Everybody leaves the service some day, and while you are in, you need to understand how to position yourself to maximize the benefits to which you may be entitled. When you do leave the service you need to be proactive in understanding your benefits and seeking out all to which you are entitled. Remember, the fact that you make a claim takes absolutely nothing away from any other veteran. The VA system is large enough to handle all claims, but it is a bureaucracy, so make sure you are in a position to ease your claim through the system.
Before you leave active duty:
First - document, document, document in service records, medical records and personal records. Keep diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, etc. to supplement information the service keeps on you. Where you served, or traveled, when, and with who may come in handy some day. Our ability to remember people places, dates and events does not improve with age. In this age of minicomputers, you can keep a diary of daily events easily and economically.
Second - When you decide it is time to get out, take a Transition Assistance course, and pay attention.
Third - Make sure your release or retirement physical is complete and accurate, and make sure your medical records include all your medical issues, even if they seem trivial at the time. If the complaint is not in your medical record, the VA may not be able to allow you a “service connection” for the problem. The night before your physical exam think of all the issues that impacted you, especially in the field where you did not see a doctor. The banged up knee can lead to arthritis later in life. Even if the malady is intermittent such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears), it can be steady later in life, and your failure to note the problem on your physical may not allow a VA rater to support your claim.
Fourth - Read your DD214 when you get it and make sure each entry is accurate and complete. It is the most important document you will receive from service, and errors are magnified when you attempt to obtain benefits.
Fifth - Make sure you have copies of all documents in your service record, a copy of your entire medical record, and extra copies of your DD214 (the copy that shows the character of service).
Once you are out of service (or on terminal leave):
First - Keep your service and medical records in a safe and fire safe location.
Second - Make an appointment and go see your town VSO. Get yourself on file with the VSO, learn what’s available, and use this resource to assist you as you reintegrate into civilian life.
Third - File a VA claim for any service connected issue as soon as possible, but definitely within one year. Make sure you seek the assistance of your town VSO or a representative from a VA certified organization (e.g. VFW, American Legion, etc.)
Fourth - Join at least one of the veteran’s organizations – American Legion, VFW, DAV, Amvets. See us for details on membership.
Fifth - Chart your course in life and work towards your goals. You are a member of an elite group of less than 10% of Americans who have served in the military and should be proud of that fact. You leave the military with ingrained training in teamwork, leadership and a solid work ethic. Should issues arise that create problems with achieving your goals (PTSD, lack of training in your field, alcohol abuse, etc.) see your VSO. While you may not like the answer, the VSO has dealt with many of these issues with many veterans, and can give you the best advice on a path to overcome the problem.