[This post is brought to you by military veteran David McCauley. If you’re interested in contributing at The-Military-Guide.com, please see our posting guidelines.]
In the Fall of 2010, my Navy career was finally blooming. My promotion was in the pipeline, I had received new orders, and had managed to save up a modest nest egg. I enjoyed my job and was excited for deployment.
One day while running (not long after a successful PFT), I momentarily blacked out. My Chief helpfully advised me, “You are not authorized to knock yourself out during PT”.
In a process that took several months of regular medical visits, I discovered that my heart had a buildup of scar tissue from an unknown trauma. I didn’t know how it happened, only that I had no history of chest pain.
I received a diagnosis some four months later, and with it my cardiologist put me on Limited Duty. He explained that it would likely be an easy fix, and that gave me hope. The initial procedure would be a cardiac ablation. A tiny flexible hose would travel up a major vein and into my heart. The doctor would burn off the excess scar tissue, in theory restoring proper rhythm and repairing the faulty wiring. The procedure would take a few hours maximum, and recovery time was only one week. After successful recovery and passing all subsequent tests, I would be considered Fit for Full Duty. I could deploy with my friends and this experience would be only a patch of rough waters.
Little did I know that I was facing a complicated and difficult process. Without proper perspective I made several costly mistakes. I hope that you can learn from them whether you are completely healthy, undergoing separation, or are already out of the service.
Learn to tread water
Those rough waters led me to an iceberg. Shortly after beginning LIMDU, I received a notice from the Navy Personnel Command that I was being Administratively Separated. Despite the strong possibility of returning to duty within a couple short months, I was being separated for “not being worldwide deployable”. I won’t pretend to understand the mental gymnastics involved in determining that an easily fixable medical problem + limited duty = mandatory admin separation, but it did. Perfect evaluations, a spotless disciplinary record, and high marks in “A” & “C” School did not save me.
I found myself out of the Navy. It was humiliating and seemed a complete waste of the training and security clearance I had been given. The several thousand I’d put away in savings sustained me for a time while I searched for work. Soon it ran out, and I turned to my credit cards. I did whatever I could to stay afloat.
If I could go back and do it again, I would have saved more money and spent less. When your food and housing are provided by the Government, it is easier to set aside a portion of every paycheck for a rainy day. You should always hope for the best, but remember to prepare for the worst. Ultimately you have your best interests at heart, and only you can take the steps necessary to adequately prepare for your future.
Transitioning from the service, getting disability ratings, and receiving medical care can take a long time. Hang in there.
Get a second opinion
If it doesn’t sound or feel right, there’s a good chance that it isn’t.
Not understanding that it was highly unusual, I signed both my notice of counseling (informing me that there was a problem, not being worldwide assignable) and my notice of separation the same day. I later discovered that these must be spaced to allow the servicemember time to correct or refute the reason for counseling. I didn’t get that time, and was discharged within two weeks.
If you find yourself facing a discharge, speak to someone you trust. Turn to a Judge Advocate General or another type of military lawyer because that’s your right as a servicemember. Research as much as you can. Know your rights. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because your future is depending on it. Most importantly, do not sign anything until you completely understand what you’re about to agree to. This applies to everything you do: opening bank accounts, investing, and buying your first home. Carefully read the fine print and legal responsibilities of both sides.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remember this:
You are not alone.
Many Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen have been where you’re standing right now. Thousands of brave men and women have been or are in the process of being separated. If they can do it, you can too.
Have an exit strategy
If the end is coming despite your best efforts, then it’s time to brace yourself for impact. Take additional steps to be as prepared as possible. If you haven’t done so already, get copies of your medical records, because it will be significantly easier to collect them now than later. You will need them to file a claim and this helps maximize your chances of successfully receiving benefits.
Start looking now for ways to translate your military skills into the civilian sector. I had a top secret security clearance, but squandered that valuable resource. A security clearance is an advantage you can’t afford to underutilize.
Much of your training entitles you to college credits. Exams like CLEP, DANTES, and DSST provide access to more credits. Many high-quality institutions of learning like Rutgers University, Arizona State University, and Bradley University offer transfer programs for these credits as well as online courses to complete while on Active Duty. Utilize all education resources at your disposal while you can. They can prove invaluable after your enlistment has ended.
Fighting the good fight
Nothing will change unless you take action. If you need medical care, fight for it. Approach the VA with your claims packet that includes copies of your medical record. If that doesn’t work, find a Veteran’s Support Organization to help push things forward. Some examples include the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion. There are a myriad, depending on what branch you served in and what your discharge is classified as.
If you believe that your discharge represents an injustice, then by all means fight. Find a lawyer to provide legal advice. Take your case to the Discharge Review Board. If none of those options work, write your Congressmen and women, and your senators. If you still can’t find relief through these means, submit your case to your branch’s board, like the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.
It took me 18 months from start to finish before I received a response from the Board for Correction of Naval Records. If you find yourself losing hope, open up to other veterans and your family. Find an advisor, counselor, or a trusted friend to share your burden.
Above all, take steps now to prepare for your future. Save money, harness your education, and question everything. This will make the transition much smoother and help put a back-up plan in place while you wait for benefits.
David McCauley is a former U.S. Navy sailor who worked as an intelligence specialist. After the service, he has dedicated his time to writing about veterans affairs, technology, and the defense industry. He is currently finishing his undergraduate degree at Boise State University.