In 2014, a Vietnam veteran walked into my office and asked, “Can you help me? I’ve been trying for 10 years and talked to several service officers who just won’t help.” I told him I would try, but needed to review his paperwork first. Looking at his service records, I saw three Article 15s, a court-martial, and an other-than-honorable discharge. I thought there was no way I could help this veteran. Something didn’t seem right, though, so I put on my first sergeant glasses and started digging deeper, coming to realize that this veteran had been screwed by his chain of command. Long story short, I filed his claim, got him enrolled in VA health care, a large lump-sum retroactive payment, and an upgrade to his discharge. This is why I chose the veteran service officer profession.
Numerous VA benefits for eligible veterans are available, but navigating the bureaucracy can be a real challenge, and many people miss out on benefits they have earned because they don’t know where to start. Too often I hear, “I’m fine, save it for someone who really needs it.” My response: These are benefits that you earned by serving your country! There is no saving them for someone else.
While every case is different, I get the same type of questions over and over from the veterans I serve. In no particular order, here are some of the most common requests that I receive and how veterans should tackle them.
1. How come the VA won’t fix my teeth?
Ahh, the old VA dental issue. It might be surprising, but I get many questions about why the VA won’t fix the veterans’ teeth. It is a problem that still perplexes me. The VA has a dental office in the VA hospital with dentists, but they won’t see you unless you meet certain requirements. As far as I’m concerned, if you are enrolled in the VA for health care you should be able to receive dental care. But I don’t get to make those decisions.
The eligibility requirements for dental care are a bit convoluted. First, you must be enrolled in VA health care and either have a service-connected dental injury or a 100% (permanent and total or unemployable) disability rating, be participating in the VA Vocational Rehab program, or have not received dental care within the last 90 days of your service (one-time only). If you don’t meet any of these requirements, there is a VA dental insurance program available.
You say you don’t want to enroll in VA health care to get your VA dental benefit? I get it, VA health care has had a bad rap for decades, and, yes, some of the criticism is deserved. Some facilities are inadequate and employees have mistreated our veterans. The system overall, however, deserves a second look.
For instance, many elderly veterans simply cannot afford private health or dental care. The VA treats service-connected disabilities or diseases at no cost and offers lower copayments than a private provider for treatment and medications. Post-9/11 veterans can enroll upon discharge and receive up to five years of free health care. A yearly visit is all that is required to maintain enrollment, and you can still see a private provider if you wish. Find a veteran service officer to check your eligibility and submit the appropriate enrollment documents, if qualified.
2. I know a veteran who is getting 50% for his knees, can I make a claim for that, too?
I hear this one a lot: A veteran whose knees (or other body part) hurt just as much as another veteran receiving compensation, and they want in on the action. There’s also the “bar lawyers” who sit around the bar at the local veteran organization club telling war stories and convincing others they deserve that disability money as well.
It does not work that way, people! Compensation is one benefit that veterans definitely need to see a veteran service officer about. The officer can let you know upfront if you have a claim or not. Too many veterans try to submit a claim on their own only to have it denied. Worse, unsubstantiated claims tie up the system and create a backlog for legitimate claims. What I tell vets is that it’s much easier to submit an initial claim than to try to re-open a previously denied claim. Veteran service officers receive training to identify claimable disabilities and meet the VA’s requirements for service-connection. Just remember, the longer a veteran waits to file a claim, the more difficult it becomes to service-connect any disabilities.
3. Can you send me my discharge papers right this second?
I receive requests for copies of discharges almost daily and it always seems to be an emergency. “My mortgage company needs it now.” “I’m trying to get a discount on my car purchase.” You get the idea. Unless you registered a copy with my office, you are not getting it today. The first thing any veteran needs to do once discharged, or now if they haven’t done it, is register a copy of their DD-214 with their respective county records office. Do not bring Member Copy 1. Copy 1 is worthless because it does not define the character of service and cannot be used to qualify the veteran for any VA benefits. Copy 4 is the gold standard; keep it safe!
Other options for getting a copy include the National Personnel Record Center or the state veterans’ office where the veteran setup residence after discharge. The veteran service officer can assist with the request but know that these options can take months and are not guaranteed.
4. What do I need to get a VA home loan?
The home loan guaranty is a great benefit and the Certificate of Eligibility (COE) is the confirmation of the veteran’s qualification for the benefit. The VA does not actually issue the loan; they just “back” a home loan from a financial institution; you still have to meet the basic requirements to qualify for a loan, but the COE alleviates the need for a down payment and some processing fees. Make sure to get your COE before you see a loan officer. Some institutions will request it for you, but I have dealt with several that do not understand the benefit and try to sell the veteran on a different loan or some other instrument.
Dan Thorstad served 23 years active duty in the Army. He deployed twice and retired as a first sergeant. He now resides in North Dakota with his wife of 25 years. He has four grown children, one who is currently on active-duty with the Air Force, and is a die-hard Minnesota Vikings fan.