Our yearlong deployment to Iraq was officially over. I stood at attention with my fellow soldiers for the last time before being thrown back into the civilian world. It was finally time to shed my desert camouflage uniform. It was finally time to trade in my title as combat photographer for college student. It was time to “fall out” and fall into the category of Iraq War Veteran.
In late 2005, I realized transition from soldier to Veteran wasn’t going to be easy. My only connection to other soldiers and Vets was through my Army Reserve unit. At that time only a few of us had deployed, and when I showed up to drill with specific questions about the GI Bill and other VA benefits, it turned into a game of Telephone. “Well, Sergeant Smith uses the GI Bill and he needed this and that. But you should ask Specialist Clark because she said she didn’t need that paperwork. And do you have the fax number to the one lady who signs off on that one sheet of paper? Yeah, you totally need to get in touch with that lady.”
By the time I found Sergeant Smith and Specialist Clark, I discovered a magical lady with a fax machine didn’t exist–nor did a Veteran in my unit that could give me correct information. I wasn’t sure who or where to turn to. In an attempt to untangle the web of information I faced, I searched online for “GI Bill.” I clicked around; convinced the answers I needed had to be swirling around the web somewhere.
Chapter 30? Chapter 1606? Tuition Assistance? Sites popped up that I had never heard of or that had no connection to VA. Click after click led me to different sites, to different points of view, and to different ways to go about obtaining my benefits. Several of the sites reminded me of Sergeant Smith and Specialist Clark–they just regurgitated inaccurate information.
It only took minutes for me to realize, VA sites–admittedly tough to navigate at times–were the best source for information for benefits and programs. Reverting back to VA, I was able to secure my GI Bill benefits for the fall, along with tuition assistance for my summer classes.
Nearly six years later, when I search the web for “GI Bill,” I am hit with millions of results. Websites range from trusted government sites to pages that seem to have more of an interest in advertising space than providing good information. The worst offenders are plastered with advertisements from for-profit schools that have recently faced scrutiny for their sudden interest in Veterans benefits on PBS Frontline.
So instead of getting caught in a web of miscommunication, go straight to the source: The Department of Veterans Affairs. Here are some helpful links to get started:
How VA is Structured (and Why it Matters to You): An easy to digest overview of how the department is set up and how this could affect you when filing benefits
New to VA: An overall idea of who is eligible for benefits and how to apply
2011 VA Benefits book for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors: A breakdown of benefits for you and your family
A-Z Health Topic Finder: A list of health topics in alphabetical order
Locations: View interactive maps of VA hospitals and centers across the U.S.
GI Bill: Don’t fall victim to information overload. Go here for accurate information on your educational benefits
National Center for PTSD: A resource for obtaining VA mental health care and/or related information
Homeless Veterans: Learn about preventative services and how to get on-the-spot help
Center for Women Veterans: A breakdown of services and benefits for the approximately 1.8 million female Vets in the country
VA Home loans: Helpful information on obtaining a home loan
VA National Cemeteries: Browse VA cemeteries by state
Contact Us: Give us a call, we are here to help Veterans and their families in any way that we can
VA’s web sites should be the first destination for Veterans looking to take advantage of their benefits. This list should point you in the right direction and relieve some of stress sometimes associated with obtaining benefits. I urge you to get started and click around!