Veterans Benefits Guide For Dummies
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Veterans are entitled to a wide range of benefits, but unfortunately most veterans benefits aren’t well publicized. Sometimes they’re hidden in long, confusing pieces of legislation, and other times, they’re buried among broken links on half-dead government websites. Fortunately, this Cheat Sheet is here to help.

How to apply for VA benefits — work with a VSO

After you identify a veterans benefit you’re eligible for, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leaves it to you to figure out how to apply. That’s true whether you’re eyeing VA disability payments, your GI Bill, a VA home loan, or an employment program to help you go from the briefing room to the boardroom. But the good news is that veteran service organizations (VSOs) are waiting in the wings to help you.

The best way to file a claim with the VA is through a VSO. Most of these organizations don’t require you to join them, either; they just want to give fellow vets a hand. Some of the best-known VSOs include the following:

Each has accredited reps who can help you file an initial claim or an appeal. They can also answer your questions because they’ve been there, too.

Alternatively, you can work with a VA claims attorney.

Checking out your vet education benefits

The vast majority of veterans qualify for money for school. If you’re eligible, you can use the cash to attend a college or university, go to a trade school, or participate in a certification program. Apprenticeships designed just for veterans, as well as on-the-job training programs and internships, are available for you to take advantage of because you have military service under your belt.

If you plan to use your GI Bill (and you should, because it’s free money for education), you can apply for the benefit through the VA’s website. Generally, you double-check your eligibility, find and apply to an accredited school, and present the VA and your school with the information they need. It’s that easy. If you have the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you get extra money for your housing and living expenses, plus books and supplies, so you can focus more on school and less on feeding yourself and keeping the lights on.

Buying into the American dream with a VA home loan

If you served in the military and were honorably discharged, there’s a good chance that you qualify for a VA home loan. These loans don’t come directly from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the VA guarantees them; this means lenders don’t have to stress about you defaulting on your payments because if you do, the VA will swoop in and try to make things right.

Because the VA guarantees these loans, lenders are more likely to offer you competitive terms and interest rates. With a VA loan, you can also buy a home with nothing down (though your monthly payments may be higher than they’d be if you had a down payment).

Even better, the VA limits the amount of money your lender can charge you for closing costs, and it allows sellers to pay some or all of them. And even better: Lenders aren’t allowed to make you purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI) when you use your VA loan without coming up with a 20 percent down payment, which can save you thousands of dollars.

Oh, and the VA prohibits lenders from slapping you with a prepayment penalty. You can pay off your VA loan as soon as the ink dries on your contract without any extra charges. You may reuse your VA home loan benefit as many times as you want.

Picking up your veteran ID card

In addition to hiring preference, VA benefits, disability pay, and other veterans benefits that come from the government, plenty of vets are entitled to discounts and special deals. The key? You usually have to ask about them. Sometimes retailers, restaurants, ticket sellers, and service businesses ask for proof in return for special perks, so that’s where your veteran identification card comes in.

If you served on active duty or in the Reserves, National Guard, or Coast Guard, and if you received an honorable or general discharge under honorable conditions, you’re entitled to a veteran identification card (VIC).

You can apply for yours on the VA website if you have the following:

  • Your Social Security number
  • A digital copy of your discharge document
  • A copy of a current and valid government-issued ID card.

When you apply, you must also submit your photo from the shoulders up. The VA doesn’t care if you take the photo with your phone or tablet as long as it’s similar in style to a passport photo.

After the VA approves your VIC application, it will put your VIC in the mail. You should get it within a few weeks. You can show your VIC when you ask for a veteran discount or other perks available only to vets.

10 places to get help with your VA claims

When your drill instructor told you to “Work smarter, not harder,” you hopefully took it to heart — that’ll come in handy when it’s time to file your VA claim. Working smarter on a VA claim means asking for help when you need it, so here are ten places to look:

  • Calling on the VA: The VA has a duty to assist you in developing your claim. This requires the VA to help you gather evidence when filing your initial claim or supplemental claim. You can contact the VA through its benefits hotlines. You can also get in-person help at a regional VA office.
  • Asking Disabled American Veterans: Disabled American Veterans helps thousands of veterans file successful VA claims every month. All the help they provide is free, and you don’t need to be a member to get it.
  • Visiting the Veterans of Foreign Wars: Known for being the largest organization of combat veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars provides free claims assistance to vets from every era. They can help you file your claim even if you’re not a member.
  • Applying with the American Legion: The American Legion has accredited service officers waiting to provide you with free help on your claim — no membership required. American Legion reps can help you document and develop your full claim with the VA.
  • Working with the WWP: The Wounded Warrior Project works with injured veterans and their family members to help with caregiver benefits, education, disability payments, and more. They even help you appeal VA denials.
  • Turning to AMVETS for help: American Veterans (AMVETS for short) has more than 1,400 locations across the country, and you don’t need to be a member to get help filing a claim.
  • Requesting help from PVA: The Paralyzed Veterans of America works with vets who have spinal cord injury and disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other service-connected injuries or conditions. The help they provide is completely free.
  • Talking to the Vietnam Veterans of America: The Vietnam Veterans of America provides free claims assistance to all veterans (not just those from the Vietnam era) through its specially trained service officers. You don’t need to be a member to get free help from the VVA.
  • Asking other organizations: If you’re involved in the Noncommissioned Officers Association, Air Force Association, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans for Peace, or any other military-related association, talk to them about resources for helping you file a claim.
  • Petitioning a VA-accredited attorney: VA-accredited attorneys are people who the VA legally recognizes as capable of helping you pursue your claim. These attorneys undergo special training and may be able to help you — but unlike VSOs, they’re allowed to charge you for their services. However, under the law (38 CFR § 14.636, in case you were wondering) they may only charge you after VA issues a decision on your claim.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Angie Papple Johnston joined the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Specialist. During her second deployment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Angie became her battalion’s public affairs representative. She also served as the Lead Cadre for the Texas Army National Guard’s Recruit Sustainment program.

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