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Military benefits made easy
If you're an armed forces veteran or in the military now, you probably don't know about all the benefits you're entitled to.
Even if you do, gobbledegook could stop you like a tank. Pick up a government publication and you might need a translator to find whether you're eligible for some of the rewards of service and how to get them.
It's tedious work, and time-consuming, and you might just want to forget the whole thing.
Don't despair. There's a humvee-load of practical help for you in print and on the Internet these days, especially with the heightened awareness of the military that comes with the Iraq war and global fight against terror.
One new addition that aims to make your search for answers easier is a book from the folks at Military.com called "The Military Advantage: A Comprehensive Guide To Your Military & Veterans Benefits."
The oversize, 389-page paperback is the work of Christopher P. Michel, founder and president of Military.com, who says it offers more details than what's posted on his company's Web site. Published by Simon & Schuster, it costs $20.
This book is good for browsing. Here's a glimpse of what you can learn from it and Military.com:
VA home loans. Home loans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs aren't always the best way to go. You might be able to get a conventional home loan with a lower interest rate. Do your homework and find out.
If you're a veteran with permanent and total service-connected disabilities, you might be able to get a VA Specially Adapted Housing grant for up to $50,000. You'd use the money to adapt a house so it meets your needs.
Are you a veteran with a VA-rated disability of 10 percent or higher? If so, your VA loan fees could be waived. That could save you thousands of dollars in loan origination fees.
Retired pay. The government offers a pension, with benefits, when you retire from the military. There are three military retirement systems. If you have a choice, how do you pick the best plan for your situation? Use the U.S. Department of Defense retirement calculators at www.dod.mil/militarypay/retirement/calc.
Veteran disability pay. If you have limited income and 90 days or more of active military service -- including at least one day in wartime -- you might be eligible for a veterans disability pension. Payments would be made to bring your total income, including other retirement or Social Security income, to a level set by Congress.
Earned a Medal of Honor? You could get a monthly veterans pension of $1,027.
VA health care. Veterans are eligible for VA programs, as well as dependents in many cases. The Department of Veterans Affairs is required by law to provide eligible veterans hospital care and outpatient care services that are defined as "needed."
The VA defines "needed" as care or service that will promote, preserve, and restore health. This includes treatment, procedures, supplies or services. This decision of need is on the judgment of your health care provider and in accordance with generally accepted standards of clinical practice.
There are also health programs you may be eligible for, including treatment for blindness rehabilitation, Agent Orange exposure and HIV/AIDS.
Health care coverage. TRICARE is the health care program for service members and retirees, along with their families and survivors. To learn about it, you can go on a self-help tutorial at www.tricareu.tricare.osd.mil. For general TRICARE information, call 877-363-6337.
If you can, pay your enrollment fee annually, not quarterly. With the current billing system, there's less chance of a problem with a billing and claims payment if you pay annually.
Save your receipts, and you'll end up saving money and avoiding headaches. Keep all receipts, Explanation of Benefits and copayment records for at least a year. You can deduct many health care expenses from your taxes, and you never know when you might be incorrectly billed.
Don't submit multiple claims bundled together, because a problem with one claim will delay payment on all of them. Send them separately. That's how processors manage them.
Special military lodging. Many hotels and resorts offer special discounts for service members and their families. Check when you're making reservations.
Legal rights. Think being called to active military service means you'll have trouble meeting your financial obligations? You might have protection under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which covers all active-duty personnel, including reservists and National Guard members called to active duty. Check with a Defense Department legal assistance office.
Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, your employer can't make you spend vacation time for your military training or service.
Contact the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve first if you have a question about your employment rights. It's your best option for a speedy resolution, and protects all levels of appeal if they're needed. Call 800-336-4590 on go online at www.esgr.org.
Veterans benefits claims and appeals. Get help when enrolling or filing a claim. Veterans services officers can ensure that your enrollment and claims forms are filled out correctly and your claims are processed right the first time.
Keep a copy of all paperwork related to your veteran compensation case, in the event you'll need to appeal later on.
File a claim for a health problem related to military service even if your condition doesn't qualify for compensation today. You might be eligible in the future. You can file a claim for any condition within a year after discharge or retirement. VA claims are usually awarded retroactively to the date of filing, so file as soon as possible.
Education benefits. The Reserve GI Bill can provide you up to 36 months of benefits worth more than $10,000 tax-free to help pay for college tuition, books, fees and vocational training or certification expenses. You pay nothing. It requires a six-year commitment to serve in the Reserve or Guard.
Family support during deployment. The Red Cross publishes a guide for military families at www.redcross.org/pubs/afpubs/welcome.pdf. It's called "Welcome Home: A Guide to a Healthy Family Reunion," and deals with family reunion and post-deployment concerns.
WHERE TO TURN FOR HELP
Area veterans and service members have a source of help close to home -- the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council.
When formed: 2003, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization
Mission: To support and, when necessary, speak for more than 60,000 veterans and 2,500 military in the area; also conducts public programs to foster patriotism
President: Retired Army Col. Bill Harris of Bethlehem
Members: 118 public and private organizations
Current campaign: Pressing for establishment of a state Department of Veterans Affairs so more-effective services can be delivered to Pennsylvania's veterans
Office phone: 484-788-0196
Web site: www.lvmac.org
Newsletter: Sound Off, available free; subscribe online for e- mailed copy or write to LVMAC, P.O. Box 22522, Lehigh Valley, PA 18002-2522; current and back issues can be downloaded from Web site
Rich Hudzinski of Allentown, chairman of LVMAC's Veterans Affairs Committee, recommends the council and these other sources for information about benefits:
www.va.gov -- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Exec/Military_Affairs/va/index.htm -- Pennsylvania Bureau for Veterans Affairs
www.nmfa.org -- National Military Family Association
www.DisabilityInfo.gov -- an online resource for Americans with disabilities; part of President Bush's New Freedom Initiative
www.nvlsp.org/publicationslist.htm -- National Veterans Legal Services Program, an independent, nonprofit veterans service organization
www.moaa.org -- Military Officers Association of America; site known for its legislative section
www.govbenefits.gov/govbenefits_en.portal -- a partnership of federal agencies seeking to provide improved, personalized access to government assistance programs
www.HireVetsFirst.gov -- a comprehensive site for hiring veterans, designed by President's National Hire Veterans Committee as a result of Jobs for Veterans Act; also useful to employers
www.Military.com -- the online presence of Military Advantage Inc., a division of Monster Worldwide
"Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents," available free at VA facilities; can be ordered from Federal Citizen Information Center of U.S. General Services Administration at Pueblo, Colo., www.pueblo.gsa.gov; also can be downloaded or used online from VA Web site www.va.gov/opa/vadocs/current_benefits.htm in English and Spanish.
"Retired Military Almanac," from Uniformed Services Almanac Inc., which also publishes "Uniformed Services Almanac," "Reserve Forces Almanac" and "National Guard Almanac;" all available for $9.95 at www.militaryalmanac.com.
Accredited veterans service officers are the key to good service, experts at helping veterans get the benefits they deserve. Among them are most county directors of veterans affairs. The following are accredited:
Lehigh County -- Thomas Dye, 610-782-3295; his assistants Vi Wagner and Lynn Weimer are also accredited.
Northampton County -- Ray Greene, 610-559-3199
Montgomery County -- James H. Seader Jr., 610-278-3285
Berks County -- Leigh Tallas, 610-378-5601; his assistant Michelle Rathman is also accredited.
Bucks County -- Dan Fraley, 215-345-3307; his assistants Betty Carleo and Karen Mayer are also accredited.
Carbon County -- Charles J. McHugh Jr., 570-325-3986
Monroe County -- Joel Keller, 570-517-3187
Schuylkill County -- Brenda Zechman, 570-628-1400
Veterans service organizations play an important role as advocates. Here are itinerant, accredited veterans service officers who operate in Lehigh and Northampton counties and serve veterans regardless of whether they belong to the service officers' organizations:
George Wilson of Bethlehem, national service officer, National Veterans Organization of America: 610-691-7007
Bill Jones, national service officer, Military Order of the Purple Heart, VA Regional Office, Philadelphia: 215-381-3064
Ray Sekelsky, department service officer, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center: 570-821-2535/2536
Veterans employment representatives at your local CareerLink are also sources of benefits information. Veterans don't need to be unemployed to ask for help. CareerLink contacts for veterans are:
Lehigh County -- Joe Prusak, 610-821-6755
Northampton County -- Sam Jones, 610-250-1708 ext 3012
Montgomery County -- John Stevens, Charles Kemmerer and Ronald Campbell, 610-270-3429
Berks County -- Jeffrey Rhein, 610-988-1313 ext 3383
Bucks County -- Joseph McLaughlin, Patrick Bond, 215-781-1073
Carbon County -- Leo Oropeza, 570-325-2701, ext 101
Monroe County -- Charles Montobano, 570-620-2858
Schuylkill County -- Boyd McCullough, 570-621-3162