Here’s How Harvey Is Impacting Military, Veteran Benefits

With America’s fourth-largest city under water, up to 13 million people impacted across Texas and Louisiana and at least 15 deaths, Hurricane Harvey is wreaking havoc across the southern U.S.

While the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard have joined local, state and federal agencies in responding to what could be the worst natural disaster to ever strike Texas, the Veterans Affairs Department has also issued notices for a handful of benefits.

If you’re a military family member, retiree or veteran in the impacted areas, several military and VA benefits have been temporarily changed in response to the ongoing crisis.

Here’s a rundown:

Tricare

During natural disasters, Tricare regularly puts in place a “state of emergency” in impacted areas.

Tricare users in all counties in Louisiana and some counties in Texas can access emergency prescriptions refills at any Tricare network pharmacy.

Those counties are: Aransas, Atascosa, Austin, Bastrop, Bee, Bexar, Brazoria, Brazos, Burleson, Caldwell, Calhoun, Cameron, Chambers, Colorado, Comal, DeWitt, Fayette, Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Grimes, Guadalupe, Hardin, Harris, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Jim Wells, Karnes, Kerr, Kleberg, Lavaca, Lee, Leon, Liberty, Live Oak, Madison, Matagorda, Montgomery, Newton, Nueces, Polk, Refugio, San Jacinto, San Patricio, Tyler, Victoria, Waller, Walker, Washington, Wharton, Wilson and Willacy.

Specialty care referral requirements have also been waived for all Tricare users in some counties in Texas.

To be seen by a medical provider, beneficiaries simply need to make an appointment with a provider wherever they are. Those Texas counties are: Aransas, Austin, Bastrop, Bee, Brazos, Burleson, Calhoun, Chambers, Colorado, Brazoria, DeWitt, Fayette, Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Grimes, Hardin, Harris, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Jim Wells, Karnes, Kleberg, Lavaca, Lee, Leon, Liberty, Live Oak, Madison, Matagorda, Montgomery, Newton, Nueces, Polk, Refugio, San Jacinto, San Patricio, Tyler, Victoria, Waller, Walker, Washington, Wharton and Wilson.

The situation is constantly changing so check the Tricare website for up-to-date details.

GI Bill

Typically, Post-9/11 GI Bill housing allowance payments require that you are in school continuously. When school breaks or classes are out, the housing payment is prorated to reflect that change.

Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that most people using the GI Bill at a school that has been temporarily closed due to the hurricane will still receive housing allowance payments as if nothing had happened.

 

VA Hospitals, Clinics

Across impacted areas in Texas, some community health and outpatient Department of Veterans Affairs clinics are closed as a result of the storm. The Houston VA Medical Center, however, is open and fully operational, officials posted on that facility’s website.

A series of mobile vet centers to provide counseling services were being deployed to impacted areas, such as Corpus Christi, or have been placed on standby, according to VA officials. Within the area impacted by Harvey are over 510,000 veterans and 115 VA clinics, they said.

Purple Heart Recipients Can Save Thousands on VA Loan Fees

If you are in the market for a home loan and have been awarded a Purple Heart you may be able to save thousands of dollars on your loan thanks to a new law that takes effect early next year.

Purple Heart recipients will be exempt from the funding fee that the Department of Veterans Affairs charges on their guaranteed home loans starting Jan. 1, 2020.

The funding fee can range from 1.25% to 2.4% of the loan value for first-time homebuyers. According to Zillow.com, the average home value in the U.S. is around $227,000. That means that if you are a Purple Heart recipient you could possibly be exempt from paying a funding fee of over $5,000 when you get a VA home loan.

Disabled veterans have been exempt from paying the funding fee since 1982, but language hidden deep in Public Law 116-23, known as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019, also makes active duty Purple Heart recipients exempt from paying the fee.

That means those who have Purple Hearts but are currently on active duty and, therefore, do not yet have a VA disability rating can now access the exemption. The law was signed by President Donald Trump June 27, 2019.

Much of the new law addresses the expansion of VA disability benefits for Agent Orange exposure to those who served in ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war. Previously, only those who served in-country or on inland waters were eligible for disability benefits. The law also directs VA to use the proceeds received from the funding fee to pay for these expanded benefits. In the past the funding fee was used only to cover administrative costs related to the VA’s home loan program.

Starting next year, to receive the exemption you must provide proof of your Purple Heart award to the lender and the VA before the loan closing date.

Should You Go to College After the Military? Here’s How to Decide

Those leaving the military have several choices. For many, the Post-9/11 GI Bill makes heading back to school a very attractive choice. But even if college sounds good, you might still be struggling to make the decision. How do you choose what to do? How do you know what school to attend?

It’s important to take some time to consider your options, gather information, conduct a self-assessment, think through possible outcomes and assess risks and rewards. Making education choices requires some soul searching and honest conversations with people in your life who care about you.

Don’t know where to start? Consider the following as you work through the decision-making process:

How We Choose

Decision-making is a skill, not an ability, and it’s important to learn how to look objectively at the pros and cons to make sound choices. Knowing who you are and what you want to accomplish in life is extremely valuable as you decide if college is a right choice for you.

Values

Most of the decisions we make are expressions of the values we hold. Identify for yourself and articulate clearly what really matters to you. Make a personal list of what values matter most to you. Narrow down your list with people you trust to four to six core personal values.

The Logical Next Step

Why not do something else? College is a serious investment of time and effort. It’s often a time of financial scarcity, despite robust VA benefits. A good exercise is to list your professional and personal goals. Leaning on people you trust, narrow down your list to four to six meaningful goals.

Options and Opportunities

Thanks to the post-9/11 GI Bill, the option to go to college doesn’t go away. While going right after exiting service is the right answer for many veterans — but it is not the only choice. Rather than go too soon, reflect on your list of core values and professional/personal goals. What paths might you take to achieve them? Is college the only way? Is another path more realistic?

Talking it Through

Connect with people who really know you, have your best interests at heart and have valuable insights into the decision you’re trying to make. Just like in the military, rely on those you trust and who you know have your back and then look at that group objectively. Determine if you need to add to it to find additional guidance.

Making a Choice

Considering your unique circumstances, motives and goals, and having listened to and learned from others, you’re now ready to make your decision. It should align with the reality of who you are, what you care about and what you want to achieve. If the factors you used in making your decision change, then it’s perfectly fine for your decision to change, too. Finally, give your decision one final check to make sure you’re ready to move forward.

Higher education can be something that changes the direction of your life, providing opportunities you might not have had with no degree. Particularly for veterans, using your benefits to get a degree can help you build on the skills you learned in the military and create a new post-military career for yourself.

You may not have all the answers yet, but if you decide to go to college, you have concrete goals you want to achieve and a clear sense of how a college degree will impact your life, you will get the most out of college.

Help for Military Spouses Going Back to School

A college degree may lead to better job opportunities and better pay. In fact, earning a bachelor’s or graduate degree increases one’s average hourly wage compared to those with only a high school diploma, according to a Rand Corp. survey.

However, going back to school for military spouses is a sizable time commitment and an expensive financial obligation. What’s more, constant relocation may cause a spouse to lose credits if he or she transfers to another college. But there are financial and credit-transfer programs available to spouses to help spouses get an education.

Here are a few programs that offer financial assistance:

  • The General George S. Brown Spouse Tuition Assistance Program (STAP) offers partial tuition assistance (50 percent of course tuition with a maximum of $1,500 per academic year) to spouses of active-duty Air Force members stationed overseas.
  • The General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant Program provides $1,500 in grants to selected children of active duty Air Force members and spouses stationed overseas through the Air Force Aid Society. To qualify, the spouse must be a full- or part-time student studying for a vocational certificate, undergraduate degree or graduate degree. The funds granted range from $1,500 a year for an undergraduate degree to $1,750 a year for a graduate degree.
  • The Coast Guard Mutual Assistance program (CGMA) offers a supplemental education grant of $150 per year. This grant is applicable to any family member’s educational expenses. However, CGMA does not cover tuition expenses.

These programs assist with transferring class credits:

  • The Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOCAD) program is a consortium of more than 1,500 colleges and universities that offer associate and bachelor’s degree in the United States. This program transfers credits between the colleges allowing the student to continue with his or her education and not retake any classes. SOCAD is ideal for military spouses who might have to relocate several times.
  • The Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges for the navy (SOCNAV) is similar to the SOCAD, but offers associate and bachelor’s degree programs on or accessible to Navy installations.

Each program varies from service to service but all provide the proper resources to help military family members obtain a high level of education.

How to Apply for a Veteran Benefits ID Card

We have been asked this over and over again and it seems like there is a lot of confusion going on about this topic, so we decided to put together a little guide on where and how to get your ID Card.

Basically, there are two different ways to apply for this ID – you can either go to your local benefits VA office or apply online.

Please note that all the information below is taken directly from federal homepages and only changed minimally to sum up/clarify things.

Also, this type of ID is a benefits only ID – not to be confused with your Veteran Health Identification card.

Eligibility

You may be eligible if you meet both of the requirements listed below.

Both of these must be true. You:

  • Served on active duty, in the Reserves, or in the National Guard (including the Coast Guard), and
  • Received an honorable or general discharge (under honorable conditions)

If you received an other than honorable, bad conduct, or dishonorable character of discharge, you’re not eligible for a Veteran ID Card. If you have an uncharacterized or unknown discharge status, VA will have to verify your eligibility before we approve your application.

You’ll need to provide a copy of your discharge papers when you apply for a VIC to prove your character of discharge.

How to apply online

You can apply online here.

What do I need to apply for a Veteran ID Card online?

When you apply, be sure to have these on hand:

  • Your Social Security number
  • A digital copy of your DD214, DD256, DD257, or NGB22 that you can upload. This could be in a .pdf, .jpeg, or .png file format.
  • A copy of a current and valid government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license, passport, or state-issued identification card.

You’ll also need a digital color photo of yourself from the shoulders up. The photo should follow all these standards:

  • Show a full front view of your face and neck (with no hat, head covering, or headphones covering or casting shadows on your hairline or face), and
  • Be cropped from your shoulders up (much like a passport photo), and
  • Show you with your eyes open and a neutral expression, and
  • Be taken in clothing you’d wear for a driver’s license photo, and
  • Be a square size and have a white or plain-color background (with no scenery or other people in the photo), and
  • Show what you look like now (a photo taken sometime in the last 10 years), and
  • Be uploaded as a .jpeg, .png, .bmp, or .tiff file

 

What happens after I apply for a Veteran ID Card?

Once you’ve submitted your VIC application, VA will check your eligibility and verify that:

  • Your character of discharge meets eligibility requirements, and
  • The ID you submitted (driver’s license or passport) is valid, and
  • The image you’ve chosen to appear on the card meets the photo requirements

After they’ve verified your eligibility, they’ll send you an email letting you know the status of your application. If you have an unknown or uncharacterized discharge status, your application will take more time to process while we verify your eligibility. (They might need to request your records from the National Personnel Records Center.)

If you receive an email from them asking for additional information or evidence to process your application, you’ll need to sign in to AccessVA and update your application with the information they ask for.

Important note: Do NOT send personal information via email!

How to apply with a local office

Simply go to your nearest Veterans Benefits Administration office and ask them to help you with getting an ID – you can bring the documentation needed for applying online with you to speed up the process.

Important note: Make sure to go to a Benefits office and NOT a healthcare only office as they won’t be able to help you with an ID unless you’re there for treatment or other healthcare related matters!

You can find where all the Benefits offices are located here.

Just click on your state and look for the ‘Regional Benefit Office’.

What to Send Someone Who Is Deployed

Receiving a care package from home can be a real morale booster for a deployed service member. Choosing and packing the contents of the package will also help you feel closer to your loved one. Your service member will undoubtedly appreciate anything you send, but some things are particularly useful — and some items can’t be sent at all. Before putting together your service member’s care package, find out what he or she wants, and check to see if there are restrictions on what you can send.

Packing tips

Know the timeline. Priority mail packages typically take about 10 to 14 days to reach their country of destination. But depending on where your service member is, more time may pass before the package is in his or her hands. When choosing what to send, keep in mind possible delays as well as any climate extremes the package may be subjected to.

Check on size and weight restrictions for packages. Packages cannot be larger than 108 inches in total circumference (total width all the way around plus total length all the way around), but your service member’s unit may have its own restrictions on the weight and size of packages. These restrictions may change as the unit changes location. It’s best to limit your care packages to the size of a shoebox. You can pick up free Priority Mail boxes at your post office. Use the #4 or #7 size box.

Enclose a card listing the contents of the package. Include the recipient’s name and your name on the card. That way, if the package breaks open and the contents scatter during shipping, mail handlers will know what to repack.

Place items that may spill or leak in heavy plastic zipper-lock bags. Freezer bags work well and your service member will likely find other uses for the bags.

Use reusable packing material. Cushion fragile items with small packages of tissues; copies of the local newspaper; plastic zipper-lock bags filled with popped popcorn; small beanbag-style stuffed toys (for your service member to hand out to local children); or anything else you can think of that your service member will be able to use.

Write out the complete address. The address should include your service member’s full name (with or without rank or rating), unit and APO/FPO (Air/Army Post Office or Fleet Post Office) address. Be sure you have the unit name, including the battalion, ship, squadron, platoon, etc., with the nine-digit ZIP code, if one is assigned.

Number your packages and letters. Some may take longer to arrive. Numbering them will alert your service member to letters and packages that are still on their way.

Do not send perishables to warm climates during spring or summer. Avoid sending anything that may spoil to a desert environment such as Iraq during warm months. The climate heats up rapidly between winter and spring and the temperature inside mail storage facilities may rise to over 120 degrees.

Make sure you check holiday cut-off dates. If you are sending mail for the holidays, check for the shipping deadlines issued each year by the USPS so you can make sure your package gets there on time.

Food and drink

Powdered drink mix. Your service member will appreciate anything that can be mixed with water. In cold months, send hot beverage mixes such as cocoa, instant coffee, tea bags, and creamer. During warmer months, sweetened drink mixes such as lemonade and iced tea will be welcome.

Meal enhancers. Anything that can be mixed with MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), such as ramen noodles, seasoned salt, individual packets of hot sauce, mustard, relish, and ketchup.

Quick protein. Energy bars, tuna fish, sardines, non-perishable beef jerky, or beef summer sausage. Make sure the meat is labeled USDA Beef.

Snacks. Look for small, hard containers of chips, pretzels, and nuts. These are easier to carry than large containers. Avoid bags, which may burst under high pressure. If you do send large bags or containers, include small zipper-lock bags so your service member can pack smaller amounts of snacks to carry. Snack cakes, cheese crackers, and cookies are in high demand. Salty snacks are good for those deployed in the desert, especially in the summer months, because they will encourage your service member to drink more water.

Candy and gum. Avoid chocolate if your service member is in a warm climate. It will melt in the heat. Gum and other types of candy may soften and become gooey, so send these in plastic zipper-lock bags. Send plenty of extras for your service member to share, especially if he or she comes into contact with children.

Personal care and clothing

Choose small, travel-size containers of personal care products, and avoid aerosol cans. To keep liquids from spilling, cover the opening of the container with plastic wrap, then recap before shipping.

Toiletries. Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, cotton swabs, shaving lotion, disposable razors, shampoo, individually packaged tissues.

Personal care. Individually packaged baby wipes, eye drops, lip balm, lotion, aspirin or other pain reliever, feminine hygiene products for women.

Foot care. Moleskin, medicated foot powder, athlete’s-foot ointment.

Disposable hand warmers. Send these during the winter if your service member is in a cold climate.

Goggle-style sunglasses. Your service member will appreciate these if he or she is deployed in the desert.

Cotton socks and underwear. Make sure the garments are made of 100 percent cotton rather than a cotton blend.

Fingerless gloves, stocking caps, long underwear, if the climate is cold.

Entertainment and communication

Reading material. Paperback books, current magazines, comic books.

Word games and puzzles. Crossword puzzles, word searches, jigsaw puzzles.

Games. Foam footballs and basketballs, Frisbees, Hacky Sacks, playing cards, yo-yos.

Electronics. Portable media player, handheld electronic games.

Batteries. Size AA and D batteries are in high demand. If you’re sending a battery-operated device, remove the batteries so the appliance doesn’t accidentally turn on during shipment. And remember: you cannot ship lithium-ion batteries.

Disposable or compact camera.

Writing materials. Notepaper, envelopes, pens, pencils, and stamps.

Phone cards. Shop around to get the best deal on overseas minutes.

Reminders of home

In every care package, be sure to include a personal note or other special reminder of home. Photographs, drawings, and DVDs of your activities at home will be comforting to your service member. Here are some more ideas:

Your children’s art projects or schoolwork.

A small scrapbook filled with mementos from home.

A homemade CD of your service member’s favorite songs.

The Sunday comics from your local newspaper.

Homemade goodies, such as cookies or brownies. Just be sure to pack these in an airtight container.

What not to send

There may be items you cannot send, depending on where your service member is located. If your service member is in the Middle East or Persian Gulf areas, you should not send anything that would offend people of the Islamic faith, including pork or pork by-products, obscene material, religious materials contrary to Islam, anything depicting nude or semi-nude persons, pornographic or sexual items, alcohol, or non-authorized political materials. Check with your Key Volunteer, Ombudsman, or command family support group point of contact for details on further restrictions.

If your service member needs the essentials but you want to save your care packages for special items, you can purchase a gift certificate to the exchange. The program, Gifts from the Homefront, allows you to buy your service member a gift certificate good at any military exchange in the world.

Deployment: Financial Preparation

Being financially prepared is a big part of overall Family Readiness. There are unexpected exercises, schools, training, and other temporary assignments that not only changes your military pay but may interfere with your civilian employment pay. Being mobilized can also present unique financial challenges. Here are some basic guidelines that should be considered prior to mobilization.

Soldiers and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act (SSCRA):

Although all servicemembers receive some protections under the SSCRA, additional protections are available to reserve components called to active duty. Make sure you learn everything there is to know about this act. Under it, you could qualify for:

  • Reduced interest rate on mortgage payments.
  • Reduced interest rate on credit card debt.
  • Protection from eviction if your rent is $2,400 or less.
  • Delay of all civil court actions, such as bankruptcy, foreclosure or divorce proceedings.

Note that most of the protections SCRA offers are good only during your duration of your active duty assignment.

Direct Deposit: Direct deposit is the quickest and the most convenient way to receive your pay check. Plan for a week or two after you initiate direct deposit for it to be activated. The servicemember can be deployed to any part of the world, but having direct deposit will enable both the servicemember and family members to have easier access and more control of their funds. Check with your bank or credit union.

Financial Bills: Servicemembers are responsible for their household expenses/bills while they are deployed. These expenses could include rent, mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards, etc. Before deploying you should ensure that you have made arrangements for these payments to be taken care of. You may wish to appoint your spouse or family member with power of attorney, so that they can handle your finances while you are deployed.

Income Tax: If you will be deployed when your taxes are due, decide in advance how income taxes will be filed and who will do it. You may wish to file for an extension through the Internal Revenue Service by filing Form 2350: Application for Extension of Time to File U.S. Income Tax Return.

Allotments: An allotment is a portion of your pay that is automatically set aside each month for an individual, a mutual fund, creditors, etc. In the event of a deployment, a couple may choose to open a second checking account and set up an allotment for the servicemember. This is an easy and convenient way to make sure that both the servicemember and the family receive funds on a regular basis.

Leave and Earnings Statement (LES): Each month, the servicemember will receive a LES showing their pay for the preceding month and any changes that will affect their pay for the current month. The LES will also show pay for special assignments; allowances for food, housing, and clothing; leave earned and used; and what deductions were taken out of their pay for established allotments, insurance, and taxes. Also included is drill and retirement information. Units will often offer a class on reading an LES for both the servicemember and spouse prior to a long-term deployment. For more information on Leave and Earnings Statements, click here.

Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E)

For Veterans and Servicemembers

You may receive Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) services to help with job training, employment accommodations, resume development, and job seeking skills coaching. Other services may be provided to assist Veterans and Servicemembers in starting their own businesses or independent living services for those who are severely disabled and unable to work in traditional employment. To learn more about the VR&E program, review the VR&E Process page, and the tabs and links on this page. Click on the “How to Apply” tab to apply for VR&E services.

VA’s Education and Career Counseling program is a great opportunity for Veterans and Servicemembers to get personalized counseling and support to help guide their career paths, ensure the most effective use of their VA benefits, and achieve their goals. Learn more and apply for education and career counseling.

For Employers

Veterans leave military service with a wealth of transferable skills and professional experiences. Salary subsidies, assistive technology,  non-paid work experiences, and special employer incentives may be available from VA to help you hire those who have served. Explore what VA offers to make hiring or rehiring a Veteran with a service-connected disability that much easier.

VA created a Veterans Employment Toolkit for employers. This toolkit provides a variety of outside resources for employers, managers or supervisors, and human resource professionals, including information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). It also includes a link to Department of Labor’s America’s Heroes at Work site, which offers on-line trainings, webcasts, and presentations for employers and a Hiring Veterans Toolkit as well as a TBI, PTSD and Employment Training Tool.

https://www.va.gov/vetsinworkplace/resources.asp

For Family Members

If you support a Veteran or Servicemember with a service-connected disability, who faces difficult employment challenges, there may be little left in the household budget for your higher education and career advancement. VA may offer assistance to help you assess your career goals and abilities, find your next job, further your education and skills, and identify places where you can get job training.

VA may extend vocational counseling and support to family members on topics including:

Educational and Career Counseling (VA Chapter 36)

Find out how to apply for VA Chapter 36 benefits to get free Veteran Educational and Career Counseling services. You may be eligible if you’re leaving active service soon, if you’ve been discharged within the past year, or if you’re the dependent of a Veteran.

Am I eligible for Educational and Career Counseling?

You can get these services if you’ll be discharged from active duty within 6 months or if you meet both of the requirements listed below.

Both of these must be true. You:

  • Separated from active duty not more than one year ago and didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge, and
  • Qualify as a Veteran for educational assistance under a VA educational program

Note: If you’re the dependent of a Veteran, you may also qualify for Educational and Career Counseling.
Learn more about employment benefits for dependents

What benefits can I get?

  • Counseling to help you decide which civilian or military jobs you want
  • Educational and Career Counseling to help you find a training program or job
  • Academic and adjustment counseling to help you deal with issues that get in the way of your success in training or employment

How do I get these benefits?

First, you’ll need to apply for Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefits. Then, you’ll work with your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (VRC).

Follow these steps to apply online now

  1. Sign in to your eBenefits account.
  2. Select Apply.
  3. Click Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Benefits.
  4. Apply for Education and Career Counseling.
  5. If you’re eligible, we’ll invite you to an orientation session at your nearest VA regional benefit office.

Go to eBenefits to Apply

You can also apply by mail

Fill out an Educational/Vocational Counseling Application (VA Form 28-8832).
Download VA Form 28-8832 (PDF)

Mail the completed form to your nearest VA regional benefit office.
Find your nearest VA regional benefit office

If you qualify, we’ll invite you to an orientation session at a VA regional benefit office near you.

Get more information

Watch this video to learn more about VR&E Chapter 36 services

Use CareerScope® to find careers you might enjoy.
Learn more about CareerScope

THE AVACARE MEDICAL INITIATIVE

At AvaCare Medical, we know that America is the land of the free because of the brave. That’s why we’re thanking the brave for our freedom with Hero Rewards.

In appreciation for your sacrifices on behalf of our country, they offer a 5% discount on all medical supplies purchased through AvaCare Medical for all past and present members of the military and their families.

All active, reserve, retired or disabled U.S. veterans and immediate family members (including parents, siblings and children) with a valid military ID are eligible for a 5% discount on any order placed on AvaCare Medical. No application necessary; simply fill out your U.S. military ID number at checkout to receive 5% off your entire order.

*Please note: AvaCare Medical reserves the right to change or cancel the Veterans discount at any time.