Navigating Your VA Benefits: Lessons from Someone Who Messed it Up

Heading into the Unknown

Navigating Your VA Benefits: Lessons from Someone Who Messed it Up

When I started my retirement process at USSOCOM I had no idea what to expect. I was stressed out more during this period than at any time in my career – including combat. I had been well trained for combat and I knew what I was doing in the field, but I had no clue about transition. I attended the government Transition Assistance Program (TAP), but not knowing what I would be doing and how much money I would get from the government just made it hard.

Almost everyone in transition worries about how much money they will get from the government when they actually separate. If you retire, the finance center can give you a pretty accurate idea of your retirement pay and that helps. What is hard is how to calculate the social security and federal “withholding” on your retirement money. That unknown is stressful, but once you calculate it, you have a good idea of what to expect.

The part that is virtually impossible to predict is the compensation from the Veterans Administration (VA) for disability. You cannot even submit your disability claims until your retirement date, and it can take 6 – 9 months to determine your disability and pay you. That’s 9 months of income you can’t plan for immediately post-retirement, and that is stress on you and your family. In 2017, the Global SOF Foundation (GSF) did a Transition Survey. Financial stress was the number one issue for the 550+ people that responded–and I can tell you I was one of those stressed.

Do you speak Medical?

At retirement I had 2 volumes of medical records. One volume was hard copy, the other was digital. I had collected a huge folder full of forms and write-ups covering over 30 years, but about 7 years before I left the service, DoD shifted to digital records. I had no idea if any of it was cross-referenced. When I retired, I was given a printed copy of my entire medical record which filled a three-inch binder. I had no idea what was in my medical records because at no time in 32 years did I dig into my medical records to see if everything that happened to me was recorded. As I waded into that massive document, I realized that I had a lot of stuff in there. But I really had no idea what half of it said – I did not understand all of the medical terms.

Navigating Your VA Benefits: Lessons from Someone Who Messed it Up
Stu’s actual medical binder, when he was working through his transition.

I was staring at my records not knowing what to do in regard to filing for my VA disability. One of the guys at SOCOM recommended that I go talk to the Care Coalition Team at SOCOM because they had helped others figure it out.

The Care Coalition Team invested a lot of time in me and started by educating me on Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs) and helping me understand what was in my medical records. I met with them several times, and I did everything they recommended. I felt like I was ready when I submitted my disability request to the VA because I had invested in the process and I knew what issues I had that fit into the DBQ.

Getting Your Disability Percentage

The one thing I still did not know was how much money would I get for disability. During my final meeting with the Care Coalition Team I asked them what they thought I would get for disability. I was stunned to hear them say that in their opinion, I was certainly 100% disabled. I had never really talked to anyone about their disability because that is not something you ask someone, so I was really amazed. I challenged them about being 100%, but they quickly pointed out the issues I had and how those issues would get worse with every year I age.

Like most SOF operators, I felt like 100% was reserved for people who were missing body parts or had taken a lot of hits. I knew I had a lot of wear and tear over the 32 years, but I never thought about it. Most of the people in SOF went through their careers hiding their injuries and ailments. Going on sick call or missing a deployment or exercise because of an illness or ailment was seen as a sign of weakness, and 99.9% of the people I know would never do that. It was not our culture and nothing anyone said or did would change that behavior.

Navigating Your VA Benefits: Lessons from Someone Who Messed it Up
Stu’s Retirement Ceremony in action!

During transition I was 53 years old and still felt like I could keep going. My body hurt, and I had issues, but nothing that seemed capable of stopping me. When I talked to friends that had previously retired, or mustered out, I listened to them bitch about their health. I thought it sucked to be them because I was still moving forward. When my VA disability came back it was 80%. The Care Coalition Team looked at my VA findings and recommended that I submit for a review of my records because I was awarded a lot of “Service Connected” items, but I did not get any percentage for those areas.

We deferred our medical issues until a later date and because we believed that when we could no longer go, we would just shut down – that is the person we assessed and selected.

At that point I knew what my VA disability was and I just moved forward to get the GSF up and running. I did not listen to the Care Coalition Team. For the first time I ignored their advice and that was a mistake on my part.

Getting what you deserve from “The System”

Fast forward 4 years and I ran into a good friend that was also 80% disabled and he had just challenged the VA and was now 100% disabled.

Seeking more compensation from the VA is a sensitive issue with a lot of people. We have all heard about the person that never did anything getting 100% disability, and we all felt like they were cheating the system. I can tell you that most of us have no real idea what “the system” for VA disability really is, or how they calculate compensation. We are not experts on the VA or medical disability ratings, so we feel lucky to be alive, eager to get on with the next phase of life, and cluelessly take what we’re given. I know a lot of people that have never filed for VA because they think it is weakness. I know others that just took what they were given and never challenged “the system” because they assumed the system was giving them what they deserved.

I had been out of the military for 4 years and I was now 57 and feeling my age. I had good days and bad days and there were just things that I could no longer do. It is hard for SOF with “big personalities” to accept the fact that there are things they can’t do. I was beginning to see that the wear and tear was catching up with me, and I was that old guy that I swore I would never be.

My friend encouraged me to do what the Care Coalition recommended I do 4 years ago. I reflected on all of the HALO/SCUBA physicals that I had taken and how much more thorough those physicals were than the VA physical that determined my disability.

I had no idea how to do it so I asked my friend to introduce me to the company that he hired to help him maneuver through the VA disabilities process. I was introduced to CW4 (Ret) Dwayne Moorehouse with Eagle Rising Veteran Consulting. Dwayne looked at my disabilities and my records and told me that I should go through the process because he felt I should have been rated to 100%. He was the second person that told me that.

I signed a contract with Dwayne and we moved forward with Eagle Rising Veterans Consulting. After 7 months my new disability came through. I was not making anything up – I wanted my VA claim to ONLY be what I deserved. I did not want anything that the system does not support. Hiring a professional is what we recommend. Eagle Rising Veterans Consulting knew what to do and once my disabilities were upgraded, writing a check to them was the easiest thing I have done in a while.

Many Veterans are not getting what they should

Being in the GSF allows me to interact with a lot of veterans and I often see folks that are struggling with their health. Like most older people, our conversations center on our health, our friends and our families. People ask me all the time about my transition, and money and VA disability benefits come up every time. If I have time to talk, I tell them my story and recommend that they see the Care Coalition Team to get pointed in the right direction. I also tell them to NOT assume that VA disability process will do the right thing, and now I recommend they talk to Eagle Rising Veterans Consulting.

VA disability has changed a lot over the last 15 years because Congress has added several laws that support veterans. The VA system is a huge bureaucracy, like most major government programs, and if you do not know what you are doing you might not get good results. All of this is on each person and your decisions on how to address VA disability is bigger than you.

My father-in-law recently passed away after serving for 26 years in the Navy and Air Force. He was a great man that I respected because he served in Vietnam and sacrificed a lot for our nation. He was a proud Mid-Westerner who did not want to complain or ask for favoritism. It was not his nature to seek help or to challenge “the system”.

Navigating Your VA Benefits: Lessons from Someone Who Messed it Up
Stu’s father-in-law, Gerald R. McCluskey.

When he retired in the 1980’s he did what most veterans did and just accepted the VA findings and went on with his life because he believed he was fine.  He died of cancer and with a very long list of other issues that can be directly connected to his service, but because he did not challenge the system the VA claimed they were not “service connected” medical issues.

My mother-in-law was married to him for 50 years and she is now left with very little VA financial support. We will get through this, but I encourage everyone to put your pride aside and think of your family and assume at some point all of the wear and tear on your body will become an issue.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Great article, Stu. I am eight months out from retirement and am feeling the same anxiety you express in your writing. Not to compare binders, but I just received my digital records on disc. I was about to take it back to the clinic because the file wouldn’t open. Then I realized the file size was ginormous – it took fifteen minutes to open. When I finally got a look at it, I realized it was over 1,000 pages long and guess what … its missing 7 years of records. Not only do I not speak surgeon, I do not speak VA bureaucracy. I appreciate the help you have already given me, but I am certain to be reaching out to professionals to help me with the claims process.

    Thanks for everything you do, Stu and best holiday wishes to the whole GSF Family.

    Jason

    • Jason,

      I’m glad to hear you’ll be reaching out to get support–1,000+ pages is no joke. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need anything at all, and have a great holiday season!

      Cheers,
      Stu

  2. Stu, On point assessment on our feeling and what is going on with our transition. My VA claim was excepted on 3 DEC, so I’m just now starting my process. 28 years of bumps and bruises, so thank you for giving us the organization you used. I pray it don’t come to that, but I will use them if needed.

    Thank you

    Jon

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