New Military Spouse 101

Joining the military community can be a daunting and foreign experience for individuals unfamiliar with the military life. You are not alone – and you certainly don’t have to navigate this strange new world on your own either. For new military families, the military jargon, customs and courtesies, high OPTEMPO (“operational tempo”), and the myriad of bureaucratic organizations to deal with can be incredibly overwhelming. Never be afraid to ask questions. There are so many experienced families who can guide and support you along the way. Here is some helpful advice that I routinely share with new members of our military community.

  • Familiarize yourself with your respective service’s customs and courtesies, as well as personal etiquette: There is nothing more embarrassing than committing a social faux pas at a military event, be it a formal, semi-formal, or casual event. No one ever wants to go down in unit history as that person. Ensure that you also dress appropriately for unit functions – when in doubt, ask an experienced spouse or the leadership for clearer guidance on attire. (Most event invitations will specify the dress code.) If you’re invited to a small function, a Thank You letter to the host/hostess will go a long way.

 

  • Understand the Leave and Earning Statement (LES): Upon first glance, the LES can be highly confusing with all of its acronyms. Learning how to decipher what everything means will ensure you can track pay allowances, benefits, debts, and allocated leave days. Consistent monitoring of the monthly LES can prevent pay issues. For official guidance on understanding the LES, go to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) site.

 

  • Use your family support group: Each service has its own support group with different names, but they all serve the same purpose in providing information, guidance, access to military post resources, and camaraderie. Their functions are most prominent during times of deployment and extended training when your service member is away from home, but they also serve the same purpose in a garrison environment. The Army has its Family Readiness Groups; Navy has its Ombudsman volunteer and Family Readiness Groups; Air Force has the Key Spouse Program; Marine Corps has the Family Readiness Program; and the Coast Guard has the Work-Life Program. Get to know the other senior spouses – they are a wealth of knowledge and experience and can guide you through the often baffling military system. Check with your readiness groups and on-post facilities to see if they offer introductory classes for new spouses. There are often courses both in a classroom or online that you can participate in to familiarize yourself with ranks, military jargon, military benefits and resources, and deployment preparation.

 

  • Ask questions in the absence of information: The most damaging thing that can harm a unit and its families is misinformation. In the absence of real information, never succumb to rumors and never make assumptions. If something sounds off or if you lack clarity, ask your Family Readiness Group Leader or the Chain of Command (if they have provided their contact information for that very purpose). Always go to an individual or representative who is authorized or has direct access to get the real information. Circulating or purely going off information within a rumor mill is counterproductive to the efforts of readiness groups and units which have the best intentions for the families under their care.

 

  • USAJOBS.GOV: Moving from post to post every couple of years can mean your own career sometimes takes a backseat. At USAJOBS  you can find federal jobs around your current duty station, as it is an incredible resource to becoming a federal employee. The Military Spouse Appointing Authority (Executive Order 13473) gives agencies the authority to hire military spouses without competition, but it doesn’t entitle spouses to a hiring opportunity over all other applicants. For more information, read “Special Hiring Authorities for Military Spouses and Family Members.”

 

  • Memorize your sponsor’s (service member’s) Social Security Number (SSN) and birthday: Commit this information to memory, as all Tricare benefits and any other official military services will always need the sponsor’s information before services are rendered. Just ensure you give this information out judiciously to legitimate organizations and trusted sources to prevent identity theft.

 

  • “Nothing is EVER set in stone!: This is a motto that I live and swear by from my experience as both a Soldier and as a spouse. This motto has made my life infinitely easier when I know and accept ahead of time that dates and situations will always change because the military works in time frames, not set days, making life unpredictablefor military families.  Having worked on operational level staffs, I’ve seen the hard work and planning that our service members’ leaders conduct on a daily basis. I’ve also seen the immense frustration when all the in-depth planning is nixed or drastically altered, requiring immediate attention in addressing the latest issue or timeline change at hand. There’s always someone higher up in the food chain with the authority to alter any given plan. In a perfect world, everything would be predictable and on a set schedule. However, as a new spouse, get used to arrivals, departures, training events, and even vacation leave moving either right or left on your calendar. The same goes for abrupt requirements that will require your service member to have to drop everything and disappear at a moment’s notice for a tasking or for a last-minute change in duties.

As a whole, welcome to the military community! It’s a fantastic adventure that your family will never forget. A grateful nation thanks you for your commitment and sacrifices. Get ready to meet amazing people, see different places, and HAVE FUN!

Vets of Vietnam & Gulf War Are 1 Step Closer to New Benefit

Vietnam-era and other pre-9/11 veterans are one step closer to accessing a program designed to pay their spouses or other family support for in-home care even as rules tighten for who can enroll, as part of a highly anticipated proposed rule release from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Among the changes laid out in the 231-page proposal is a shift in the level of care veterans must require to qualify; a change to monthly payment amounts and how they are calculated; a downsizing of benefits tiers; and a benefits grace period for caregivers who leave the program due to domestic or intimate partner violence.

No start date was given for the proposed changes. Their rollout, however, is tied to an already delayed IT upgrade needed to handle the anticipated influx of applicants. That update is expected by late this fall, VA officials said in a release. From there a two years must pass before the benefit is expanded to veterans who did not serve after 9/11. The program also only serves those providing care for a service-connected disabled veteran — not a veteran providing care for someone else.

The VA’s caregiver stipend program has long been available only to caregivers of post-9/11 veterans. The program currently pays stipends to about 18,000 caregivers, with dollar amounts based on a three-tiered system tied to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) rates for in-home health aids.

But the program is notoriously inconsistent, with enrollment standards varying widely by region. To curtail that problem, VA officials have repeatedly closed and reopened enrollments as they worked to tighten guidance on what injuries require such care.

Meanwhile, some advocates for veterans decried the program as unfair because it did not allow pre-9/11 veteran access at all. A 2018 law, known as the VA Mission Act, laid the groundwork to open enrollment for the program to veterans of other eras. The law requires the VA to first complete an IT overhaul for administering the program, a process that is still ongoing, and issue new policy rules governing its administration.

The proposed rules, released March 4, are the VA’s response to that policy requirement.

While newly qualifying veterans will benefit from the expanded access, the changes could drastically impact those who are currently enrolled. And while the proposal includes a grandfather clause that would protect their enrollment for a year, some caregivers may find they no longer qualify under the new, tightened regulation.

Currently, veterans qualify for the program by needing assistance with “activities of daily living” identified by the VA. Those include dressing and undressing; bathing; grooming; adjusting special prosthetics or orthopedic appliances; toileting; feeding; and mobility. But the current rules do not specifically dictate how often that assistance is required.

The new policy would instead require that the veteran need assistance with the identified activities each time they are completed. That change would in effect block veterans who only need periodic help from the program.

Those who qualify under the old rules would be grandfathered into the program for a year, during which time they would be reassessed for enrollment.

Rather than a three-tiered system currently in place with payment amounts based on estimates of time spent providing care, the revamped program would instead include only two tiers. They would be divided into those who need assistance with at least three of those daily living activities and those who need help with no more than two.

Monthly stipends would then be based purely on those tiers and tied to the government’s GS-4, step 1 rate plus locality pay, instead of the BLS calculated rate for home health aids currently used. The proposal estimates that, in most cases, the change will result in a slightly increased caregiver payment.

For example, the proposal states, the 2020 GS-4 step 1 rate is about $27,000 annually, while the BLS rate in use as of December was about $25,000.

Caregivers in tier one of the proposed scale would receive about $2,250 monthly before locality pay, while those in tier two would receive 62.5% of the full rate, or about $1,410.

Caregivers who currently receive a higher payment than the proposed change to GS-4 gives would be grandfathered into the old payment system for one year, the proposal states.

The new proposal also expands protections for caregivers who are victims of domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Currently, those who drop from the program because of those issues are given a 30-day grace period. But how that is actually implemented depends on a wide variety of factors, including the local program administrator and whether the veteran immediately designates a different caregiver.

But the new rules add specific, broad protections for domestic and partner violence victims, granting a 90-day payment grace period for caregivers who report violence or abuse. By doing so, the authors state, they hope to encourage caregivers to keep themselves safe.

“We have found that oftentimes, a caregiver may remain in a [domestic violence] … situation due to financial concerns,” the proposal states. “They may choose to not leave such a situation because doing so would result in financial insecurity, including loss of caregiver benefits such as the stipend payment and health care benefits. We propose to extend caregiver benefits for a period of 90 days after discharge in such instances. …. We do not want to encourage caregivers to remain in such situations.”

The rules will be published to the Federal Register on Friday and are subject to a 60-day public comment period.