I've been wanting to write about this process for some time now, but is is so long and drawn out that there has been no good time to to sit down and put it to
So, the long and short of it is this: ACAP, VA, meetings, meetings, seminars, meetings, VA, ACAP, ACAP, retirement office, VA, housing, transportation, VA, VA physicals, retirement office, VA. Or something near that. What you need to know is that it is a long process with a lot of stops along the way, make sure you leave plenty of time to do it all. And a stash of beer or wine won't hurt!
ACAP is the Army's program for transitioning out of the service. Everything from interview skills, resumes, job searches, how to dress for interviews, job fairs, prospective employer meet and greets, generally just a whole lot of how to get your shit together for life outside the Army. It is a great program and, aside from the nutty schedules for the seminars and meetings, full of useful information. ACAP is awesome and be sure to take full advantage of it. And spouses! You can use ACAP too! Your spouse isn't the only one transitioning out of the Army so you can participate in their resume workshops and job fairs as well. Use it!
The VA stuff is insane. Insane because the sheer amount of information they throw at you, insane because of the mind-boggling loopholes and if-then scenarios they pose. And insane because when you are retiring, how you handle the VA stuff before you leave duty will have a MAJOR impact not only on your disability, but on how easily you will be able to navigate the VA system once you are in it. Suffice to say, the more you do, and the better/more thoroughly you do it, the easier your life will be in the future. But be prepared to have your mind blown by how the system works. BANANAS.
The retirement office on post handles lots of the paperwork. All the DD-214s and retirement orders and they are the ones who actually get you out of the Army. My 2 cents when working with them? Be Prepared. Have copies of all your necessary documents, have copies of all your awards and honors, and review what the system says you have (in terms of time in service, duty stations, ranks, awards) before you walk in the door. Double checking is your best friend. And play nice with your representative- they can make your life hell if you make their job difficult (that should be obvious, but this is one person you want on your good side!)
Now, back to the VA insanity. This is probably the single most important part to retiring (a little less so for ETSing) so I'm gonna focus here a bit. The things I think y'all need to know up front are these:
- VA systems are based on a regional format. These regions DO NOT interface (as insane as this may be, it is the truth). If you move from one region to another, it is 100% on you to take your medical records with you and ensure that your records are transferred to your new region. 100% on you. Did you get that? Its all on you to make sure this stuff transfers the way it should.
- The VA system is not one stop shopping. It is like the utility company, if you are having problems with the electric, you wouldn't call the water company, right? BE SURE WHO YOU ARE CALLING. If you aren't sure, ask or check online. Because if you call the wrong folks? They will not help you, you will get frustrated, and you will give up... loosing out on benefits and help. And this is probably the single most common mistake when dealing with the VA.
- Have your medical records in tip-top shape. I mean it! You need to account for every bump and bruise going in to these VA appointments. The whole point is that someone will review the records and then set up medical appointments to corroborate and suss out any health issues. The more complete your records are, the more likely you will a) get an accurate disability rating and b) get these things on record for both future healthcare and future disability should the condition worsen. Very important stuff folks. And this could be thousands of dollars over a lifetime. (Did you know that tendonitis in and ankle or knee, if documented, is 10% straight away??? And that stuff adds up!)
- ASK QUESTIONS! The whole thing is complicated and confusing... fro the Post 9-11 GI Bill down to how and when to register with the system (FYI- you register on the first day you are no longer an active duty soldier). If you aren't sure, ask, because sometimes finding the answer out yourself could take days. The more notes you take early in the process and the more questions you ask, the better you will understand the process... or at least where to start looking when you have issues. This will serve you well in the long run. I promise!
As for the rest of it? These tid-bits pertain to anyone getting out- ETS or Retirement. These are the nuggets of wisdom I've taken away from the process so far and I think they will help anyone going through this:
- Schedule! This stuff takes time. And the meetings/presentations/specific hours that things are done are ridiculous and all over the place. Leave yourself enough time to get all this taken care of without rushing. Rushing leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to problems. If you have questions, talk to the ACAP folks and the people in the retirement office. They will know! Also, some of these meetings require your spouse to attend, so be prepared and have your calendars open!
- Schedule! Part two! Make sure your unit is allowing you enough time to get through the retirement process. As I said, this takes time and if you are tasked with labor and time intensive duties when you should be ACAPing or doing your VA physicals, you will be scrambling at the last minute to get it all done. These appointments will dictate when you can PCS and when your terminal leave can start- the sooner you get done, the more enjoyable and stress-free the final stages will be. (Trust me, we are living this nightmare right now because Swiss got tasked with running EIB when he should have been working on retiring. NIGHTMARE!)
- LISTEN! Pay close attention to the content of those meetings. As boring as they are (and I know they are, I've sat through them!) they are chock full of useful information that you will (WILL) need in the future. Take notes, ask questions, pay attention! They will cover everything from Post 9-11 GI Bill benefits, VA health care, insurance, claiming preference... it is all so important! So don't tune out, don't doodle, don't take naps. Suck it up and pay attention. Your bank account, sanity, and future health care will benefit in the long run.
- Document. Have your paperwork in order. This means everything from medical records to NCOERs and promotion paperwork, honors and awards, re-enlistment contracts... the whole kit and caboodle. The better organized you are the easier the whole process will be. Take some time before you start the process to get this all in order. It will save you lots of headaches in the coming months.
- Be flexible. Both in schedule and attitude. Know that your dream PCS/terminal leave dates may or may not work. Know that the date you want to do a particular ACAP meeting might be booked, have alternates in the back of your mind. Be prepared to bounce around the offices and missing some of the silly hours they have set up for these things (because you have no way of knowing they only look at medical records from 8-11 on Mondays). As frustrating as it might be, it is necessary because they don't make it easy on you. Consider yourself warned.
- Organize! Make yourself a big old file folder (or set aside a drawer, box, whatever) and keep all this stuff you'll be getting in one place. There will be more handouts and information than you can keep track of, so start some files for each item so you can find it again. I SO wish we would have done this early on. I am faced with doing this now and it is a HOT MESS. Also, this will serve you well in the future as you need to go back and reference this information.
- BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE! The people helping you are just doing their job. As nice as they may be, its no skin off their back if you get screwed in the end. I don't mean to sound cynical, but it is in your best interest to pay attention to what is going on. Case in point, when Swiss's medical records were getting reviewed his (VERY) well documented history of a thyroid disorder, skin cancer and a gunshot wound from combat were missed. If he hadn't spoken up, not only would his medical care have suffered, but we would have missed out on something like 70% disability. Huge deal folks! HUGE! If you aren't going to pay attention and look out for yourself, you can't expect someone who sees you as just another case to do it for you. So, this might be the single most important pointer I can give you. Take ownership of this process and the information- double check, triple check and pay attention! Be your own advocate. Period!
Okay, so that is the nitty gritty cliff notes version of this process so far. As more things come to light, I will pass on whatever nuggets of wisdom I glean. And also, please, please, please don't hesitate to ask questions either by e-mail or in the comments if you have them. I'm by no means an expert in this, but I'd be glad to pass on whatever information I have!
Stay tuned for more information! Ooh, and let me know if there are aspects of this process you specifically want more information on... I'll do my best to help out however I can.