So you’re ready to leave the military…
Although overwhelming, the preparation you make now can have a tremendous impact on the rest of your life. Whether you are leaving voluntarily, retiring, or due to a medical condition – I want to help you avoid the same costly mistakes I once made. While preparing for honorable discharge from the Marine Corp in 1996, I absorbed all of the well-meant advice given. At the time, I felt ready to begin the next chapter of my life; now, ten years later, I realize that I hadn’t a clue. Below are some tips I want to pass along to you, my fellow military, to help make this transition in your life as smooth as possible.
It’s never too early to prepare. Take advantage of any and all transitional assistance programs offered. While many are available ninety days before your discharge, some can be taken up to two years prior. The information provided can give you great advice on job searches, career guidance, educational opportunities, retirement assistance, veterans’ benefits, and more. Because I left with a medical condition, I attended the VAAP class offered and found the information on veterans’ benefits a helpful start on my long journey ahead. I highly recommend checking with your local command to find out which apply and are available to you.
Don’t leave the military without your medical records. At one point or another, the chances are great that you had to receive medical care while in service. Maybe you were injured or maybe you received vaccinations required to all military members during your time in service. Either way, get a copy of your records before you leave.
Immediately after discharge, I submitted a claim for service-connected disability compensation with the Veterans Affairs. It was denied for over a year because the military had “misplaced” my medical records during transit to their storage location. If they can lose my records within a month after discharge, imagine what can happen five, ten, or twenty years later. Even if it doesn’t seem important to you now, you never know when your military medical history will become an issue later. No proof = no claim.
Don’t leave the military without your service records. Your service records are the only evidence you have to show where, when, and how you served. Let’s say in 2025 the VA decides that anyone who served in Iraq during 2005 and develops a specific medical condition is eligible for service-connected disability compensation. You discover that you have this ailment; however, your service records can not be located because so much time has passed since your discharge. Once again, no proof = no claim. You have just lost your opportunity to receive valuable benefits you deserve and may especially need - monthly compensation, free medical care and more.
Don’t “suck it up” to be “the good soldier”. As anyone in the military knows, it is not favorably looked upon to visit sick bay. Although this may be right for you while serving your command, it can hurt you when you get out.
When I was leaving the USMC, I was told to document all military injuries received during my exiting medical exam. This would be considered my proof of service connection for future disability claims. Although I followed the well-meant advice given by my VAAP instructor, the reality is much different. According to the VA, if injury is not documented by a medical professional while in service, it didn’t happen. So, the lesson here is quite simple – if you have a true medical condition and have not yet seen a doctor for treatment – do so now before you get out! Otherwise, you may have trouble proving the service connection at a later date.
Always trust your natural instincts. You are asked to sign a tremendous amount of documents when exiting military life. Most are self-explanatory and seem repetitious; however, if and when you run across a document that seems to be “wrong”, trust your natural instincts and ask questions. If the answer doesn’t seem right – ask again!
For example, when signing discharge papers, I was told it didn’t matter what disability rating you receive from the military, it is the one assigned by the VA that counts. Now, with a 70% service-connected disability rating from the VA, I realize (a little too late) that I should have asked more questions and not accepted what I was told until it made sense to me.
If you are granted with a 30% or more disability rating prior to exiting the military, you may qualify for retirement benefits, even without serving the 20+ years typically required. When it doesn’t make perfect sense, trust your natural instincts and dig a little deeper before it’s too late.
Copyright ©2006 The Military Veteran