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.
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.
The GI Bill: Post 9-11, Forever GI Bill, And More
The 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.
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.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News