September 11, 2003 First stop for Guard and Reserve returnees? - the Veterans' Office
Most Reservists will be returning from active duty within the next few months. After getting reacquainted with their families and reporting in to their employers, the next stop on the list for returning National Guard and Reserve soldiers should be the county Veterans' Service Office.
Since it is uncertain of what they will be told in their transitional briefings, spouses or parents of returning soldiers should be prepared to remind demobilized soldiers to stop by the office or give the Service Officer a call. There have been some VA benefits already announced and there may be others between now and the time they return.
VA Secretary, Anthony Principi, announced in October of last year that, upon return, a two-year window of opportunity opens for free VA care for these combat veterans. This
provision authorizes VA to provide some veterans free medical care within two years after leaving active duty. This applies to inpatient and outpatient care as well as nursing home care, if required. They don't have to prove either a service-connection for their health care problems nor that they have low incomes, a rule that applies to most other veterans.
The benefit does not cover treatment for problems clearly unrelated to military service, such as care for common colds, injuries from accidents that happened after discharge from active duty and disorders that existed before their activation to active duty.
So far, the Pentagon has resisted any congressional efforts to improve normal reserve health care benefits. They also are opposed to lowering the age for reservists to receive retirement pay, and stand in opposition to many of the benefits which mobilized Guardsmen and Reservists are starting to realize they should be eligible for.
Since September 11, 2001, the days of the weekend Guardsman and Reservists are over. The reserves make up 50 percent of our total armed forces, and most of the support-type units required for the active duty to fight a war, are found only in the Guard or Reserves. Future wars will not be fought without mobilizing the reserves. National Guardsmen and Reservists have already served their time in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq, and 1st Battalion, 293d Infantry out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a National Guard Unit, has led the way because it has been there the longest of any Army infantry outfit. As many as 640 of those soldiers spent 4½ months in Iraq and 476 of them have received the Army's coveted Combat Infantryman Badge while another 31 have received the Combat Medical Badge for participating in ground combat against an enemy force. Furthermore, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, on Sept. 7 pinned Bronze Star Medals on Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Ivan Denton and 5 others
of his staff, Maj. Ronald Westfall, Maj. Eric Bray, Capt. Eric Derue, Capt. Wesley Russell and Command Sgt. Maj. John Runge.
Many of these Guardsmen and Reservists feel they have earned the right to full VA benefits and wonder why they are allowed to use military commissaries only a few days a year and why they can't have full health coverage for their spouses and families. These are problems which can only be addressed by the Department of Defense.
As for VA requirements, the eligibility rules for VA benefits were changed after the Gulf War. To be considered a veteran for VA benefits, those active duty soldiers who enlisted after Sep. 7, 1980 must serve at least 24 months unless they are discharged for hardship or for a disability. However, National Guardsmen and Reservists are exempt from the 24 month rule if they are called to Active Duty by federal executive order, complete the term for which they are called, and are granted an other than dishonorable discharge
Huntington County Veterans' Service Officer, Tom Applegate, who is also the president of the Indiana Veterans' Service Officers' Association, made up of himself and Indiana's 90 other county Service Officers, is himself a veteran of 17 ½ years in the National Guard as a full-time soldier and 8 years of active duty in the Air Force. "In light of the new requirements placed on the Guard and Reserves," Applegate said, "this was a good rule to change"
Applegate says the current window of opportunity for VA health care will close after the two-year period unless the Guard or Reserve returnee was injured or disabled while serving. "After that 2-year transitional period for health care, the returnee will need to meet VA's current eligibility requirements which include being disabled with a disability attributable to their time on active duty, or having income and net worth below the VA's income thresholds. But, at least now, due to their status as a veteran, they are eligible where before the Gulf War they were not."
It could be in just a few weeks or it could be another 4 months before most of our soldiers are back from Iraq and many things could change in the way of benefits. The members of Indiana's County Veterans' Service Officers' Association (INVSOA) will be kept informed of these changes and will be ready to offer information and advice to our returning soldiers. Spouses and parents should put it on their calendars to remind their returning soldiers to call or drop by the Veterans' Service Office. Names and addresses of all Indiana service officers are available by visiting the INVSOA website at http://invsoa.homestead.com and clicking on the County Service Officers tab, or check your telephone book under County Government.