Here’s a relatively complicated post about an apparently straightforward subject, and I’m counting on you servicemembers & veterans to cover anything that I miss!
A reader writes:
“I was curious whether there are any benefits for people who got an honorable discharge after finishing the six-year obligation they signed up for but chose to not stay in until military retirement.”
Before I get into the long list, let me start with the summary: job skills, education, and experience.
But don’t join the military just for the job skills, the educational benefits, and the experience.
Perhaps you don’t want to go to college and you’re having trouble finding a civilian job, so the military seems like a good idea. Maybe you’ll join the military to get away from your neighborhood. But the best reasons to join the service are for the chance to fulfill your potential and be part of something bigger than yourself. Do it for the challenge, for the teamwork, and for the incredible responsibility at a young age.
Let’s start with the military benefits page of “Today’s Military”, the Department of Defense’s website for young adults curious about military service. Their disclaimer says it as well as I can:
“The environments can be dangerous. The conditions can be challenging. The stakes are always high. And though 91 percent of military jobs are not in direct combat operations*, rigorous personal demands are the rule. It requires self-discipline, education, intense physical work and a dedication to excellence. Deployments can mean extended periods away from friends and family.”
[* Note for servicemembers & veterans reading this post: only nine percent of military jobs are considered direct combat?!? What do we call the rest? “Indirect combat”?]
As a geezer spouse & parent, let me be blunt: you can be killed or permanently disabled. The odds are a fraction of a percent (perhaps a little higher than police forces or firefighters) but it’s happened to thousands of servicemembers over the last decade. You may discount these odds (especially if you’re focused on the opportunities) but your loved ones will worry.
If you’re hoping for a nice safe office job which just happens to require a military uniform, be aware that hundreds of thousands of other recruits before you have had the same idea. If those “safe” jobs ever existed, they’re already filled. It’s difficult to join for a billet in logistics, maintenance, personnel, or other “non-combatant” roles. (Servicemembers in these areas have also seen significant combat over the last decade, too, but in smaller numbers.) Even if you do aspire to one of these occupations, they’re the first to be cut during a drawdown– especially if they can be outsourced to a civilian contractor. If you join the military, assume that you will encounter combat. You will not be disappointed.
With that disclaimer out of the way, next I’m going to review the benefits you’ll receive while you’re on active duty. When I started writing this post, I realized that many veteran’s benefits are based on your service and follow you in some form after you leave the military. Here are the main categories of active-duty benefits:
- Compensation (pay & perks)
- Education support
Your military pay starts out low: poverty-line low. However, your pay normally rises a little each year and you have the opportunity to earn several promotions. You’re highly likely to have a job for the next six years, too– military layoffs are rare.
The perquisites that come with the pay are better than those of a civilian entry-level job, and your employment expenses are much lower. You’re fed, clothed, and housed for free (but you won’t have to live with your parents). Your medical and dental care is completely free– not even an insurance premium or a copayment. You get 30 days of leave per year, while most civilian jobs start at half of that. You can buy cheaper consumer goods & groceries at military stores, with savings of 5%-25%. You have free entertainment & exercise facilities. You’ll live close to work, so you might not need a vehicle. You can buy cheaper gas for your vehicle– and even have a chance to rent tools and a service bay to do your own maintenance. You get free legal services (you’ll need a will and a power of attorney). Your spouse and kids are eligible for the same medical & dental benefits (at a small cost to you) and many other family support services.
If you volunteer for some military specialties (demolition, aviation crew, flight deck, diving, submarines, and others) then you may be paid a few hundred extra dollars a month. (See pages 4-9 of that PDF.) This reflects the additional training, hardship, and occupational hazards that you’ll deal with. Once you realize what you have to go through to earn these special pays, you may feel that it barely compensates you for the extra effort.
By the time you leave the service your total compensation will be competitive with an equivalent civilian job at 70%-110% of their pay & perks. You can use this online calculator to see roughly how much you’ll earn each year and how it will change over time.
Along with completely free medical & dental insurance, you’re also insured for death & disability. You have to pay a small life insurance premium but most of the policy cost is subsidized by your employer. If you’re disabled then the military and the Veterans Administration are obligated to take care of you for the rest of your life. However, the system is getting a lot of (well-earned) bad press because it’s antiquated and overwhelmed by a decade of war. Military disability issues tend to be more complicated and far more costly than civilian job injuries. The bureaucracy is difficult to navigate, and fraud/abuse are common. The “good” news is that you have disability insurance and that the process can eventually work.
A side benefit of your service is your eligibility for membership with insurance companies like USAA, Armed Forces Insurance, and other military-friendly corporations. You’ll be able to buy cheaper insurance for your vehicle, personal property, home, and spouse.
Your training comes from all of the formal military schools that you’ll attend, as well as simulators and on-the-job assignments. The amount of training depends on the specialty you choose, and you may be asked to extend your enlistment to eight years for advanced skills. A few of the training courses may also make you eligible for specialty pay.
While your civilian peers are pursuing entry-level jobs, perhaps answering phones or making copies (or even making coffee and running errands for the office staff), you’ll start with similar drudgery. If you stay alert for the opportunities offered by these internships then you’ll be able to help with occupational tasks. Eventually, you’ll be responsible for operating, analyzing, and maintaining equipment worth thousands or even millions of dollars. You’ll also be given opportunities to participate in a team and then lead the team. As you gain experience, you’ll be placed in leadership billets requiring you to manage dozens of other servicemembers and large equipment systems. After a few years you may even be trusted with training (*shudder*) junior officers. You’ll be handling responsibilities in your teens and 20s that many civilians don’t see until their 30s, if they see them at all.
That training can also pay off with college credit. The military participates in the College-Level Examination Program, a nationally certified system run by the College Board. You’ll be given undergraduate credit for the training and occupational skills that you’ve learned and practiced on active duty, as well as your experience in those areas. Your specific CLEP credits may be awarded by your military accomplishments or by completing an exam, and the credits earned during your first enlistment may only amount to a portion of a semester. However, it’s hundreds or even thousands of dollars of savings for skills that you were required to learn anyway.
Your educational support covers a broad range of opportunities which you may have to pursue on your own time (if you’re in the right location). The most popular programs include Tuition Assistance and the GI Bill. The military even participates in a federal program to help pay off government student loans that you may have acquired before joining the service.
Educational support is one of the messier military benefits. You have to sign up for the GI Bill while you’re on active duty, and you can use some of its benefits during active duty. However, it’s worth far more money when you use it after you leave active duty (especially if you have a spouse/family). Other programs (like TA and student loan repayment) are only available while you’re on active duty, and they may be limited by budget or by the number of servicemembers who sign up. Your active-duty educational support may require you to spend money in advance and be reimbursed after you complete the class. The GI Bill uses a similar system which may be delayed by months of processing. These programs will definitely test your patience with the military bureaucracy, and they’ll develop your lifelong skills of research & verification.
I’ll mention a few “benefits” earned on active duty that will carry over to your civilian life, but these don’t come with extra pay or formal certification.
The first one seems a little silly, but it matters in the mainstream corporate environment: professionalism. You’ll be physically fit. You’ll learn how to wear a uniform (whether it’s combat utilities or office attire) and you’ll look good in it. You’ll learn how to stand tall, look people in the eye, and have a firm handshake. You’ll learn communication skills that many civilians need some time to learn: how to carry on a customer conversation, how to explain things to the boss, and public speaking. You may discover social skills that you never knew you had, and you might even enjoy them, but you’ll definitely be proficient at using them. You will not be intimidated. You’ll approach new and strange situations with confidence and a calm appearance, no matter how you may really feel inside.
Another unexpected skill: integrity. While you’re in the service, you’re expected to tell the truth and follow a code of ethics. You’ll learn to figure out the “right thing to do” and then you’ll be counted on to do it. The results may not always meet expectations, but it’s a far higher standard (with much more practice) than you’ll see in parts of the civilian world. When you encounter problems, you’ll know how to tactfully deliver a warning and steer the situation in the right direction.
Another unexpected benefit is persistence in the face of obstacles & failure. You will learn how to continue despite adversity, and you’ll even learn how to wear down resistance by sheer tenacity. You may also have a tendency to keep going far beyond the point where you should have stopped… but at least you’ll also develop the self-awareness to handle this personal issue.
Your training is also designed to teach you to handle chronic fatigue, stress, and life-threatening emergencies. You’ll start with small challenges as part of a team, and eventually, you’ll develop the skills to lead the team. Hours of practice and experience will develop your familiarity and reflexes while helping you manage your (instinctive and very rational) fear. You’ll develop life skills that will place you far ahead of your civilian peers: dealing with difficult people, tolerating hostility and yelling, and defusing tense situations. You’ll handle emergencies like accidents, injuries, natural disasters, and even fires with professional calm and speedy reflexes. You’ll be responding while others appear to be paralyzed by confusion or fear, and you’ll be coaching them through the emergency too.
Another skill you’ll develop, especially in the submarine force, is self-assessment. You will learn to tolerate criticism, you’ll grow to accept it without undue offense, and you may even seek it out. You’ll humiliate yourself many times. You’ll learn to be humble about your accomplishments (even if you’re an aviator) while becoming keenly aware of your ability to fail. Perhaps you’ll avoid hubris and remind yourself to seek feedback, even when you really don’t want to hear it. Most importantly: you’ll learn to design systems and processes and team leadership that will account for human emotions, behavioral psychology, and outright mistakes. You’ll have a practical understanding of what you can expect, both from yourself and from others, and you’ll be all too familiar with Murphy’s Law. Your perpetual confidence and optimism will be tempered by a realistic skepticism.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to both receive and deliver feedback with tact and discretion. I don’t think that we practiced “tact” or “discretion” in the submarine force, and I’m not sure that the Marines are very accustomed to it either, but one of the other services may know more about it.
These intangible benefits won’t be recorded on your service record, and you won’t be able to apply for them on any DoD website. However, they’re the life skills that will truly set you up for success– both professionally and personally.
This is a partial view of military skills that carry over after you’re out of uniform, even if they’re not on a certificate or in your service record. The next post will cover specific program benefits that will be recorded and that will follow you into civilian life. We’ll also talk about the differences in how these benefits are applied with Reserve/National Guard and federal/state civil service.
Reserve, National Guard, or Civil Service?
“Leaving active duty” involves several different options which also affect your military benefits. A small percentage of servicemembers elect to transfer to the Reserves or to affiliate with their state’s National Guard. One choice would be to continue as a “drilling Reserve/Guard” with the stereotypical “one weekend a month, two weeks a year”.
The cliché can also be modified to include “the possibility of a one-year deployment every five years”. That’s been the practice for the last decade, although operations and funding may dramatically cut back that practice. This balance between your civilian life and the military allows you to continue to earn credit toward a Reserve/Guard military retirement (which normally starts paying a pension at age 60) while still earning drill pay and promotions. While you’re a drilling Reserve/Guard member, you’ll continue to have access to military exchanges, commissaries, and base facilities.
Another Reserve/Guard option is “inactive” or “Individual Ready Reserve”. IRR means that you’re not drilling or deploying, and you’re also not getting paid. You can continue to earn credit toward retirement by completing online courses or performing a few hours of certain duties, but not many people exert the effort.
DoD’s main purpose of IRR is to keep you “on the books” in case of a war mobilization. Reserve/Guard servicemembers use IRR as a way to “drop out” if their family responsibilities or their civilian career have taken priority over their military career. If your enlistment included a Reserve obligation then it’s also a way to finish the rest of that obligation with few military duties— typically just the annual muster or records check.
Although you may elect to completely separate from military service, a few military benefits can carry over to federal or state civil service employment. I’ll cover those below in the “Employment” section.
Finally, when you leave active duty you can make a clean break with the military for a civilian career– no more uniforms, musters, or even a civil-service job. You’re still eligible for veteran’s benefits but you have no other military connection.
Early Discharge for Health or Disability
Before we start, let me make a note about early discharges due to conduct, health, or disability. Many of the benefits described below assume completion of a full military obligation with an honorable discharge. However, some of them allow eligibility with lesser discharges (general or other-than-honorable).
If you’re discharged early for health or disability reasons then you may still be eligible for these programs, but the qualifications (and degree of disability) become complicated. Even many of the Veterans Administration’s staff will be confused by requirements and overlapping qualifications and may (at best) direct you to another branch of the VA. At worst the overlapping eligibility may result in disqualification for that benefit.
The caveats and qualifications of health & disability discharges would turn this post into a three-volume book. Instead, when you note the requirements of these programs then be aware that they may be relaxed for health or disability discharges (especially the requirement for length of service). Even if you’re not qualified for a particular program, your discharge may qualify you for a similar program.
If your question isn’t answered by this post’s program description or its linked reference, then check the blog’s “Military Medical” blogroll links for more resources. If that still doesn’t answer the question then use the “Contact Me” page or send me an e-mail. I probably don’t know the answer, but I know a lot of people who will.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to assume that the servicemember finished a full obligation with an honorable discharge and no health/disability issues.
The GI Bill
Let’s start with the most popular benefit: the GI Bill. There are several versions of the program (depending on when you served) but the modern version is the Post-9/11 GI Bill that became law in 2008. (Eligible veterans served at least 90 days of active duty since September 11, 2001.) The program has a wide variety of options (or, from a cynical perspective, is tremendously complicated) and some parts may be based on your total months of service (up to 36 total months).
The GI Bill will pay for up to 36 months (eight semesters) of tuition and fees at an accredited college or training program. It will pay for professional licensing and certification exams & fees. It also pays a textbook fee. If you’re not on active duty and if you’re taking more than half-time classes then it pays a housing allowance. It also pays a small relocation allowance.
Another popular option of the GI Bill is the ability for some veterans to transfer their eligibility to their spouse or children. This benefit started in August 2009 and requires at least 10 years of service. I’m oversimplifying the eligibility requirements (which read like a nuclear reactor plant manual), but it essentially allows the servicemember to transfer some or all of their GI Bill benefits to their spouse and kids (who can share the benefits).
A GI Bill benefits transfer to your family has a tremendous number of qualifications and limits that go far beyond this post, and in some cases, it may be a better idea for you to keep the benefits for yourself.
Because today’s GI Bill was relaunched after 9/11, some veterans may be eligible for the older version as well as the current one. Make sure you’re reading about the Post 9/11 GI Bill and not the Montgomery GI Bill or some older version. There’s also a new feature of the GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program, that some universities will participate in with the VA. If a school’s tuition & fees exceed the GI Bill limits then the school may voluntarily waive some fees and agree to limited VA reimbursement for others. Although this helps defray the cost of expensive universities or out-of-state tuition, it’s not available at all schools.
Older unemployed veterans may also eligible for the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program GI Bill. It’s only available for those who are between ages 35-60, unemployed, and not eligible for any other VA, federal, or state retraining programs. It only offers 12 months of benefits. The program started in 2011 but the process of qualifying & applying is a major source of complaints about the VA’s bureaucracy.
Medical and Dental Insurance
When you separate from the military and settle at your new location, one of the first things you should do is register at your local VA clinic. It only takes a few minutes, and your registration qualifies them for more federal funding based on their local veteran’s population. While you’re there you can have them review your discharge papers or your medical/dental records for any services that you may be entitled to. You’ll be placed in a priority group for the Veteran’s Medical Benefits Package and you may be offered limited space-available treatment. However, this coverage is intended to support disabled veterans, and if you’re not disabled then you may be in the lowest priority group.
In most cases, veterans can’t carry their active-duty medical insurance over to civilian life. However, one program is available for those who are involuntarily separated from active duty (or who were retained in support of a contingency mission), and a second is available for a limited time to ensure continuous coverage until you find a permanent program. The Tricare Transition Assistance Management Program and the Continued Health Care Benefit Program provide Tricare for 180 days after separation and for 18-36 months after separation. Both offer limited coverage and CHCBP requires you to pay premiums. If you and your family are in good health then you’ll probably find more affordable insurance online or from your civilian employer.
If you leave active duty for the Reserves or National Guard then you’ll be able to buy Tricare Reserve Select medical insurance. It’s relatively expensive and civilian employee health insurance may cost less. It’s intended to provide Reserve/Guard healthcare for those who don’t have insurance with an employer or their own business.
There are no specific government-funded dental insurance programs for veterans. If you’re on Reserve duty (drill weekends or active duty for training) then your unit may also be able to offer a dental checkup (part of your deployment readiness checklist). This varies throughout the country and will probably only include an exam or a cleaning.
If you’re not in the Reserve/Guard, then when you register with your local VA clinic they may also offer one dental checkup or cleaning. If you had a service-connected dental condition, then within 180 days of discharge you may be eligible for one-time treatment at a VA clinic. There are also a few other categories and situations where dental treatment may be offered as part of another program, especially VA Vocational Rehabilitation. In general, though, you and your family are on your own for veteran’s dental care.
When you leave active duty, your SGLI policy ends. Within the next year and 120 days (I have no idea how these time limits are determined) you can convert your SGLI policy to Veterans Group Life Insurance. If you do this conversion within the first 240 days of leaving active duty, it can be done with only an application. After 240 days a medical exam is required. You can have VGLI coverage up to the limit of your previous SGLI coverage, so before you leave active duty you may want to consider raising your SGLI to the maximum amount.
However, you should shop around for your insurance coverage. VGLI will insure you even if you have significant health or disability issues, but other insurance companies may offer cheaper policies for those in good health. You may be eligible for life insurance from a number of military-friendly companies like USAA. You should be able to buy term insurance for a lower rate than other types of policies, but if you want a more complex policy then VGLI may not meet your needs. Start with the insurance quote utility from CashMoneyLife.com or Jeff Rose’s life insurance website.
I’ll be blunt. The government is strongly motivated to help military veterans find jobs after active duty so that more volunteers will be motivated to join the military. In the long run, it’s cheaper for the government to help veterans find a job than it is to pay unemployment or disability benefits, and nobody wants homeless veterans sleeping under highway ramps.
After you’ve spent an enlistment with one large government bureaucracy, it may seem convenient to seek employment with another large government bureaucracy: the federal civil service. As a veteran, you’ll be awarded a higher preference during the hiring process. If you’re considered a disabled veteran then you’ll have an even higher preference. If there’s a “reduction in force” (a layoff) then you’ll have a slightly higher preference for being retained. Your job security is better than almost any civilian employer.
The federal (and state) governments are probably the ultimate military-friendly employers. If you’re in the Reserve or National Guard then your civil-service employer already understands that you’ll need time off for annual training or deployments. You’ll be working with a number of other military veterans, and you may appreciate a work environment where your co-workers appreciate military service.
Your years of duty can be converted to credit toward a civil-service retirement (you’ll have to “buy in” to the pension plan). You’ll be eligible for large health insurance plans and you’ll even be able to continue using the Thrift Savings Plan to invest for retirement.
Those are all attractive benefits, but you may have other career criteria. You may be living in an area that lacks a large government employer, and you can certainly make more money (with faster promotions) from most civilian careers.
If you’re seeking a civilian career then the Veterans Administration is still ready to help. The federal government offers tax credits to employers and loans to veterans starting their own businesses. In addition to the VA’s GI Bill benefits, veterans can also tap into Department of Labor programs to help assess their employment skills, translate military jargon to civilian terms, and get a personal assist for hiring interviews. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also started the Hiring Our Heroes program to bring veterans and employers together through education, skills translation, and career fairs.
Finally, there are military-friendly employers. Companies like USAA are in the business of supporting their military members, and they know that one of the best ways to do that is to have veterans who already understand the challenges. USAA regularly hires veterans for at least 25% of their positions, and they’ll offer veterans the tailored employee training to move into a management track. Military transition companies like Bradley-Morris maintain an annual list of military-friendly employers who make a point out of reaching out to veterans with their own hiring-preference programs.
Even if you completely separate from the military for a civilian life, the VA will still help you buy a home. A VA loan offers guarantees to lenders that encourage them to lend you up to 100% of a home’s purchase price. You’ll still need to qualify for the mortgage based on your own income and credit score, and you may pay a slightly higher interest rate or financing fees, but the VA loan eligibility can bring home ownership within reach more quickly than if you saved the down payment on your own terms.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of state veteran’s benefits. For example, even though you have the GI Bill for your education, many states offer discounted college tuition (or even 100% scholarships) to resident military veterans and families. States also offer housing benefits, financial assistance, and employment programs for you and your family. There are also other free services, discounts on state taxes & fees, and preferences for certain training programs. In addition to the Military.com calculator linked above, contact your home state’s VA office for the latest information.
I’ll close with three other free summaries of your veteran’s benefits. The first two have a general overview with many sections where you can dive deeper into the details of a particular program. The first is Ryan Guina’s outstanding Veterans Benefits Guide at The Military Wallet and the second is Military.com’s “The Military Advantage” by Terry Howell. (Check your local library for The Military Advantage, but make sure you have the latest edition.) Both of them go far beyond the overview of this post, and if you have a question that I can’t answer then Ryan & Terry are my go-to guys to find out.
A final resource is Military.com’s benefits calculator. (This covers active duty, Reserve/Guard, veterans, retirees, and families.) Although this post already has a lot of detailed advice and references, the calculator taps into a database covering over 75 years of programs and benefits for anyone connected with the military. It’s not only the best resource I’ve found for you and your family to learn more about their benefits– it’s how I figured out my father’s veterans benefits after Alzheimer’s took away his memories of his service.
Did I miss an important program? Are you a veteran who has more to add to this post? Please share your advice & stories in the comments!
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