Dual Military Couples: What Benefits Are There?

When one military member marries another, the couple becomes a “dual military” couple, also known as mil-to-mil marriages. Different branches of service may use other terms.

Dual military couples are common, and the number of same-service couples may be larger than those who marry someone from a different branch of service. Army spouses, Air Force husbands and wives, Navy couples, Marine Corps families, and Coast Guard couples know there are more pay and higher allowances offered to married couples.

Here are some ways dual-military couples can benefit:

Double Retirement Pay For Dual Military Couples

This does NOT refer to a special program offering to double military retirement pay for mil-to-mil couples; at the time of this writing, such a program does not exist.

However, assuming both military members choose to remain in uniform until retirement-eligible, it’s easy to see that when both spouses draw military retirement pay, that effectively doubles the amount assuming the time-in-service, time-in-grade, and other variables match up.

Mil-to-mil couples who do not retire at the same rank and time-in-service (among other variables) may not draw the exact same amount of retirement pay.

Child Care Issues For Mil-To-Mil Couples

The military does not have a specific policy that offers childcare benefits to married couples.

All families are required by their branch of service to provide documentation outlining a childcare plan for contingencies such as deployments, TDY, etc.

One of the biggest advantages of being a military parent is the ability to use on-base childcare options such as Child Development Centers, Family Child Care offered in regulated private on-base homes, etc.

Childcare expenses are huge challenges for families, and CDC costs are based on rank among other factors. Lower-ranking (and lower-paid) enlisted service members won’t carry the same financial burden their more experienced and higher-ranking co-workers will.

In this area, the dual military couple has a distinct advantage. DoD school centers may prioritize dual-military family enrollment. There may be other resources DoD might offer as well. Check with your Family Readiness Group or Work Life Program for information to support you and your children’s transition.

When You Cannot Be Assigned Together As A Mil-To-Mil Couple

Plenty of military blogs discuss the benefits of the Join Spouse assignment option, but not everyone gets to take advantage. The mission comes first and the needs of the military may not include letting a mil-to-mil couple be reassigned to the same base.

In such cases, there is a Family Separation Allowance you may qualify for as a married service member (even if you are not a dual military couple). However, there are specific rules for claiming this allowance as a dual military couple:

  • You must be sent away from your family for more than 30 days due to receiving military orders.
  • The couple must be living together as a couple before the duty begins.
  • Only one person in the dual military couple can receive the allowance.
  • A dual military family that receives orders for each spouse is paid only once, to the highest-ranking service member of the couple.

Better Housing For Married Troops

The housing situation for Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines can be much improved over life in the barracks; married couples are not subject to the same kinds of living quarters inspections and communal living considerations that single service members have to deal with.

And the higher your rank, the better options you may have open to you depending on location and other factors.

Consider a typical military assignment to a new base where there is plenty of on-and off-post housing to choose from. An enlisted service member in the ranks of E1 through E3 (and in some cases E4s with less than four years of service or some similar standard) is not permitted to live in the local community. These troops are usually required to live in the barracks.

Married couples in the same rank/time-in-service situations are not subject to these requirements unless they are sent to an unaccompanied assignment where the family will not live.

Married troops (dual military or not) have choices that include privatized, on-base housing, as well as housing in the local community. Dual military couples don’t get any additional consideration in this area, but as it stands the housing situation is greatly improved for the married couple.

It should be pointed out here that the “better housing for couples” is not an intentional effort or policy by Defense Department leaders to offer married service members a better lifestyle, but in many areas, married couples do reap the benefit of their situation and the military’s willingness to provide higher allowances, better housing, etc.

A “Hidden” Mil-To-Mil Couples Benefit

Assuming both halves of a dual-military spouse situation have put in the required time-in-service requirements to qualify to apply for a VA home loan, a dual military couple has some unique alternatives that a single service member does not have quite the same access to. What does this mean?

VA loans require you to have full VA loan entitlement for the loan. Generally, if you have never used your VA loan benefits before, you have 100% of your entitlement remaining once you have your VA Certificate of Eligibility.

Dual military couples have a choice to make when it comes time to apply for a VA mortgage. They can both use their entitlement for the loan, and the borrower’s financial commitment to the loan is matched by the amount of entitlement. If two members apply and both use their VA loan entitlement, they are both charged half of that entitlement.

But a dual military couple has the option to use only one person’s VA loan entitlement, which means the other spouse has the ability to apply for another VA mortgage later on (assuming the borrower is financially qualified to do so).

The option of two VA home loans is a definite advantage.

Join-Spouse Or Joint Spouse Assignments

Military members often get reassigned to a new military base, installation, or even a deployment without the option to bring families along (i.e., military duty in parts of South Korea are “no dependents” tours, and all deployment situations are strictly “no dependents”.)

When a dual military couple faces the next round of PCS orders, they have the option to apply for a Join Spouse or Joint Spouse (the preferred term of the Air Force) assignment so that both can be given PCS orders to the new gaining base.

This is not always possible, and some reassignments involving mil-to-mil couples have them assigned to different bases roughly within a 100-mile radius or less. There are instances of mil-to-mil couples who have been deployed to war zones together or those who wind up in the same country at the same time but have to commute to be together.

Military couples must keep in mind that they are subject to the needs and whims of the military assignment system and it is best to have a detailed conversation with your detailer, Senior Chief, Chief of Personnel, or any other position that may have a direct effect on where you are assigned next as a couple or as an individual.

Ask the advice of your current assignments person to learn how to apply for joint assignments, but also talk to your unit orderly room to discuss how to claim the higher rates or added allowances if you are soon to be married, or recently married and in need of an update to your military records.

Food Allowances: Basic Allowance For Subsistence

Depending on where you are assigned, the cost of living in the area, and other factors, you and your dual military spouse may qualify to draw an allowance known as BAS, the Basic Allowance for Subsistence. BAS is intended to aid meal costs for service members. Both halves of the mil-to-mil couple can draw this allowance, effectively doubling it.

BAH Benefits For Married Troops

Consider the “with dependents rate” for BAH (the military housing allowance–a higher amount of housing money paid to the service member with one or more dependents. For this purpose, a spouse is considered a “dependent”, technically speaking). The single service member does not get this elevated rate, only married couples (dual military or not).

When a mil-to-mil couple draws BAH, a table is required to determine the couple’s BAH rates (per individual). Federal regulations governing BAH are found in the government publication Joint Travel Regulations, Chapters 8 through 10, which includes guidance on how BAH is paid to dual-military couples.

In mil-to-mil couples without dependent children, both spouses are paid without the dependents rate. If the couple has children, one spouse receives the with-dependent BAH rate, the other gets the single-rate BAH.

Other Factors You Should Know

The benefits of being a dual military couple can include being assigned together, drawing higher allowances (the “with-dependents” rate), getting better housing options, and better retirement pay numbers (assuming both spouses retire from military service).

But being a dual military couple has downsides, too–it’s important to anticipate these as much as it is to know your benefits and making sure you take everything you are entitled to.

Some military-related blogs have encouraged dual-military couples to do things like apply for reassignment to the highest-cost-of-living areas possible to maximize BAH payments and other benefits.

What is TAP? – The Transition Assistance Program Explained

The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is a partnership with the Departments of Defense (DoD), Veterans Affairs (VA), Transportation and the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS).  It was established to meet the needs of separating service members during their period of transition into civilian life by offering job-search assistance and related services.

TAP helps service members and their spouses in the following ways:

    • Provides comprehensive workshops at select military installations with professionally-trained workshop facilitators from the State Employment Services, military family support services, Department of Labor contractors, or VETS’ staff present the workshops.
    • Training and employment information to armed forces members within 180 days of separation or retirement.
    • Attendees learn about:
      • Job searches
      • Pre-separation counseling
      • Relocation assistance
      • Career decision-making
      • Resume and cover letter writing
      • Interviewing techniques
      • Evaluation of employability relative to the job market
      • Information on veterans benefits including education and training, health and life insurance
      • Services members separating from the military with a service-connected disability are offered the Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP).
      • Current occupational and labor market conditions
      • Attendees at DTAP learn about:
        • Address any special needs of disabled veterans
        • Everything included in TAP
        • Additional instruction to help determine job readiness

(Spouses are also encouraged to attend benefits briefings and meet with Benefits Advisors.)

Transition Assistance Program Updates

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act made changes to the TAP program and are effective for all service branches on October 1, 2019.

TAP Changes:

  • Service members will need to complete their initial counseling with a TAP adviser and fill out their personal self-assessment, also known as an individual transition plan, no later than 365 days before retirement or the end of their enlistment.
  • Service members can choose on two-days of instruction called tracks; these include: DOL Employment Track, DOL Vocational Track, DoD Higher Education Track, and SBA Entrepreneurship Track.

Transition Assistance Program Steps

  • The Capstone event – Commanders verify achievement of career readiness standards and a viable ITP, must happen no later than 90 days before separation. Capstone remains the culminating event for TAP.
  • Transition from the military to civilian life must begin no later than 365 days prior to transition for those who are separating or retiring.
  • Pre-separation counseling commences which covers benefits, entitlements and resources for eligible transitioning service members.
  • DoD Pre-Separation Training Day – An eight-hour day which includes curriculum modules on building resiliency by managing your own transition (MyTransition), a Military Occupational Code Crosswalk.
  • Individualized initial counseling (IC) between the service member and a TAP counselor begins and includes a personal self-assessment/Individual Transition Plan (ITP).
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides VA Benefits and Services Brief, formerly known as VA Benefits I and II.
  • The Department of Labor (DOL) will provide a required DOL One-Day Brief on employment.
  • The transitioning service member may elect one or more of these tracks; DOL Employment Track, DOL Vocational Track, DoD Higher Education Track, and SBA Entrepreneurship Track.

Military Spouses: Can They Get Veterans Disability Compensation?

Surviving military spouses can sometimes receive veterans disability compensation. This benefit is called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), and it is paid on a monthly basis. DIC is available to a surviving military spouse (a widow or widower) and his or her dependent children. In some cases, a dependent parent may also be eligible for DIC.

You are eligible for DIC if VA considers you a surviving spouse (see below), and your military spouse died either:

  • while receiving VA disability compensation for at least:
    • 10 or more years, right up until he or she died.
    • from the time of discharge for at least five years up until she or he died, or
    • for at least one year, if your spouse had been a prisoner of war.
  • while on active duty
  • as a result of a service-connected injury or illness, or
  • while on active duty for training or inactive duty training

How Does VA Define “Surviving Spouse”?

The VA will recognize you as a surviving spouse if one of the following is true.

  • You were married to the veteran before January 1, 1957.
  • You were married to the veteran for at least a year.
  • You were married for any length of time and your spouse died while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training.
  • You had a child with the veteran, and
    • you were living with the veteran until his or her death, or
    • you were separated, and the separation was not your fault.
  • You married the veteran within 15 years of his or her discharge from service, and the injury or illness that caused the veteran’s death started in military service, or was made worse by service.

How Much Money Will I Receive?  

 Currently DIC pays $1,154 per month. If you have any children under age 18, your monthly benefit will be increased by $286 for each child. If you are housebound or need help to perform basic tasks of daily living, you will receive additional monthly benefits. To determine how much your monthly benefit might be, see the  VA benefit amounts for DIC.

If you receive benefits for your children under age 18, you will generally only receive this additional benefit for two years. Or the additional benefit for your children may stop earlier if your children reach age 18 before two years have passed.

However, if you have a disabled child, the child will remain eligible for DIC even after they reach age 18 or two years have passed.

What if I Have Remarried?

It depends on when you got remarried.

If you remarried before reaching age 57 or before December 16, 2003, the VA will not consider you a surviving spouse, even if you meet the above requirements.

If you remarried after you were age 57, and after December 16, 2003, the VA will consider you a surviving spouse.

Other Benefits

There are other survivor benefits that you and your children may be eligible for in addition to DIC, such as educational assistance, health care,and assistance with certain burial costs.

VA Pension

If you are not eligible for Disability and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), the VA may find that you are eligible for a  VA Pension. VA Pensions do pay less than DIC and are needs-based, but if your spouse’s death wasn’t service connected and your spouse wasn’t receiving disability compensation at the time of death, it’s your only alternative. If you are on a limited income and your military spouse served during wartime, you may be eligible to receive a VA Pension.

Covid-19: Financial Takeaways

The novel coronavirus outbreak is unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes. While the full extent of the outbreak is yet to be determined, we can say with certainty that this pandemic will bring changes to the way our government and other governments address future emergencies of this kind.

But there are also many lessons all of us can learn so we can be better prepared for future emergencies. Here are six lessons we can take away from the coronavirus outbreak.

1. Stocks Are for Long-Term Investments Only

The stock markets are extremely volatile right now, and this volatility will likely continue for the foreseeable future. If you haven’t sold your stocks, then you may wish to hang onto them. Selling at depressed prices may only serve to lock in losses.

If you have a long-term horizon, you may be able to wait this out. Look at the most recent bear market during the 2008-2009 economic crisis to see how stocks fared. While we don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t predict how or when stocks will rise, we can assume that stocks will rise again at some point, even if it doesn’t feel that way now. Take a moment to look at the gains that were made after stocks bottomed out during the Great Recession. You don’t want to miss out on similar gains.

Takeaway: Only invest with money that you don’t need in the immediate future. Stocks can be volatile, and you may lose money in the short term. But in the long run, stocks tend to provide greater returns than most other types of investments.

2. Lowering Your Fixed Expenses Can Have a Huge Impact on Your Budget

One way to get out of debt more quickly is by lowering your fixed expenses. The Fed has dramatically lowered interest rates since this outbreak started. This means it should cost less to refinance loans such as your home mortgage, credit card balances, auto loans and student loans.

You will still need to qualify to refinance, based on your credit history and credit score. But if you qualify, refinancing your loans can help you save hundreds of dollars per month in interest payments.

This can do one of two things: It means you have more cash flow each month or, if you make the same payment toward your loan, then more of your payment will go toward reducing your principal, reducing the amount of time it takes to pay off your loan.

Takeaway: Take time over the next few weeks to see whether you can reduce your payments by refinancing your loans or by transferring your credit card balance to a zero balance transfer credit card.

3. Emergency Preparedness Also Means Having Extra Supplies on Hand

This pandemic and the nation’s response caught many people off guard. It’s not hard to find pictures of empty shelving at grocery stores, big-box warehouses such as Costco and Sam’s Club, and other stores that sell food and other household items.

The world’s supply chains will tighten up over the next few weeks while nations close borders to try and stem the spread of this disease. That doesn’t mean you need to rush out and hoard food and supplies. But it does mean that you should be aware of your family’s needs. Make sure you have enough food, medicine and related supplies to get you through the next few weeks.

Having some extra room in your budget will allow you to stock up on extras that you might have normally waited a few weeks to purchase.

Takeaway: Going forward, it may be a good idea to ensure that you keep a decent supply of shelf-stable food staples on hand, along with sufficient medicines and medical supplies to get you through an emergency.

4. Insurance Can Be a Lifesaver

Insurance serves one major purpose — to shift financial risk from yourself to another party. Simply put, insurance helps you avoid a financial expense that you otherwise would not be able to afford.

Being properly insured is essential during times of financial uncertainty. This includes all forms of insurance — health insurance, life insurance, auto, home, renter’s etc.

Takeaway: Take time to review your insurance policies to ensure you have sufficient coverage. If not, get insurance quotes and get coverage. You can’t afford to go without insurance at a time like this.

5. An Emergency Fund Is Essential

Emergencies can happen at any time and, by definition, they will almost always be unexpected. That is why having a well-funded emergency fund is essential. How you define an emergency fund is up to you. But at the minimum, it’s good to keep at least $1,000 in cash set aside for a rainy day. However, this is one time when more is better. Some financial experts recommend keeping three to six months of living expenses in your emergency fund.

Find the sweet spot that works for you.

Takeaway: Start an emergency fund as soon as you can if you do not already have one. Transfer money into a savings account that you won’t touch except for emergencies, and leave the money there. If you don’t have one, set up an automatic transfer to fund your account each month. It will add up quickly, even if you can afford to put away only a small amount each month. You’ll be glad you did.

6. Debt Is the Killer of Financial Dreams

We are just now seeing the impact of this outbreak. Hundreds of major venues throughout the nation have closed for the foreseeable future — museums, concert halls, sports stadiums and more. Some states have even mandated the closure of bars, cafes and restaurants. All of these are necessary to help slow the spread of this disease. But it also means many people will be out of work.

This is where having too much debt comes into play. The greater your fixed monthly expenses, the less margin you have during an emergency. Excessive debt can cause severe financial problems in the event of a job loss or even decreased income from working fewer hours.

Takeaway: Work to eliminate debt as soon as possible. Weather this upcoming storm first, if need be. But after the all-clear siren sounds, work at chipping away your debt.

In Summary

None of this is doom and gloom. Our country and the rest of the world will weather this storm. But there will be hardships and inconveniences in the meantime.

Hopefully, these lessons learned can help all of us be better prepared for the present outbreak and for any future emergencies that may arise.

Helpful Tips For Doing Military Taxes

There are many tax provisions that military members and their families can take advantage of.  Here are some top tax tips to consider before filing taxes:

Free Tax Filing Services and Consultants

Military members and their families can get help at many installations through the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance program (VITA). The legal center on base should be able to confirm if this service is available at the installation.  Additionally, through H&R Block and Military One Source free tax filing is available.

Tax Filing & Deadlines

The IRS extends many options for military members and their families if a soldier is overseas and in a combat zone. For example, the deadline for filing a return is automatically extended if a soldier is in a combat zone or has a qualifying service outside of a combat zone.

Gross Income Exclusion & Deductions

Service members receive many types of pay and allowances. The Internal Revenue Service requires that some of these be included in the gross income calculation while others are excluded from a soldier’s gross income. The following are excluded items from gross income according to the IRS:

Living Allowances

BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), BAS (Basic Allowance for Subsistence), Housing and cost-of-living allowances overseas and OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance) compensation are excluded from gross income according to the IRS.

Moving Expenses

Traveling from one workplace to another or overnight travel is excluded. Traveling to and from work is not.  Benefits received for dislocation, military base realignment, and closure can also be excluded. Other types of moving expenses that can be deducted or excluded depending if the expense was a benefit or out-of-pocket un-reimbursed cost include move-in housing, moving household and personal items, moving trailers or mobile homes, storage, temporary lodging, and temporary lodging expenses.

Combat Zone Exclusion

The Combat Zone Tax Exclusion allows service members to exclude certain pay from gross income if they are in a combat zone. Typically the pay must be earned in a month that a service member served in a combat zone.

Types of pay include:

  • State bonus pay for service in a combat zone
  • Pay received for duties as a member of the Armed Forces in clubs, messes, post and station theaters, and other non-appropriated fund activities.
  • Active duty pay earned in any month served in a combat zone
  • Imminent danger/hostile fire pay
  • Reenlistment bonus
  • Awards for suggestions, inventions, or scientific achievements.
  • Student loan repayments
  • Pay for accrued leave

Miscellaneous Pay Allowances

There are variety of pay allowances that IRS excludes from income including defense counseling, disability, group term life insurance, professional education, ROTC educational and subsistence allowances, survivor and retirement protection plan premiums.

Family Allowances

Military family dependents are extended some exclusions from gross income as well including certain educational expenses for dependents, emergencies, evacuation to a place of safety, and separation.

IRS Military Tax Tips Video

The IRS addresses many tax provisions for military members and their families in this short video including:

  • Filing taxes and postponing for members of the military who are on duty overseas
  • Military uniform deductions
  • Out-of-pockets travel expenses
  • Tax deadlines
  • Military specific tax deductions
  • Travel expenses

Death gratuity

Any death gratuity paid to a survivor is excluded from gross income.  Un-reimbursed dependent travel and burial services are also deductible.

In-kind Military Benefits

The military provides many in-kind benefits, some of which do not need to be included as gross income, such as:

  • Space-available travel on government aircraft
  • Legal assistance
  • Dependent-care assistance program
  • Commissary/exchange discounts
  • Medical/dental care

Military Benefits: Morale, Welfare & Recreation (MWR)

The vision of the MWR Benefits is to create and be a team of professionals who provide soldiers and their families excellent quality programs and services aimed to boost morale and resiliency, while strengthening our troops and those who support them. The Family and MWR staff at the headquarters is made up of more than 500 professionals who have made it their goal to support and assist service members and their families in every possible manner. The workforce worldwide is also supported by the headquarters, over 33,000 jobs are created by the recreation activities that are offered to the troops as part of their benefit package.

The MWR was officially organized in the early 20th century but prior to that, numerous civilians offered meals, laundry, clothing and trading posts for the men who served their country. When the Post Exchange or “PX” was created in 1895 and it was decided that the profits from those businesses would go to fund recreational activities for the troops and their families. The U.S. Army states it “…is committed to the well-being of the community of people who serve and stand ready to defend the nation, to enhance the lives of Soldiers, their families, civilian employees, and military retirees.”

Why take advantage of MWR?

Most soldiers work long hours and the thought of getting ready to go out isn’t a pleasant one. MWR benefits offer an alternative to traveling and making reservations off of base. Most of the activities and services that the MWR offers require very little travel time, they are generally located on base and easily accessible to anyone with a military ID. Going to a movie on post is an easy treat for those of us that have very little time for themselves.

The entertainment activities that are offered are also offered at a discounted price making them even more appealing to the military family budget. Weekend events for children are also frequently attended. The MWR is here to help everyone in their personal lives succeed as much as the servicemembers have helped the United States Armed Forces succeed.

As an Army wife I appreciated having free events to go to on post during the weekend. They are good for meeting other spouses with similar backgrounds as yourself. No one will be able to understand your journey like a fellow military spouse. Movies, Bowling, and fitness centers are a few options of MWR events that are open almost daily and that are most frequently used by soldiers and their families. Sometimes I feel like we live in a strict routine with very little free time so having options such as these and even more help me schedule fun time into our busy schedule and greatly improve our quality of life.

If you’re new in town looking into the MWR events in your area would be the first place to start looking for new friends. Pick an event that catches your interest and get going. Moving around the world to serve your country is hard enough, the main point of MWR is to make that transition as smooth and enjoyable as possible, so enjoy the benefits you’ve worked so hard for, you’ve earned it!

Who is Eligible for MWR?

Any active, retired, National Guard or reservist and their families are welcome to take part in the activities that your base has to offer, and are encouraged to do so. The more people that can find some use for the benefits, the greater the chance of more benefits being offered to your location in the future. There are events catered to everyone, families, children, and single soldiers. The MWR isn’t all fun, it offers valuable life skills to soldiers who need a little help in certain areas of their lives. Transitioning from combat back to home can be rough and the MWR makes everything as easy as possible. Soldiers who are currently serving overseas get the most out of these programs. One of the most useful and entertaining things that can be sent to the troops come from one of the best benefits of the MWR, libraries.

Effective January 1, 2020, the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act expanded the pool of eligible exchange, commissary shoppers to include all service-connected disabled veterans, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war and primary veteran caregivers. The benefit will also extend to MWR “revenue generating facilities. Find out more about the expanded on-base commissary & exchange privileges for veterans and caregivers.

Air Force Members: Use the Force Support Squadron (FSS)

The most underutilized services that active duty Air Force members have are the programs that the Force Support Squadron (FSS) offers.  Every base has a FSS, and most bases have similar programs run by their FSS.  Some of the best programs the FSS offers are Airmen and Family Readiness Center, the Auto Hobby Shop, Outdoor Recreation, Information, Tickets and Travel, and the Golf Courses.  Each of these offer a great service to the active duty member and are usually very reasonably priced.

Outdoor Recreation

Outdoor Recreation is another fantastic program run by the FSS.  Outdoor Recreation typically offers a laundry list of items you can rent for a day, weekend, or week.  Most of these items are camping, biking, fishing, and party related.  They offer items as small as a camping chair all the way to recreational vehicles and motorized boats.  If you want to go camping with the family but don’t want to buy all the gear, Outdoor Recreation is the perfect place to rent the equipment and save you the money from buying it.  Outdoor Recreation usually also offers several different trips a month.  The types of trips vary with time of year and location, but some examples are skiing and hiking trips.  These trips are usually day or weekend trips and are offered at a reduced price.  These can be a great way to discover a new adventure near you.

Airmen and Family Readiness Center

The Airmen and Family Readiness Center (AFRC) offers many different programs to help Airmen and their families.  Services offered are deployment preparation, family counseling, child education, Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), the Key Spouse Program, spouse education and career opportunities, financial counseling and several other benefits.  All of these benefits are provided at no cost and can typically be used by the military member and/or their family.  The AFRC is a great resource that members typically forget is available to them.  Upon arriving at a new base, military members are required to attend a Newcomers Orientation.  During this orientation, each AFRC will give a presentation on all the services they offer.  Pay attention to these services because you never know when you or your family may need to tap into these resources.

Information, Tickets, and Travel

The next service provided is the Information, Tickets, and Travel (ITT).  Information, Tickets, and Travel primarily offer discounted tickets at popular travel destinations.  One example is that Information, Tickets, and Travel offers discounted tickets to Walt Disney World Theme Parks.  You can purchase the discounted tickets at your local base and have them ready once you arrive at Disney.  They also offer discounts at resorts, cruises, vacations, sporting events, and lift tickets.  Some of these discounts are offered at the actual location as well, but Information, Tickets, and Travel can help save time by not needing to wait in line for these tickets.  Most tickets can be validated at ITT.  Military members also usually save on sales tax when buying from ITT since you are purchasing these tickets on base.

Golf Courses

The base golf course is the last program that will be discussed.  Most Air Force bases have their own golf course.  For the avid golfer, this can be a great benefit.  All bases that offer Golf Courses have reasonable green fees.  Want to spend some time out on the greens on your next vacation?  Consider using an Air Force Golf Course if you are a military member.  The FSS is responsible for the golf course and any associated food services.  The Shades of Green is a military only resort located on Disney World property, and they offer a special rate on golfing at one of the three world renowned Disney golf courses.

Auto Hobby Shop

The Auto Hobby Shop is a program offered to military members and their family.  At the Auto Hobby Shop, all the tools and lifts are available for a member to perform their own maintenance on their vehicle.  Every Auto Hobby Shop has certified auto mechanics who work there and are happy to lend their advice and assistance if needed.  Most base Auto Hobby Shops also offer self-serve car washing and free oil changes for spouses of deployed military members.  Just bring in a copy of deployment orders and the certified technician will schedule to do a free oil change.  Most bases have an FSS website with the Auto Hobby Shop’s location, hours and special programs they offer.

No matter what base you are stationed at, the Force Support Squadron offers numerous services to military members and their families.  These services are meant to be used and are better than most services you would find outside of the military.  The best way to enjoy them are to take advantage of as many of these services as you can.  In a world where the government is constantly looking for ways to cut spending, these services will disappear if they do not get used.  Take advantage of them and share some news adventures with your family.

Veterans & Service Dogs

Veterans may be entitled to benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service dogs, but the same is not necessarily true of comfort animals or emotional support animals. The VA has been providing veterinary benefits to Veterans diagnosed as having visual, hearing or substantial mobility impairments under certain conditions.

In 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a pilot program designed to pair veterans suffering from certain mental health issues with service animals. This pilot program was an expansion of an existing VA effort to help veterans by providing service dogs to those in need.

The 2016 VA announcement about the pilot program announced:

Through the pilot program, veterans with a mental health issue that “substantially limits mobility” would be eligible for consideration in cases where the service dog has been identified as “the optimal way for the Veteran to manage the mobility impairment and live independently”.

This program supplemented the existing VA service dog program which still provides funds and referral services to veterans who have been medically evaluated and are eligible for VA compensation for some service dog expenses.

Veterans with disabilities often choose to adopt a pet to help them cope with service connected issues including physical disabilities and service-connected issues such as PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, depression, and other conditions.The animals in the pilot program and the VA service dog program, in general, are trained animals and not considered “comfort dogs”–we will explore the technical distinctions of those terms below.

There are a variety of options to choose from when adopting an animal that is meant to be more than a pet, and it’s important to know the difference between service animals and comfort animals.

That may not sound like a big distinction to make, but depending on the state you live in, local ordinances, and other variables, a service animal may be able to go with the owner to places a “comfort animal” might not.

What Is The Difference Between An Emotional Support Animal And A Service Dog?

This issue is tricky to navigate; The discussion of service dogs versus emotional support animals might lead some to believe that one is “better” than the other.

This is not true.

The best animal for someone who needs a service dog or an emotional support animal is the one that meets the specific needs of the person making the choice.

The criteria for that will vary, but there are technical and legal differences between service animals and support animals that we will examine here.

What Is A Service Animal?

A service animal is one that has been trained and certified to work with people with disabilities and perform tasks for them as needed. A comfort animal may play an equally important role to someone who needs the emotional support, but comfort animals are not necessarily trained in certain tasks or certified as a support animal.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) codifies this in a 2010 “final regulation” available on the ADA official site which states that effective March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals “under titles II and III of the ADA”. Furthermore, according to ADA.gov:

  • Generally, title II and title III entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.
  • A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act labels for “title II” as state and local government services) and “title III” as public accommodations and commercial facilities.

What The Americans With Disabilities Act Says About Miniature Service Horses

The notion of a miniature service horse may surprise some, but there is a legitimate option to use trained miniature horses as service animals. These animals range from 24 inches to 2 inches (measured to the shoulders) and weigh up to 100 pounds.

According to the ADA, “Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable.” For full accessibility, the animal must be housebroken, under the owner’s control, and the facility where the owner wants to go must be able to accommodate the size and weight of the animal. Safety issues may also be a factor.

It seems clear that although a service horse might be a unique concept in some situations compared to the more well-known service dog, the philosophy of the ADA towards miniature horses is similar to service dogs.

Both animals must be trained and be able to work with the owner as intended, but if that is the case (barring the considerations mentioned above) the law treats service horses in much the same way as service dogs.

What Kind Of Work Do Service Dogs Do?

The ADA official site lists tasks that a trained service dog may do for its’ owner, which include but may not be limited to:

  • Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack
  • Guiding the blind
  • Alerting those who are deaf
  • Reminding the owner to take prescribed medications
  • Pulling a wheelchair, Alerting and/or protecting a person suffering a seizure

According to the ADA, the duties a service dog has been trained to provide “must be directly related to the person’s disability”. Furthermore, under ADA rules, dogs “whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA”.

What About Comfort Animals?

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a comfort animal is not given the same status as a service dog.

The ADA official site states, “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they (comfort animals) do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.”

The Americans With Disabilities Act does make a difference between a psychiatric service animal (which has been properly trained) and an emotional support animal:

“If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal.”

The ADA adds that in cases where the animal’s presence provides just comfort without the training, “that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

Department Of Veterans Affairs Benefits For Veterans With Service Dogs

The VA official site describes a service dog in much the same way the Americans With Disabilities Act does. According to the VA official site, service dogs must be trained “to do specific tasks for a person that he or she cannot do because of a disability”.

A dog that does not have this training and provides protection, companionship, emotional support, or comfort only may not be described or compensated as a service animal.

Department Of Veterans Affairs Benefits For Veterans With Guide Dogs Or Service Dogs

The VA official site describes benefits available to veterans who utilize service dogs. The VA’s Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services page has a section devoted specifically to the benefits offered to veterans who use guide dogs, and another section that addresses service dogs.

Department Of Veterans Affairs Benefits For Visually Impaired Veterans With Guide Dogs

VA benefits for veterans who may need or prefer a guide dog include assessments for mobility and spatial orientation. The VA will provide contact information on guide dog schools. Partnering with a guide dog is accomplished through independent, non-VA affiliated programs.

These veterans are eligible to receive veterinary care and equipment through the VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aids program, but VA funds are not available for grooming, boarding, food, or other routine expenses.

The VA Description Of A Service Dog

VA requirements for a service dog include a set of specific criteria. The dog must:

  • Do things that are different from natural dog behavior
  • Do things that the handler (dog owner) cannot do because of a disability
  • Learn to work with the new handler in ways that help manage the owner’s disability

VA Policy On Animal Assisted Therapy And Animal Assisted Activity Dogs

These animals are not considered service dogs under the VA program and are not compensated as such. Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Activity dogs are used “to assist therapists to accomplish therapeutic goals or for social engagement of the patients”.

Since these therapy animals are not provided for the individual, personal use of the veteran and are provided in a treatment setting only, they would not qualify under the VA program to compensate veterans for their service dogs.

Getting A Service Dog With VA Help

Veterans who need a service animal may request one from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA will review the veteran’s case and be evaluated by a clinician. The veteran will be evaluated based on a set of criteria including the following:

  • Ability and means, including family or caregiver, to care for the dog now/in the future
  • Goals that are to accomplished through the use of the dog
  • Goals that are to be accomplished through other assistive technology or therapy

If the veteran’s service dog request is approved, they are referred to Assistance Dogs International-accredited agencies, and there is no cost to the veteran for the service dog or the dog’s training.

Like guide dogs for visually-impaired veterans, veterinary care and equipment are provided through VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aids, but VA funds are not available for the routine expenses of owning the dog including food, grooming, or boarding.

Does The VA Provide Service Dogs?

No. The service animals must come from an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) accredited service dog organization.

The VHA Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service administers this benefit program for eligible Veterans through what the VA describes as a “contracted insurance policy” subject to VA rules and restrictions as provided for in the service dog program.

Service Dog Training For The Owner

The VA does not expect the service dog to get trained without the owner being specifically trained as a handler. The veteran is expected to receive training from a qualified instructor to learn service dog handling skills.

VA Compensation For Travel To Guide Dog Training

The Department of Veterans Affairs may compensate the veteran for travel required to attend this training but the vet must be pre-approved for these expenses. Discuss this option with your point of contact for the service dog program.

What Specific Costs For Service Dogs Does The VA Cover?

The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for the veteran’s service dog to receive a harness and backpack. Veterinary care is also compensated including prescription medications for the dog, office visits for medical treatment and dental work where the service dog must be sedated.

The dog must have current vaccinations when paired with the owner but future immunizations are covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In some cases, the dog may have a doctor-prescribed diet and compensation for these circumstances are reviewed case-by-case.

The VA does not generally pay for over-the-counter medications including flea-and-tick treatments, store-bought dental products, and dental care that does not require sedation.

How Do I Know If I Am Eligible For A Service Dog Through The VA?

The Department of Veterans Affairs requires all those who receive medical services through the VA including service dogs, to register with the VA Health Administration enrollment section of any VA medical center or online. All service dog requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Gulf War Veterans: VA Services

The Department of Veterans Affairs offers special services for Gulf War Veterans. According to the VA official site, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm saw more than 650 thousand military members serving between August 2, 1990 and July 31, 1991.

But the Gulf War era of service is at the time of this writing still ongoing. Any service member who has been commissioned as an officer or served as an enlisted member since August 2, 1990 is considered a Gulf War vet.

What does this mean for those who have served during the Gulf War era? For starters, it means any military duty during this time is considered wartime service, and that makes these vets eligible for the Veterans Pension benefit which has wartime service as a basic requirement. There are also other programs the VA offers that benefit those who have served during the Gulf War era.

General VA Benefits For Gulf War Vets

Gulf War era veterans may qualify for the same range of general VA benefits open to all who serve the minimum amount of time in uniform. These benefits include general disability compensation, VA pension benefits, education, training, health care, and home loan benefits just to name a few.

Gulf War veterans who need to apply for these more general benefits may apply online at the VA official site using the eBenefits portal or use an accredited Veterans Service Organization (VSO). You can also apply via a VA regional office.

Gulf War-Specific Illnesses and Medical Conditions

There are Gulf War era medical problems that the Department of Veterans Affairs has labeled as presumptive, meaning that if you served or are serving during the Gulf War era in certain locations and display certain symptoms the VA assumes these medical problems are definitely service connected.

This can include the “medically unexplained” symptoms collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that has been “diagnosed in all Veterans who had 90 days or more continuous active military service,” plus what the VA describes as “certain infectious diseases” such as West Nile Virus, shingles, and other conditions (see below).

The VA official site reminds veterans that they may be entitled to VA disability benefits if you served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War, did not get a dishonorable discharge, and your condition meets a list of requirements.

To be considered for VA disability benefits as a Gulf War era veteran who served in Southwest Asia, all of the following must apply to you:

  • The condition was caused “only by your service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations”
  • The medical issue(s) began while serving before December 31, 2016
  • You qualify for a VA disability rating of 10% or more
  • You were sick for a minimum of six months

Furthermore, the VA requires these eligible veterans to have one or more of the following:

  • Functional gastrointestinal disorders
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Other “undiagnosed illnesses” including cardiovascular disease, muscle and joint pain, and headaches (but not limited to these)
  • Fibromyalgia

“Presumed Disability Benefits” may be available to such veterans if the presumed disability began within a year of your date of separation and the presumed disability results in a VA disability rating of 10% or higher.

The VA List of Presumed Disabilities

  • West Nile virus
  • Nontyphoid salmonella
  • Burcellosis
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Shigella
  • Coxiella burnetii (Q fever)

VA Research Into Gulf War-Specific Issues Affecting Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs has conducted extensive research into certain medical issues that affect veterans who have served in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War era including the “prominent condition affecting Gulf War Veterans” commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome.

This syndrome is described by the VA as “…a cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms that can include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, skin problems, and memory impairment.”

The VA literature on the subject refers to such issues as “chronic multi-symptom illness” (CMI) and “undiagnosed illnesses.” The VA does not prefer or refer to these symptoms as Gulf War Syndrome, but VA literature may include these terms since researchers and caregivers commonly do use the term.

What You Need To Know About VA Services For Gulf War Era Veterans

 A 2016 study notes that some 44 percent of all Gulf War vets who served in the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm may have the symptoms commonly described as Gulf War Illness or Gulf War Syndrome.

What’s more, certain infectious diseases are associated with military service in that theatre of operations including malaria, shingles, West Nile Virus, and visceral leishmaniasis (just to name a few).

Those who may worry about medical conditions they might associate with their military service during the Gulf War era while stationed in or deployed to Southwest Asia are urged to participate in the VA Gulf War Health Registry Exam which is intended to help care providers and veterans determine if further attention is warranted, evaluate the veteran’s eligibility for certain VA care or benefits, etc.

The examination itself includes a physical, the review of possible exposure risks, medical history, lab tests, and discussions with VA health care professionals. The exam process is free for eligible veterans, there is no co-pay, and enrollment in the VA healthcare system is not required.

Veterans considering this process should know that the VA does not consider the Gulf War Health Registry Exam to be part of a disability compensation exam and this exam process is NOT REQUIRED to claim other VA benefits.

This exam process is, unlike the evaluation for VA compensation for service-connected medical issues, NOT based on military records but on the service member’s memory of the events that may have led to exposure, injury, etc. Veterans are free to request a second exam process if new symptoms or problems become apparent.

This exam process is only available to veterans, family members cannot use these services.

Being a Military Spouse: Top Benefits

Military spouses face many challenges, so it’s nice to have benefits to balance the scale.  Spouses can find many advantages ranging from educational benefits to employment opportunities.  Many programs are provided automatically upon entrance to military service or marriage to a service member.  Listed below are 5 top benefits not provided automatically, but available to military spouses to utilize.

1.  Military Spouse Preference (MSP) Program:

With military spouse unemployment remaining high, any advantage that can assist in securing a desired position is helpful. Under the MSP, military spouses are given preferential employment placement in vacant Department of Defense (DoD) civilian positions. These vacancies may fall under either civil service or Appropriated/Non-Appropriates Funds. Please contact you local Civilian Personnel Office (CPO) or Human Resources Office (HRO) for current vacancies.

2.  Patriot Express:

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has established this small business loan program for veterans and spouses. Its purpose is to assist with the initial costs in establishing a small business, or costs related to expanding a small business.  Low interest rates are assigned to the loans, typically ranging from 2.25%-4.75%.  The SBA guarantees up to 85% of the total loan, with a maximum loan amount of $500,000.

3.  Family Service Members’ Group Life Insurance (FSGLI):

Military spouses are eligible to receive up to $100,000 in life insurance coverage. Military members can elect to enroll their family members in this program for coverage of $10,000 to $100,000.  Spouse and dependent coverage may not exceed the coverage held by the service member, and children are restricted to $10,000. Contact your Military Personnel Office for enrollment information.

4.  Transferred GI Bill® Benefits:

Education benefits can be transferred from service members to their spouses and children.  Once the military member has reached the required time in service, he or she may elect to assign a portion or all of their GI Bill benefits to a family member. Benefits may be used while the military member is still serving in the Armed Forces.  Spouses are able to use the benefits for up to 15 years after the military member separates from the Armed Forces, and children may use the benefits until they reach 26 years of age. Children may also be eligible for additional benefits, such as monthly housing allowances. Your installation’s Education Office and the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) office can provide additional details.

5.  Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA):

One of the most advantageous programs offered to military spouses is the MyCAA Scholarship.  This program offers up to $4,000 in financial assistance to military spouses who are pursuing any of the following offered by an institute aligned with the MyCAA Program:

  • A License
  • A Certification
  • An Associates Degree

Spouses of active duty, guard, and reserve members holding the ranks of E-1 to E-5, W-1 to W-2, and O-1 to O-2 are eligible, and must be able to begin and complete their program while the military member is on Title 10 military orders.