It's no surprise that anytime we hear the words "VA" and "process" in the same sentence, our initial thoughts are of skepticism. We can picture the already long wait times growing longer than the seemingly endless spools of red tape that wrap the bureaucracy up like a Christmas present.

But, we are optimists, too. Might be why we're still in Afghanistan 17 years later, but that's a whole different conversation. So, is the VA's AMA process actually going to help?


Well, first, what is it? When the VA announced their Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 would be implemented in February 2019, the entire military community breathed a collective "finally." The process has long been broken and in desperate need of an overhaul. Baby steps have been taken in the past, such as the "claims tracker" akin to watching the Domino's Pizza tracker. Sure, there are minor differences, like Joe puts your pizza in seven minutes after you order, and it might be seven months before anyone looks at your disability claim. But again, baby steps.

The transparency is greatly appreciated, and if nothing else, it sure beats calling that giant grey building and being transferred 19 times before Milton in the basement with his Swingline stapler tells you he can't find your file.

AOJ lanes

But what about the other, bigger changes? The AMA created a new decision review process with three Agencies of Original Jurisdiction (AOJ) lanes. The "Supplemental Claim" lane is an opportunity to submit additional evidence. In this case, the Duty to Assist applies and VA will help you gather the evidence. A new decision will be made by looking at the new evidence submitted. On average this takes around 125 days, the VA said. The "Higher-Level Review" lane allows for a new review of the claim by an experienced adjudicator. If you don't have new evidence to introduce but think a mistake was made, this is the path for you. A higher-trained AOJ reviewer will review your claim and make a new decision without adding any evidence, said the VA. This also takes around 125 days. Finally, the "Appeal" is a review by the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

Board docket

So, you've picked your AOJ lane. Congrats! Now you have to pick your board docket. This is about as exciting as registering for wedding china, except with 1000x more things on the line, like your health and family's financial standing. There are three options: direct, evidence and hearing. They all sound like good choices but they mean vastly different things. Pick the direct docket if you think a mistake was made. Evidence is aptly named for a time when you have new evidence to consider, and hearing if you want a hearing before a judge.

According to the VA, in a direct docket, the Judge will review the same record and make a decision. No new evidence will be added. This takes about 365 days. That's right, Rent listeners, 525,600 minutes: how do you measure a year? In how long it takes for a direct or evidence docket. Womp. If you go the evidence docket route, you will have 90 days from your Notice of Disagreement (NOD) to submit new evidence.

The Judge will make a decision considering the evidence you provided, said the VA. And if your claim goes the hearing docket route, according to the VA you will be placed on a list for a hearing before a Judge by video conference (or in DC). After your hearing, you will have 90 days to submit new evidence. The Judge will make a decision considering the hearing and the evidence you provided. How long does that take? Well, according to the VA, it's based on availability. Currently the Board has 98 Judges. There are approximately 67,000 Veterans waiting for hearings. So, there's that.

Will these changes actually help? We hope the transparency into the process will, but we're calling it "too soon to tell" on the new system. But, regardless of what processes or procedures the VA implements, you do have the right to appeal and to have your appeal heard. And when the system fails you, which can happen, you do have the right to an attorney. John Berry, Sr., acclaimed attorney and founder of Berry Law is a Vietnam Veteran and Bronze Star recipient. His son, John Berry Jr., served as a company commander in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and as a platoon leader in Operation Joint Forge in Bosnia.

From their website: "Too often the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denies claims because it misses the link between a veteran's current disability and past military service. We work with you to gather and present the evidence and legal arguments needed for the VA to make the correct decision." One of their areas of expertise is in helping veterans file appeals. This is one battle you don't have to face alone. Contact Berry Law Firm today if you need help appealing your rating decision.

This post is sponsored by Berry Law Firm.

Sure, you know drones can drop bombs and wipe out small towns and gather intel, to include whether your neighbor is laying out on the deck again. Beyond that, drones have largely just been a killer Christmas gift. But rest assured, young gamer, there is real and practical application for your drone habit outside of the defense world, and it could just land you a job.

In a study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, the unmanned aircraft systems industry is forecast to create more than 600 jobs and nearly $500 million in economic impact in Arkansas alone in the next 10 years. But howwwwww?

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Trish Alegre-Smith

The winners of the first annual Military and Veteran Community Choice Awards sponsored by Caliber Home Loans were announced yesterday at the Military Influencer Conference in Washington, DC. The awards celebrate brands and organizations who provide outstanding service to the military community.

Service members, military spouses and veterans participated in the open nomination and voting process and winners were determined solely by popular vote. Five awards were given in two categories: non-profit organizations who serve the military and veteran community and military, veteran and military spouse influencers.

Award Category: Non-Profit Organizations (who serve the military community)

Small Non-Profits

1. Active Valor

Active Valor is a combat veteran run non-profit dedicated to giving new purpose to veterans by pairing them as mentors to Gold Star children.

2. Valors on Eighth

Valors on Eighth engages with veterans through a wide variety of events to create a sense of purpose and belonging.

3. My Warrior's Place

My Warrior's Place honors, supports and promotes healing of the mind and spirit by providing a relaxed setting and special programs.

Large Non-Profits

1. Team RWB

Team RWB works to enrich the lives of our nation's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

2. Workshops for Warriors (WFW)

WFW is a school that trains, certifies and helps place veterans, wounded warriors and transitioning service members into advanced manufacturing careers.

3. Operation Care and Comfort

Operation Care and Comfort allows Americans the opportunity to donate their time, talents and treasure to honor those currently serving our country and those who have served through various programs.

Award Category: Military, Veteran and MilSpouse influencers

Veteran Owned Businesses

1. One Nation Coffee

One Nation Coffee supports traditional American values upheld by members of the military, law enforcement and first responders with delicious coffee.

2. Military Talent Partners

Military Talent Partners provides mentorship, coaching and career discove3ry to help military talent realize their potential and define their professional goals.

3. Military Fresh Network

Military Fresh Network is a veteran ran media company created to "show and prove" to the world that they can serve our country yet remain the unique individuals they were created to be.

MilSpouse Owned Businesses

1. Begin Within

Begin Within is a military spouse owned business that provides holistic career services that focus on candidate fulfillment and satisfaction.

2. Organized Chaos

Organized Chaos is a military lifestyle brand that serves and assists military spouses and families streamline their lives and thrive in every season and challenge they face.

3. Instant Teams

Instant teams connects highly skilled military-connected talent to their clients professional remote opportunities.

Social media influencers

1. Adam Braatz

Adam is an Air Force veteran and career coach who has built a reputation as a world class relationship builder.

2. Military Fresh Network

Military Fresh Network is a veteran ran media company created to "show and prove" to the world that they can serve our country yet remain the unique individuals they were created to be.

3. Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado

Ashley is a marketing specialist in the VA's Office of Corporate Communications and a Veteran Program Consultant.

The MVC Choice Awards were hosted by Task & Purpose, PCSgrades, Blue Star Families, GovX and the Military Influencer Conference and sponsored by Caliber Home Loans. Congratulations to the winners of these inaugural awards. To learn more about the awards, click here.

Stephanie Wade/U.S. Transportation Command

In military life, there is really nothing more stressful than a Permanent Change of Station (PCS). Deployments are a close second, but a PCS takes the cake. Combine a PCS with a deployment and not only do you want to eat all of the proverbial cake, you want to guzzle copious amounts of wine, too. We see you. Cheers.

One company, PCSgrades, is trying to make the PCS process feel more like a three-letter acronym than a four-letter expletive. Founded by veteran Todd Ernst, PCSgrades is the epitome of the military community taking care of its own. "PCSing has an emotional connotation," said Ernst. "We use it as an adverb, adjective, a noun and even as a cuss word."

Ernst started PCSgrades in 2015 after seeing friends struggle with unethical real estate agents and being taken advantage of by moving companies who knew DoD would be a paying customer no matter how poorly the companies treated their clients - us.

Here are 4 resources PCSgrades provides that you need to make moving easier:

1. Housing reviews

Does it get any more stressful than finding out where you're going to be stationed, Googling base housing at that station and getting results from 15 years ago (if you find anything, at all)? Nope, no it doesn't.

PCSgrades is changing the game on that by having military families who live in an area provide honest, candid reviews of their housing so incoming families can benefit. With reviews of both on and off base locations, families can finally get the truth about housing, whether it has black mold or the best views in town.

2. Moving company reviews

Great, you've figured out where to live; that's half the battle. The other, larger, more complex half? Figuring out how your stuff is going to get there. Knowing someone else will be handling your personal property and driving away with it for the foreseeable future is stressful enough. But not knowing what that company's background is, well that's a whole different ball game.

PCSgrades has countless reviews of moving companies provided by military families who have used them. Let's be honest: You wouldn't try a new Chinese delivery place without looking at reviews … why should picking a moving company be any different?

3. Area guides

The giant Google machine can only get you so far in life when you're researching your new duty station. We know you're busy and you want one-stop shopping on the interwebs. What you really need is aggregate data of things like schools to attend, restaurants to try, day trips to take and neighborhoods to avoid.

Introducing Area Guides, which offer exactly that: a holistic view of where you're moving and what to do once you get there. The best part? These are written by military families who have done it, for military families who are doing it.

4. Network of realtors and resources

PCSgrades has a nationwide network of A-graded realtors who know and understand the military and veteran lifestyle. Many of the realtors are veterans or spouses themselves, which takes the empathy to a whole new level. Having a realtor who gets the pressures of PCSing and the challenges of a military move is key to finding the right home for your family.

"I have friends who are hundreds of thousands of dollars upside down after bad home choices," Ernst said. "Housing choices can be pretty limited. Our moves are way more expensive than the typical civilian move." This is why Ernst created a way to alleviate the pain points for military families through PCSgrades.

In addition to a network of realtors, PCSgrades partners with "HomeScout," which allows you to search up-to-date home listings nationwide. Simply create an account with PCSgrades and the realty world is your oyster.

Whether you're looking for a new neighborhood, trying to find a vetted realtor, need a PCS checklist (let's be honest, is it on your radar to look at the expiration date of your military ID card two months before you PCS? Yeah, we know the truth; download the checklists here), or you're just wanting to know more about where you're heading, PCSgrades is making moving easier for every military family. Pay it forward by leaving reviews and be sure to take advantage of their excellent resources, today.

This post sponsored by PCSgrades.

One of the incredible benefits of military life is the occasional influx of money, a la bonuses. Whether you're re-enlisting or about to ride on that tax-free train, it's time to talk about what to do with that extra scrilla.

Here are 6 things to do with your bonus:

1. Have a strategy

Just as you came up with a method for making your bed the fastest in the barracks and nailed down how many minutes it takes from being horizontal to being in formation, you need a plan for what you're going to do with the extra money. The best way to accidentally spend it on Ubers and pizza and six packs without even realizing it, is to let it sit in your checking account without a solid plan. Bonuses are an excellent opportunity to establish or update your financial health. Not sure what to do with all that green? Ask a financial advisor to help you. Many of the larger institutions, such as Navy Federal Credit Union, offer financial counseling services.

2. Pay off that debt!

So you booked a trip to Bali right after basic when you had 72 hours of leave and bought all the things there, including round-trip airfare for that girl you met on the beach that had always wanted to see New York. Or, maybe you bought the truck with the options you couldn't quite afford and you still have 93 months left on your payment plan. We're not judging. Paying off debt, especially that of the high interest and unsecured varieties is an excellent use of your money. By paying that off now, you're saving so much in the long run by not having to pay interest.

3. Invest in a Roth IRA

Do future you a giant solid and invest the cash in something that will grow as much as those muscles after a good Crossfit workout. How about a Roth IRA? With a Roth IRA, you pay taxes now and withdraw the funds tax-free when you retire. Wins all around.

4. Invest in a 529 or ESA

It seems like every week we're reading a different headline on the changes to the GI Bill. Maybe your kids will get it, maybe they won't. With ever-changing rules and politics always at play, the GI Bill is about as assured in 18 years as your 1-year-old getting that soccer scholarship. It's always good to have a back-up, so investing in a 529 plan or an Education Savings Account (ESA) for your little Beckham or Hamm isn't a bad idea. Learn more about the plans, here.

5. Create or establish an emergency fund

Hard to believe the military would ever give you short notice that instead of moving across the state, you're moving across the world, but alas, here you are trying to figure out how to ship a pet across the Pacific on your own dime. And, you know as well as the next person that as soon as you deploy, your car is going to break, a kid is going to break an arm, your appliances are going to blow, and so is that tiny extra stash of savings you had. Emergencies happen. Whether it's flying your whole family home for a funeral or paying for the unexpected out of pocket, putting your extra money in a separate account just for these types of occurrences is a great use of your cash. #Life happens, be ready for it.

6. Treat yo'self

You've paid off your debt, you have a nice little stash o' cash and you're feeling good about your financial future. Well, boo, treat yo'self. Maybe you don't book the first flight to Sin City, but invest in the photography class you've always wanted to take. Or finally take that family vacation (look kids, Big Ben!) you've been putting off until you were in a better spot. Whether you're splurging on Hamilton tickets or a monster truck rally, taking a little of your money for yourself is well-deserved.

No matter how you use the extra cash, Navy Federal Credit Union can help you reach your financial goals and meet all your financial needs. It's their mission to put you first. Let them.

This post sponsored by Navy Federal Credit Union.

Photo courtesy of GovX

Building a weapon is like painting the Sistine Chapel. It should be your masterpiece and it also takes time. If you're going to invest your time, money and your hopes and dreams, you want to get it right the first time. Here are 5 ways to save while building your your dream gun:

1. Make a plan

First things first: make your wishlist. Scope (pun intended) out exactly what you want and plan it. Surf the entire internet. Go to gun shows. Ask friends to see theirs. From the custom paint job to the custom barrel, your gun needs to reflect exactly what you want and need.

Figure out exactly what accoutrements to give your baby. Tactical flashlight? Laser? Both? Multipurpose reflex sight? Quad rail? Build your gun on paper first so that you can hunt parts like you'll stalk your prey.

2. Do your homework

You've decided what you want. Now you have to figure out how to buy it. Just as if you were getting a new car, comparison shopping for your custom build is key. Knowing exactly what parts you want and who sells them is half the battle, especially for items that are quick off the shelf and seemingly never in stock.

Here's what we recommend: Make a spreadsheet of every part you want and how much it costs. Create a separate email account just for your build so that your inbox isn't flooded (you'll thank us for this later), and then sign up on every site that sells the parts you want for their sales flyers. Keep track of costs on your spreadsheet to see who is selling it at the lowest. Don't buy anything at cost unless, after 12 months, you've never seen it on sale, anywhere.

3. Find an expert

Making friends with your local gunsmith and other custom owners is key. Even if you're assembling yourself, your gunsmith can give you insight about where to buy hard-to-find parts, and the inside scoop on what you really want.

Eat that humble pie and ask all the questions so you get it right the first time. Your gunsmith will also have tips and tricks to make sure you're getting the best quality for your money.

4. Hit those sales

The two best sales of the year are Black Friday (get those sales flyers!) and the GovX Vortex Sale (which runs this week: August 15-16). Every product from the Vortex catalogue on is marked down to unbeatable prices.Red dots and lasers, rifle scopes, range finder and spotting scopes, mounts and rail accessories and more. And, for every $200 you spend on Vortex items during the sale, customers get an automatic entry to win one of two limited edition GovX engraved Razor HD Gen II rifle scopes (a $2000 value, each).

If you are wanting to buy a Vortex product, this is the week to do it.

5. Be patient

Don't settle for an HBAR when you really want a bull. Just like any masterpiece, building your dream gun takes time, especially if you want to save money doing it. Hard-to-find parts can take months to stock and ship.

Part of the beauty is in the process. Happy building.

This post sponsored by GovX.

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