VADM Dan Cooper is a retired submarine officer who commanded PUFFER, SUBRON TEN and SUBLANT. During the Administration of President George W. Bush VADM Cooper was Deputy Secretary for Benefits in the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Since the vast majority of our readers are veterans, know veterans or can spell “veteran”, the goal is to make each of you more aware of some aspects of the Department of Veterans Affairs. One Secretary has referred to it as the “greatest story never told”. And, it might cause the reader to at least think how the VA may help – you or a veteran you know.
Based on the author’s recent full immersion into “the world of veterans’ benefits”, that will be the primary focus; but, the more subtle messages are:
- The United States is the most generous country in the world toward its veterans.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs is not your father’s VA
- The adjudication of disability claims and the execution of medical and non-medical benefits for our veterans are quite complicated but accomplished daily by a highly professional group of dedicated individuals (called government workers or bureaucrats-the majority of whom are themselves veterans)
Every day, in the job, there was one consistent message-emphasized in person, in speeches and in writing:
“We have the best mission in government -we help veterans!”
Veterans’ benefits have always been a major topic of discussion -be it George Washington’s plea to Congress for pay for his troops or the veterans’ bonus march of the mid-30’s. As Rudyard Kipling emphasized in his well-known poem, Tommy, the appreciation of veterans is expansive during conflict; and , rather quickly, becomes dormant after victory is declared.
A further point to consider is that the term veteran brings a different mental image to each of us; it might be one of WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam the Gulf War, or the Cold War-and each vision might vary with respect to both the conflict and the participants. The myriad problems faced by the soldier, marine, sailor, airman or coast guardsman have been and are quite disparate based on the enemy, the physical and mental stress after each of these conflicts, and the home-town reception lo which the young veteran returned.
The VA motto is engraved on the wall of the department headquarters building on Vermont Ave in Washington, D.C. The words, taken from the second inaugural address by President Abraham Lincoln, state:
“To care for him who shall have home tire battle, a11dfor Iris widow a11d his orphan”
In 1944, President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act better known as the GI BILL. This was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the history of our republic. It ensured that 17 million personnel from the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters could be absorbed into our civilian society. (As an aside-it passed by one vote.) By the time the bill expired, it had provided:
- Education (training or college) for 7.8M veterans;
- Home, business or farm loans: S.9M loans valued at >$550B;
- Unemployment Compensation at $20 for 52 weeks; and
- Priority for construction materials to build VHA hospitals.
Economic historians will tell you, this bill was the foundation for our country’s prosperity in the decades to follow.
In 1989 the Veterans Administration became the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second largest in the Executive Branch. Only the Department of Defense is larger in both number of personnel and size of budget.
Organization of the Department
The Department of Veterans Affairs (DYA) is composed, primarily, of three Administrations, each led by an Under Secretary, duly nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
The largest, and no doubt the most recognized, of the three administrations is the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Today, VHA oversees nearly 160 hospitals, about 800 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC) and 137 Nursing Homes-with close to 250,000 personnel. A less realized point is that VHA is a leader in medical research. Over the years, it has been instrumental in advancements in pacemakers, CT scans, prosthetics, as well as the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and HIV AIDS. VHA is arguably the best medical system in the world today.
The second largest (but interestingly, with a higher budget than VHA) is the Veteran’ Benefits Administration (VBA) with 57 offices including at least one in each state, Manila and San Juan. Presently, VBA has over 15,000 personnel and an annual budget around $508, 99% of which is for veterans’ entitlements as a result of five non-medical benefits programs which it executes.
The third of the administrations is the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). This oversees over 125 national veterans’ cemeteries today, and has six presently under construction. NCA also coordinates with individual states in the oversight of the various state veterans cemeteries. As an aside, the one cemetery over which NCA has no responsibility is Arlington National Cemetery which is run by the Department of the Army.
The Veterans Benefits Administration
In VBA, there arc the five primary non-medical benefits programs. Each of these serve veterans; however, a couple programs are, specifically, available to active duty military, and in some cases, national guard and reserve personnel.
The largest insurance program is the Service members Group Life Insurance (SGLI). VA, working with OSD, oversees Life Insurance for all participating active duty personnel. The SGLI benefit was dramatically improved in 2005 when the face value was increased from $250,000 to $400,000. (Some of you may remember when we were insured up to $10,000 by the government.) Simultaneously, with the increase in SG LI, the Department of Defense increased its program for the dependents of personnel killed on active duty to $100,000 (from $I 2,000). Today, the family of a deceased active duty person receives $500,000 relatively rapidly. Additionally, the VA has a special volunteer program to assist and advise the recipient on fiscal responsibility. There are Veterans Insurance programs available; the primary purpose of these is to help veterans who are disabled and therefore subject to higher premiums for the same insurance on the open market.
A second major insurance program, established as a result of the present conflict, is Traumatic Service members Life Insurance Program. (T-SGLI). A member could be eligible to receive financial assistance, while on active duty, if she or he is seriously wounded and evacuated to a medical facility. The objective is to help defray the costs for the families to visit the seriously wounded and help in the healing process at the medical facility. (The fact is most caregivers will be far from home and away from their work.) The TSGLI is given in $25,000, $50,000, $75,000 and $100,000 packages. The eligibility and actual amount is determined by the individual military service (as written in law) and based on the specific disabilitie(s) and the seriousness of them.
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE)
VOCREHAB was established to provide training and education, up to a college degree, for those individuals disabled to at least the 20% level. Further, the program is meant to establish the ability for Independent living for those most seriously disabled. The primary goal of the program, for most veterans, is employment. In that regard, we have counselors and laboratories in every Regional Office where the veteran can have access to all sources of information as well as assistance in resume’ writing, job preparation and guidance. Special agreements have been established with colleges to assist in the education and with businesses across the nation to make jobs available for veterans. One b11si11ess agreement was signed in 2007 with the FAA to assist veterans in training for air traffic controller, and another, with NA V AIR SYSCOM, for engineering candidates.
Loan Guaranty (LGY)
For active duty personnel, as well as veterans, the Loan Guaranty program is one of the best available for buying a home with no down payment. This is the follow-on to the 1944 GI Bill which, originally, included not only homes but also businesses and farms. In 2008, the VA made the I 8,000th home loan, since the inception.
The Loan Guaranty program has a superior reputation not only for the opportunity for the military personnel home ownership but also for outstanding management. The delinquency and foreclosure rates arc almost one-half those of the FHA loans and about I/ 9th of the sub-prime foreclosures. There arc several reasons for the success, not the least being the maturity and reliability of the military member. Quality is also ensured by the facts that VA uses well-trained appraisers whom VA continually monitors and qualifies (thus assuring standards not always present industry-wide); VA uses ratios which ensure all the monthly mandatory costs and expenses (as in childcare) of the buyer arc calculated so that the buyer will not over-obligate; and ARMs, although allowed, arc severely limited in the increase in a given year and the total increase allowed over five.
For oversight, VA has developed the capability to monitor payments so that as soon as the owner misses a payment, communication is initiated to assist, as necessary, to ensure foreclosure will not result.
Recently, VA has initiated a refinance (REFI) program meant to help all the LGY participants take advantage of the present marke t to adjust their mortgage and payments.
This, of course, is the primary program which comes to mind when the term, GI Bill is mentioned. During the period the original education bill was in effect, 7.8 million veterans participated. Since then, there have been several program variations passed by Congress. The one in effect today is the Montgomery GI Bill. It requires the enlistee to decide upon entry; and, if signed up, to pay SI 00 a month for the first year ($1200 total). Then, within ten years of discharge, he or she can take advantage of the benefit. Today the value of that contract is just over $47 ,000.
In mid-2008 Congress passed one of the most generous bills since the GI Bill itself. Senator Webb, the junior Senator from Virginia, sponsored a bill based on the original GI Bill, but framed particularly to include the Reserves and National Guard post 9/11. The Bill will become effective I August 2009 but, has four features which will make execution (by VA with guidance from OSD) workable but cumbersome. The major components are:
- All service members (having had active duty post 9/ 11) will be eligible based on the total time on active duty. (There is no payment by the participant, as in the Mont-gomery Bill.) If a person served over 36 months, active time, they would be eligible for all benefits; those serving 12 to 24 months would be allowed 60% ; and, if at least 24 months but less than 36, the allowed benefit would be 80% . There is allowance for 1ra11sferability to family members under development.
- Tuition will be fully paid for any public college or university; but the maximum allowed in each state is the highest tuition at the most expensive public school in that state (that is, the limit will be somewhat different in each state based on the highest tuition.) On the other hand, if the veteran selects a private school, the limit is as above-unless-the school will pay part of the differen-tial (between high allowed and the private school tuition), in which case the government will match the school dollar for dollar.
- Book allowance will be S 1,000 I year
- Living expenses will be the amount allowed for an ES (P02) with two dependents predicated on the zip code of their home.
This is, by far, the largest program (>$40B in 2009). It is also the most visible, most complicated, most reported, and most emotional.
There arc two key basic points which should be easy to understand but which prove to be more difficult when adjudicating on an individual basis:
- Any disability, to be eligible for compensation, must have been received or exacerbated (if present prior lo service entry), while in the service on active duty.
- The compensation received for that disability or illness is based on the “degree of disability” not necessarily on the presence of it, in and of itself. That “specific degree” will be determined by a physical or mental exam and, if applicable, by measurement in the case of a scar, degree of motion, hearing, vision, etc.
A primary, and the most publicized difficulty in the system is the time presently required to adjudicate a claim. (An individual claim may include several issues such as vision, hearing, back, diseases, etc-the average number of issues per claim is over three-we have seen as many as 40-and each issue must be resolved individually). But, no matter how long it takes to formalize the decision, when done, the claimant receives the retroactive payment back to the date of claim or the date the claim was received. And, in most cases, the payment is received monthly for the rest of the life of the veteran. That is, no compensation (money) is lost. Further, all disability compensation is tax-free, no matter what the vet’s income level might be.
To put the increasing workload in perspective: in 2002, VBA received 576,000 claims; in 2009 they received over 880,000 claims. Of those in 2009 about 25% were from Iraq and Afghani-stan veterans; while the majority of claims were re-submittals from veterans who over the years had had claims adjudicated but who now believed the problem was worse or that there were additional disabilities for which they should be compensated.
Summary (sort of)
The primary goal, in the last few years, has been to serve our newest veterans from the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as fast as possible (as a priority). Simultaneously, we have strived to reach 0111 to our older veterans through publications, advertising, and presentations so all America’s veterans can take full advantage of the benefits they have earned. There arc special programs for former PO Ws; Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) for helping all newly discharged veterans establish their records with the VA and begin receiving disability, if appropriate, immediately; and for those with presumptives, the several diseases which have been linked to exposure to Agent Orange during the Viet Nam War. (Two of the primary presumptive diseases arc diabetes and prostate cancer-but there arc over 15 diseases attributable to Agent Orange.)
Two of the most publicized medical and mental problems upon which we have focused during this last connict (GWOT) arc Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The VA and DOD have worked hard to identify personnel with these potential problems. Special screening is done by both OSD and the VA; and every GWOT veteran has been authorized to use the VA hospital system for five years after discharge from active duty. During such visits, screening and further consultation is utilized to ensure we detect the symptoms as soon as possible and conduct necessary treatment.
Every American should feel a sense of pride for the work in which the VA is involved, and the professionalism of the organiza-tion. There is no better mission and there are no better, no more dedicated and no more emotionally involved people than those at the Department of Veterans A ff airs. The Mission, the People and the Veterans served must never be forgotten.
I would like to make one more point to all who might have slogged through this discussion: Every veteran, as he or she departs the service, should take a copy of the medical record to the local VA. In the case of older veterans, if there is something which happened to you while in the service, get it on the record-even if there is not, try to get your record to the VA. In later years, if you need help and are 011 tlte record at the VA, you stand a good chance of getting medical care in the best system available. I have seen several very sad cases where ve terans became ill and, because they had never gotten the record to the VA, the VA was unable to provide assistance in a timely manner. In two cases the veterans died prior to the record being found. In a third case, fortunately, through a Herculean effort by a classmate, the record was retrieved and eligibility for VA assistance established before the veteran died from the disease he had contacted in the service 20 years earlier.