retirement Benefits

Military retirement marks a point in transitioning that requires a bit more planning and preparation than other milestones. Luckily, the military is on your side and does its best to prepare military and families for

Military Retirement benefits
Photo by 2nd Class Benjamin Wooddy

that ultimate transition to civilian life: military retirement. After all, it has likely been at least 20 years since families of a career-driven service member lived in one location for more than three years.

While a few VA retirement benefits will overlap with common veteran’s benefits, retirees receive a few extra benefits that only 20 years time in service can grant.

First things first: don’t forget to apply for a veterans retirement ID card. Unlike veterans serving less than 20 years, who have limited options in obtaining a veterans ID card, retired military veterans can be eligible to receive a DD Form 2 ID card, which is blue in color. See the Military and Veteran ID cards page for more information.

Next are military retirement benefits. Detailed information about these VA benefits can be found at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Anything that requires a form for enrollment, such as VA Health Care and the GI Bill, can be found at eBenefits.

Retirement Pay – Military retirement pay is dependent on the number of years served and when the service member enlisted. A breakdown of how military retirement pay is calculated can be found at “Understanding Military Retirement Pay.” This also includes a breakdown of retirement COLA and CBS/Redux. Military retirement pay can be managed on the DFAS website.

Disability – All disability is calculated on a per case basis. Disability claims must be submitted to the VA and processed; one claim per separate injury.

Veterans Group Life Insurance – The VGLI is just one type of life insurance available to retired veterans. The VA also offers Service-Disabled Veteran Insurance, or S-DVI, as well as Veterans Mortgage Life Insurance, which aids in the settling of a mortgage in the event of death. There is also Financial Aid Counseling for beneficiaries as well as assistance in online will preparation.

VA Home Loan The VA Home Loan is not only available to veterans, but to their surviving spouses as well. Active duty service members may also be eligible for this loan, which may be something to consider when approaching retirement.

VA Health Care – Enrollment can be done online or in person at a local VA Medical Center, at which time eligibility is determined. This health care is only coverage for the veteran. Additional health insurance would be necessary for dependents.

VA Dental Care – Although dental care through the VA is limited, it is available to veterans with a service-connected dental disability. A single visit is also available through for veterans within 180 days of discharge if a full dental examination was not conducted prior to discharge.

GI Bill® – Education benefits are available for eligible veterans, or for their family members should they choose to transfer benefits. More information on the GI Bill can be found on our Veterans Education Page. Most likely, if you are a retired military veteran, you will receive 100% of your GI Bill benefits. This can be an opening step to your civilian career post military.

Veterans Discounts – Many businesses offer discounts that favor retirees. We’ve compiled lists of the most popular military and veterans discounts, which vary based on the business and the location.

For more information on veterans benefits available to you, visit the websites of the city, county, and state you reside in. These should have information on state and local benefits offered to veterans and retirees who live in those areas.


About The AuthorNatalie Zummo is a US Army veteran and wife of a Marine Corps veteran. She is currently living with her husband and son in New Hampshire, writing and studying in her free hours. Natalie holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and is underway to a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, with a focus on Military Counseling.


 

How to apply for VA Disability Pay

VA disability claims are an important benefit for Veterans because they have done some of the most important work in the world, not only without complaint, but with discipline and honor. However, there is a backlog in unprocessed claims for Veterans disability pay because the Veterans Affairs system is backlogged. The VA is in the process of reforming their systems to reduce the wait, but with the right preparation you can prevent your claim from being lost in the mix.

45% of America’s 1.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are actively seeking service-related

By Lance Cpl. Courtney White
Photo by Lance Cpl. Courtney White

disability claims. In 2013, this high demand resulted in a VA backlog of around 608,000 cases. The average wait time peaked at 282 days, causing returning soldiers to live with physical and psychological impairments for months at a time before receiving compensation.

The process is getting smoother, but the system is still making improvements. Returning veterans can expect to wait for up to six months just for a primary care visit. And those waiting to receive a disability rating could be left in the lurch for as long as two years.

Despite the VA backlog, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances at having your application processed in a timely fashion. Here’s what you need to know.

How to Prepare a Veterans Claim

  1. The key to getting a Veterans disability claim processed in a timely fashion is preparation. Take the time to gather together all medical evidence at your disposal, including any records from your visits to physicians’ offices and any records from hospital stays. If you think it might be important, it probably will be. Get organized early, and then stay that way.
  1. Make sure to assemble any documents related to dependents, since the benefits sought will apply to their needs as well. These documents might include birth certificates for children or marriage certificates if you have a spouse.
  1. The third step in preparing a veteran disability case is perhaps the most important. Veterans need a physician’s report to help establish the fact that the health condition developed while they were in the military, and that it was related to military service. This will help the VA to establish the type and severity of the veteran’s disability, and will assist them in applying the VA rating criteria to your particular case.

Hopefully the next step will be to receive VA compensation and view the VA Disability Benefits Rates. However, even with thoughtful preparation, some people fall through the cracks or have their application for benefits denied. If this happens to you, your next step is to contact a lawyer. Disability lawyers are familiar with the VA system and can be an important ally as you navigate the process.

Don’t Despair

Most importantly, if you find yourself in the VA’s backlog or if your application gets denied, know that you’re not alone. What was once swept under the rug is becoming a consequential campaign issue, with relief not far off. As of September 2015, the VA backlog had shrunk from 608,000 to around 82,000 — a turnaround that has almost certainly resulted from additional public attention being paid to this issue.


Adrienne Erin is a writer who has spent the last 3 years covering health and the healthcare industry. Her interest in the veteran disability system grew when her brother-in-law began pursuing his disability rating and hitting hurdles along the way. You can read more of her work on her blog, Miss Rx.


Understanding Military Retirement Pay

Military retirement pay is intended to recognize the selfless dedication to a career in the military. While important, calculating Military retirement pay benefits depend on individual circumstances determined by the circumstances below. 

Photo by Lance Cpl. Thomas DeMelo
Photo by Lance Cpl. Thomas DeMelo

Those who served in the military (Active Duty, Reserves or Guard), for a typical length of at least 20 years, will receive military retirement pay. This benefit begins immediately and is based upon a specific calculation determined by the Department of Defense. Length of service, disability percentage, year the member entered the service, and type of retirement are all factors that pertain to retirement benefits equation.

In essence, retirement pay amount can be calculated by multiplying the service member’s Retired Base Pay by the Percentage Multiplier. Retired Base Pay is configured using either Final Pay or High-3.

  • Final Pay: Military who started serving before September 8, 1980 (via active duty or reserve), will receive retirement pay based on their final basic pay.
  • High-3: Military who started serving after September 7, 1980 (via active duty or reserve), will receive retirement pay equaling the average of the highest 36 months of basic pay. If their time in the service accounted for less than three years, base pay would be the average monthly active duty pay during the servicemember’s length of service.

The Percentage Multiplier is accounted for by the service member’s years of service. Typically, the percentage will be 2.5% per year of service. For example, a service member who has served 20 years would be given a 50% multiplier since 20 multiplied by 2.5% equals 50%.

When accounting for time of service, DIEMS (Date of Initial Entry to Military Service) is an important factor. There are a few circumstances to note when considering DIEMS. First, DIEMS for those who joined, separated, and then rejoined the military will be based on the first date of initial military service. Secondly, the DIEMS for members who

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ace Rheaume
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ace Rheaume

enlisted under the delayed entry program will be the date in which they entered into the program as opposed to the date of when they reported for duty. Finally, if a person changes their status such as from reserve to active duty, DIEMS will be the initial joining date of service for the reserves.

Also, keep in mind that the years of service are calculated differently for a full time active duty service member versus a reserve service member. Retirement points are divided by 360 for those who served in the reserves. These points are converted to years of active duty service, and thus can be applied to the standard retirement pay formula.

Additional factors to consider when configuring retirement pay is Career Status Bonus/REDUX and Disability.

  • CSB/REDUX: If you retired under the CSB/REDUX plan, which is an option available to active duty members who entered service on or after August 1, 1986 and includes a $30K bonus, the retired pay multiplier will be decreased by 1% of each year served. Additionally, this plan utilizes the High-36 retirement method.
  • DISABILITY: Disability Retired pay is either 2% per service year OR a disability percentage assigned by the service at the time of retirement. By law, the multiplier cannot exceed 75%.

Regardless of the many factors and equations, it’s reassuring to know that military retired pay is considered one of the best and basically, the longer you serve, the higher your pay will be.

Social Security Rates in 2016: The Good and The Bad

Social Security profoundly affects millions of Americans and the cost is astronomical. In fact, the Social Security Administration reports that in fiscal year 2016, they will pay out one trillion dollars in benefit payments.  

Along with this cost, the Administration mentioned a few noteworthy items within their budget request pertaining to Social Security for (FY) 2016:

1. The number of disability appeals hearings pending will be reduced. A record number of hearings will be completed thus, decreasing the amount pending. However, reduced processing times will not be feasible until fiscal year 2017.

2. An effort will be made to increase the reduction of improper payments; combat fraud, waste and abuse; and invest in efforts which will enable the SSA to provide more modern, efficient service.

3. The 2016 fiscal year budget request level will help SSA build upon their current progress. It will allow them to accomplish their goals that they are currently focusing on during the 2014-2018 Strategic Plan which includes:

  • Enhancing service delivery through innovation and collaboration
    • Handling a record number of retirement claims
    • Improving national 800 number service
    • Increase number of processed disability appeals
    • Reduce hearings backlogs for the future
    • Employ video technology for interpreter services and face-to-face services to remote and rural areas
  • Strengthening the integrity of the SSA programs
    • Continue a reduction of improper payments and fraud
    • Decrease the Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR) backlog
  • Focusing on quality and efficiency for the disability program
    • Invest in quality improvements that will allow SSA to make right decisions at the right time
    • Continue to reduce improper payments
  • Invest in the SSA employees
    • Investing in training opportunities allowing the employees to gain knowledge and tools necessary for their work
    • Continuing to foster an inclusive culture that promotes well-being of employees
  • Continuing to maintain safe and secure technology services
    • Information will continue being accessible to a broad population
    • Online services will continue to be secure and easy to use
    • A robust IT operation will be maintained which allows the support for large demands of the Social Security program and other government programs

There will not be a cost-of-living increase this year, which is due to a calculation figuring the increase and/or lack of increase for benefits. This calculation is done by the SSA, which takes an average from the Consumer Price Index for July, August, and September. The average is then compared to the number from the previous year. The end result is the percentage to which Social Security benefits are adjusted. This is referred to as the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA).

It is important to remember that COLA cannot be reduced to an amount less than what the Veteran or the survivors were receiving at the effective date of allowance. In other words, this means that the beginning allowance amount will be guaranteed for life at a minimum. Although 2016 COLA is not changing because of recent estimates, the lack of increase this year can be challenging for recipients because retirees have already had to adjust to minimal cost of living increases in their benefits over the past years.  

Usually, the CPI will increase from year to year, and as a result, COLA adjustments are applied as “increases” and Social Security payments will then increase. However, it is possible for the COLA adjustment to be applied as a “decrease” if the CPI decreases from one year to the next.

Unfortunately, the cost of living will most likely always rise. And although Social Security payments will not decrease, it still may be financially straining not to have the increase many were hoping for. That’s why it is beneficial to effectively budget for the year ahead without including an increase in Social Security, considering it does not always rise.