News: Advisors can help with adjustment to civilian life
Story by Staff Sgt. Sean McCollum
By Army Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum
National Guard Bureau
ARLINGTON, Va. – How do I file a VA claim? How do I get enrolled in the VA system and get an appointment? What's the difference between TRICARE Reserve Select and TRICARE Prime health plans?
These are just some of the questions many Guard members returning to civilian life from deployment ask. Helping them get answers to these types of questions are people like retired Air Force Master Sgt. Jeffrey Unger of the Wisconsin National Guard, a transition assistance advisor.
"If they go through the process, if they hit barriers or they incur challenges they don't know how to address, they contact their TAA," said Unger.
Started in May 2005, the TAA program provides a professional in each of the 54 states and territories to serve as the statewide point of contact to assist servicemembers in accessing Veterans Affairs benefits and healthcare services. Most of these professionals are like Unger: retired service members or disabled veterans who have been through the benefits process and who know beforehand what works and what doesn't.
Guard member spouses also make up of the TA ranks, said Alex Baird, the deputy surgeon for National Guard Bureau's Warrior Support program, which manages the TAAs. All of them, said Baird, know the process so that Guard members can get the benefits they're entitled.
That starts, first and foremost, with understanding what benefits can be received. TAAs can help Guard members receive disability compensation, healthcare through TRICARE, Veterans Administration enrollment, education benefits and other entitlements.
"You would be absolutely astounded as to how many veterans and their families do not understand what their benefits are or how to get access to them," Baird said.
Unger assisted the transition of Spc. Demond Love, a cannon crew member with Wisconsin's Company C, 1-121st Field Artillery. His vehicle was hit with an improvised explosive device Iraq. Back home, he was broadsided by questions.
"I would have come back and I wouldn't have known where to start," Love said. "I was completely dumbfounded. I didn't know what benefits I was eligible for, I didn't know where to start anything. I just would have been left in the wind."
He was not. Thanks to the efforts of Unger and others, Love found a job and applied for VA benefits he wouldn't have known about.
"I would just call Jeff and he would tell me, 'you're also eligible for this, and 'you might want to look into that,' and all different kinds of stuff," Love said. "He set me up with different groups like the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] that I didn't know anything about."
The transition assistance didn't stop there. Having been around the military for a while, the TAAs have knowledge and contacts that can help young citizen-Soldiers and Airmen manage their careers.
"He asked me what was going on and I said I'm trying to find a different unit," said Love. "He made one phone call and the next thing you know I was in a different unit."
TAA help is not limited to Guard members. Unger worked with an 84-year-old World War II veteran that faced large medical bills from multiple surgeries. He had injured himself falling out off a plane in 1944. Unger learned that the vet had never filed a service-connected disability claim with the VA, which would have entitled him to additional benefits.
"I got him connected with his local veterans service officer," Unger said. "We got a claim filed with the veteran's benefits association. About four months later he received notification that he was now 100% totally and permanently disabled as a result of his service. And we literally changed his standard of living that day."
TAAs hone their skills through constant training.
"The benefits change, the benefits become more complex," said Baird. "We do ongoing training, monthly. We do annual training where the VA comes in with us."
The monthly training is in the form of a conference call where the TAAs bring up problems to the group to be solved by others with the same experience or, in some cases, the VA representative.
"Our monthly teleconferences are almost like a walking library," said Unger. "Say [the problem] is home loans or life insurance or it's the GI bill or it's a disability claim. Whatever it may be, we get the experts on the line with us and we get an opportunity to go one-on-one with [them]."
For Unger, helping returning veterans is a fulfilling way to spend his retirement.
"To know that when you hang up that phone, or to know that when they walk out of that office, or when you leave an event, you know in your heart that you did a veteran well ... there is no better feeling than to know you've helped somebody like that."