Steps to Protect Your Rights to Veterans Benefits Before You Leave the Military

Guiding Veterans to What they earned.

Are you worried that you will not receive the benefits you deserve after separating from the military?  Well, you’re not alone. Each year an estimated 24,0000 – 36,0000 military personnel separate from one of the armed services. With that, there are several records to account for, red tape can cause a sticky mess. The key to success is to make sure that you have everything in order before your discharge date.

Get Care for Existing Conditions

Those who are injured while on active duty, diagnosed with a condition like PTSD, or who have developed a chronic medical or psychiatric condition should begin treatment while still on active duty. If you’re unable to seek treatment from a military doctor or at a military medical facility, go to a civilian doctor. Make sure to document the doctor’s name and the name and address of the clinic or treatment facility in case you need to provide that information to the VA or Discharge Review Board later.

Before your discharge, you’ll receive a full separation medical exam. This is the time to report any undocumented medical or psychiatric issues, even if you have not sought or received medical treatment. Make sure to fill out your DD Form 2697 completely, and double-check that the doctor conducting your separation exam documents all of the details of your condition(s). Answering ‘no’ or ‘uncertain’ to questions about whether you intend to seek treatment from the VA at some time in the future will not disqualify you from applying for care when the time comes.

Disability Cases

If you’ve been found unfit for duty, or you’re considering leaving the military due to a disability, there are several things to take into consideration. All disability determinations, whether self-referred or referred by your Commanding officer (CO), are subject to review by the Disability Evaluation System (DES) to determine if you qualify for discharge and severance pay. The outcome can affect your benefits and compensation, so you should be aware of your options ahead of time and decide on an optimal outcome; changing your mind later may give you less leverage in controlling what happens.

One of the biggest factors is how close you are to completing 20 years of service. In the case of a severe disability that leaves you incapacitated, you may not have a choice in the matter. However, medical retirement is different than traditional retirement.

For one thing, the medical retirement pay rate is lower. If you feel that you can complete your service and perform your duties until you reach retirement age, hold off on seeking medical retirement. A referral from a doctor or your CO will require you to prove your fitness for duty. You should provide any awards or citations received during your service and offer any other evidence you have that will support your claim that your condition does not affect your ability to fulfill your duties.

Whether or not you’re close to your retirement date when you’re referred, you’ll be evaluated for fitness by the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB), who may then refer your case to the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB). Disabilities that leave you unfit for duty will generally fall under two categories: Unfit with Placement on Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL) or Unfit and Placement on Permanent Disability Retirement List (PDRL). The designation depends on the percentage of your disability and on whether it is considered stable or unstable.

Generally, you must be at least 30% disabled to be recommended for a disability discharge. Stability is determined by how much your condition is likely to change in the future. If your disability is below 20%, you won’t qualify for any severance pay, so you should consider remaining in the military if possible.

Document Everything

If you’ve had medical treatment for any condition that’s likely to have a recurrence, undergone drug rehabilitation or psychiatric care, obtain a complete record of all treatments, doctors, and care facilities. That includes getting copies of all findings and obtaining or copying statements from your commanding officer and medical practitioners. It’s also essential that you fill out any paperwork giving permission to access your medical, legal, dental, and psychiatric records prior to leaving the service.

Make sure you go over your records carefully before your discharge to catch and correct missing or erroneous information. Some records and information are not automatically included in your Official Military Personnel File or your Service Record Book. Other records have to be specifically requested separately, including psychiatric records and substance abuse treatment or referrals, even if you did not follow-up.

In the case of non-medical incidents, criminal cases, and Congressional reviews involving your unit, get a copy of any records from the investigating body and any correspondence with Congressional members pertaining to the inquiry. If you’ll be requesting a discharge upgrade, make sure that your discharge packet includes information about non-judicial proceedings related to your discharge for misconduct and copies of any medical reports or exams if your discharge is due to a disability or for medical reasons.

Other Benefits

Aside from health care and separation pay, former members of the military may be eligible for other benefits once they leave the service. Unemployment compensation is available to former service members who are unable to find a job when they return to civilian life. The amount and eligibility requirements vary from state to state, and claims must meet certain criteria. Each case is different, but generally, you’ll qualify under the Unemployment Compensation for Ex-service members (UCX) Act if you meet the following conditions:

  • You were active duty in a branch of the US armed forces
  • You were honorably discharged from active duty or the reserves after completing your full term of service
  • Unemployment insurance protection wasn’t deducted from your pay
  • You have a completed DD Form 214 and you are actively searching for employment

The amount you’ll receive is based on the rates and eligibility of the state you reside in, but it’s determined by your active duty pay rate. Other things that may affect your unemployment benefits are the amount of separation compensation you receive and your retirement pay. If you’re turned down initially, you have the right to appeal that decision.

Having a plan in place before you retire or leave active duty helps ensure continuity and a more hassle-free transition to civilian life. Document any treatments, ongoing or not, before your discharge, and obtain copies of any paperwork even if you’re not sure it’s relevant; it may be difficult to get proof or obtain copies of your records after the fact. It’s important to note that less than honorable discharges may not be automatically upgraded after the initial six-month post-discharge period.

It’s up to you to ensure that you and your family are protected after your military service has ended. Once you leave the military, it’s more difficult to prove that you qualify for coverage due to conditions that were present pre-release

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Jan Dils, Attorneys at Law

Jan Dils, Attorneys at Law