The Pentagon’s current template for drawing down the size of the military, outlined in its 2013 budget request, calls for 21,600 fewer active-duty personnel in 2013, with a total reduction of 102,400 (more than 90 percent of whom will come from the Army and the Marine Corps) by 2017.
While this is a substantial reduction in number, it’s also deceptive in terms of the number of veterans that will be created by 2017, given the rate of turnover. The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimate that over the next five years, about 1 million active-duty service members will separate from service and join the ranks of the nation’s 22 million veterans.
It’s impossible to predict what kinds of opportunities – for jobs, education, and financial stability and growth – will exist for veterans in five years; in 2012, the sluggish trajectory of the nation’s economic recovery has made optimism difficult for many. But service members-turned-veterans may also find they have more people on their side than most Americans. Public and private organizations across the country have created a generous package of benefits and programs for these new veterans, initiatives that can do much more than merely ease the transition into civilian life: They place a number of important goals – completing a postsecondary education, receiving valuable job skills, purchasing or refinancing a home, or insuring the long-term security of one’s family – well within reach.
Chief among these organizations, of course, is the Department of Veterans Affairs, but by the VA’s own estimation, only about 36 percent of the veterans who are eligible for VA benefits and other programs sign up to receive them – and among that small minority, 68 percent receive only one service offered by the department. It doesn’t have to be that way: Usually, honorable and general discharges qualify a veteran for most benefits, and benefits are generally available to those who have served 24 months of continuous active duty or the “full period” for which the service member had enlisted or was called or ordered to active duty. Several exceptions to this rule exist, and many benefits – such as those offered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill – are prorated based on one’s period of service. The VA’s Veteran Benefits Administration is the organization to consult about eligibility questions; online, the most convenient first stop is probably the eBenefits portal (www.ebenefits.va.gov).
For all the bureaucratic difficulties service members and veterans sometimes encounter with the U.S. government, the fact remains that few American employers – bolstered by the efforts of numerous public- and private-sector partners – offer as much support to current and former employees. To ensure you don’t end up leaving money on the table, be sure to stay informed and up to date about the opportunities available to help service members and their families work, learn, and thrive after active service.
The VA offers a number of financial services to separated service members. To help purchase or refinance a home, it guarantees loans, through qualified lenders, of up to 103.15 percent of the purchase price, or a 20 percent second mortgage and up to $6,000 for energy efficiency improvements. No down payment is required for VA loan amounts up to $417,000. The particulars of a particular loan, in a particular county, vary widely among applicants, and service members and veterans are urged to connect with a loan counselor at the Ginnie Mae website (www.ginniemae.gov) or by calling (800) 569-4287. Complete VA loan information is available at www.benefits.va.gov/homeloans.
The government also makes a number of insurance options available to veterans. A Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) term policy, for example, can be converted to a Veterans’ Group Life Insurance (VGLI) after separating from active duty. As of 2005, the maximum amount of VGLI that can be purchased is $400,000. VGLI is a term policy, but can be converted to an individual permanent (whole life or endowment) plan with more than 50 participating insurers. The VA also offers veterans access to low-cost life insurance options that include coverages for spouses and children, as well as traumatic injury and mortgage protection. To learn about premiums, coverage, and other options for life insurance, visit the VA’s Insurance Center at www.insurance.va.gov or (800) 419-1473.
Many additional resources – for family and caregiver support, child care, money management and financial counseling, and other services, offered at the national, state, and local levels – are available through large, broad-based portals such as the National Resource Directory and eBenefits. In addition, many private nonprofit organizations offer financial services to service members and veterans: The American Legion has offered small temporary assistance grants to eligible families, for example, since 1925. With its Unmet Needs and Military Assistance Program, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) has extended $4.4 million in emergency grants to more than 3,200 families. San Antonio-based Operation Homefront offers assistance to military families in difficulty for a variety of needs, including home or auto repair, food, moving or travel expenses, and essential home items or appliances. Links to these and other organizations that offer financial assistance to military families have been compiled by Family of a Vet, a small nonprofit launched by the wife of an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.