Seek Help, Take Care of Yourselves

By COL Jim Rice, AW2 Director

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and was created to increase awareness about behavioral health and reduce stigma. As is true in the civilian sector, the Army also has a stigma associated with behavioral health. Stigma prevents many Soldiers, Veterans, and Families from seeking help. There are many resources to reach to for professional assistance, here are a few examples:

Families and caregivers need support as well to avoid compassion fatigue. In order to help others, take care of yourselves. For some helpful tips found on the Real Warriors website to help build resilience, see below:

  • Focus on the positive impact of what you are doing
  • Talk to your colleagues/Family for support
  • Set boundaries for yourself
  • Stay physically fit
  • Avoid comparing yourself with others
  • Be patient with yourself
  • Find tools for resilience

New Veterans Benefits Excite AW2 Advocates

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Advocates were pumped up by the VA video and presentations that they gestured "V" and "A" while waiting in line to enroll in the VA's new eBenefits.

AW2 Advocates were so pumped up by the VA video and presentations that they gestured "V" and "A" while waiting in line to enroll in the VA's new eBenefits.

Yesterday at AW2 Annual Training, we focused on the Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits available to AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families. At the 2009 AW2 Symposium, AW2 delegates identified “Veterans Affairs Education for Army Wounded Warrior Program Advocates” as one of the top five issues facing the AW2 population. AW2 has acted on this over the course of the year, and today, we went through in-depth training on several specific VA programs.  

New! VA eBenefits

AW2 staff were very impressed by the new VA e-Benefits system – they literally broke into applause several times during the presentation. The new system is a collaborative effort between DOD and VA that will allow Active Duty servicemembers and Veterans to perform several essential functions online, including:

  1. Apply for VA benefits, such as a home loan
  2. File a claim and check the status of pending claims
  3. See a history of all payments, including the amount, reason, and payment method
  4. Get a copy of essential records, such as the DD-214
  5. Learn what actions they need to perform so VA can move forward with their claims

This was so impressive to AW2 staff that approximately 40 Veteran and Active Duty staff members leapt to their feet immediately after the presentation to enroll – VA graciously sent two staff members to enroll people on the ground.

I got to talk to AW2 Advocate Margarita Aponte from Puerto Rico, while she waited in line. She was ecstatic about the difference this online system will make for AW2 Soldiers and Veterans in Puerto Rico.

“This is the way of the future for our wounded warriors so they can manage their affairs from home,” Margarita said. “In Puerto Rico, it will help prevent Veterans from driving across the island looking for paperwork. This is a great investment that will allow Veterans to manage their own affairs, gain independence, and streamline their transition from the Army to the VA.”

 Post-9/11 G.I. Bill

AW2 staff also learned the details of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Veterans with at least 36 months of active duty service are entitled to 36 months of education benefits, and those with less than 36 months are entitled to a percentage based on their time in service. Depending on the individual’s circumstances, Veterans may also receive a book stipend and a housing allowance based on the cost of living for the area. In addition, servicemembers who attend school while on active duty will have their full tuition and fees funded.

There are several other important aspects to this program, and AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Family members should talk to their AW2 Advocates for more information about:

Yellow Ribbon Program: participating private schools that will work with the VA and the Veteran to cover the difference between VA-approved public school tuition and the private school’s tuition

Housing Allowance: there are a lot of rules governing the housing allowance; Wounded warriors should look at these closely to ensure that they’re getting the maximum benefit

Transfer of Entitlement: Servicemembers may transfer their education benefits to a spouse or dependents, but must do so before separating from the Army

Specially Adapted Housing Program and Home Improvement and Structural Alterations

The VA has several programs to assist wounded warriors with adaptive housing. I’ve summarized the presentation’s key points below, but AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families should work with their AW2 Advocate and the VA for the most up-to-date information that affects their personal situation.

Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) Program, the Special Housing Adaptations (SHA) grant, the Home Improvement and Structural Alterations (HISA) Programs are all excellent resources for AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families that want to adapt their homes to address the wounded warrior’s mobility challenges.

VA Guaranteed Home Loan Program: VA home loan guaranties are issued to help eligible servicemembers, Veterans, reservists and unmarried surviving spouses obtain homes, condominiums, residential cooperative housing units, and manufactured homes, and to refinance loans. It can be used to obtain a loan to:

  1. Buy or build a home
  2. Buy a residential condominium unit
  3. Buy a residential cooperative housing unit
  4. Repair, alter, or improve a residence owned by the Veteran and occupied as a home
  5. Refinance an existing home loan
  6. Buy a manufactured home and/or lot
  7. Install a solar heating or cooling system or other energy efficient improvements

VA Claims and Fiduciary Process

In addition, AW2 staff received training on the VA Claims and Fiduciary Process. The overview of VA claims included service-connected disability compensation, the non-service connected pension program, and Benefits Delivery at Discharge, a new pre-discharge claims process that will allow active duty service members to begin their relationship with the VA within 60-180 days before formally being discharged.

In addition, the VA representative explained the way the VA assigns fiduciary representatives to minors and those who cannot manage their own VA benefit funds, the oversight process, and the ways it ensures that VA benefits are used appropriately.

Today’s VA session was incredibly informative, and AW2 staff have a much deeper understanding of the VA benefits available to AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families. By working closely with the VA, AW2 can continue to ensure that all AW2 wounded warriors receive personalized support and the resources available to them.

AW2 Career and Education Section Offers Practical Advice for Wounded Warriors

AW2 Career Counselor Scott Cox shares career and education tips with AW2 Advocates at the 2010 AW2 Annual Training.

AW2 Career Counselor Scott Cox shares career and education tips with AW2 Advocates at the 2010 AW2 Annual Training.

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom

The AW2 Career and Education Section had lots of good advice for AW2 staff at AW2 Annual Training this week. This enthusiastic team helps AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and spouses explore career and education opportunities by helping them write resumes, prepare for interviews, and apply for employment, education, and training opportunities.

I sat in on Scott Cox’s Career and Education workshop, and thought he had some great advice for AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families looking for jobs. He emphasized that it was very important for AW2 Advocates to help wounded warriors manage their expectations, such as:

  • The job-hunting process lasts a different amount of time for everyone. For some people, it’s a week, but for others, it may take six months or more, especially those looking for federal employment.
  • You may have to re-write your resume several times to get them ready for submission. Then, you may have to tweak your resume for each job you’re applying for.
  • Some people take less “desired” jobs to progress to their dream jobs.
  • Are there any barriers to employment, such as transportation or child care? If so, start talking to your AW2 Advocate about how to overcome those barriers.

Scott also gave some great tips for ways wounded warriors and spouses can improve their chances of finding employment:

  • Expand your geographical area
  • Expand your employer base
  • Prepare a well-written resume
  • Have a professional voice recording on your home phone and your cell phone
  • Ensure that your social media profiles are appropriate – employers will probably look at them
  • Keep the AW2 Career and Education section up to date on your contact information – if they can’t reach you, they can’t tell you about a job opportunity

I also found the Web site that Scott recommended,to be very helpful–O*NET which is hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor. On the Crosswalk section of O*NET, servicemembers and Veterans can enter their MOC (military occupational classification) and see similar civilian jobs and the skills that MOC typically includes. This site can be very helpful for AW2 Soldiers and Veterans preparing their first civilian resumes.

AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and spouses should keep their AW2 Advocates informed about their career and education goals, and you can always contact the AW2 Career and Education section directly at AW2CareerProgram@conus.army.mil.

Networking with Resources

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom

Today at the AW2 Annual Training, Maureen Pratt from the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy and I presented on “Networking with Resources” to educate the AW2 staff about the National Resource Directory and the AW2 Community Support Network.

While the AW2 staff does a great job networking with all types of organizations to connect AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families with the resources available to them, AW2 wanted to ensure everyone knew about the updated and new tools.

Maureen gave a great overview of the National Resource Directory (NRD), an online database of more than 10,000 organizations available to support wounded warriors. The NRD is a partnership effort between the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Veterans Affairs, and wounded warriors should look there first when they need to find a useful resource. NRD contains federal and military programs, state and local organizations, nonprofits, and Veteran service organizations, and it was recently redesigned to make it even easier for wounded warriors to find the resources they’re looking for. AW2 staff were appreciative of having a central, federal resource to find specific resources for their wounded warriors.

The AW2 Community Support Network was also well-received—I was thrilled to recognize several staff members for recommending quality organizations and for building warm relationships with the organizations that do such a good job supporting AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families. We talked about ways to strengthen relationships with AW2 Community Support Network organizations—these organizations can participate in quarterly conference calls with AW2 leadership and even submit blogs about their success stories and upcoming events for AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families.

To the AW2 Soldiers and Veterans—you can recommend organizations, too. Feel free to send me an e-mail at AW2CommunitySupportNetwork@conus.army.mil with the organizations that have made a difference in your recovery and transition.

Extended FMLA for Federal Employees to Care for Wounded Warriors

By Sarah Greer, STRATCOM

Did you know that federal employees have the right to extend their Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits to care for a military Family member who becomes seriously ill or injured in the line of duty?

Standard FMLA benefits offer employees of most organizations the opportunity to take up to 12 weeks per year for personal illness or to care for an ill or injured immediate Family member, such as a parent, spouse, child, or sibling. After taking FMLA leave, employees may return to the same position or to a position with “equivalent benefits, pay, status, and other terms and conditions of employment.” This is an excellent benefit for AW2 Families, and it demonstrates the American public’s commitment to wounded warriors who have sacrificed so much.

Last fall, Congress extended FMLA benefits to 26 weeks (approximately 6 months) for federal employees caring for military Family members. This also applies to federal employees caring for Veterans undergoing medical treatment, recuperation, or therapy for a serious injury or illness sustained on Active Duty within five years of the treatment.

Extended FMLA leave to care for seriously ill or injured servicemembers applies only to federal employees and cannot be combined with other FMLA leave, such as childbirth or caring for another Family member. Federal employees may use annual or sick leave to cover this time, and they only need to take unpaid leave if they run out. However, it offers peace of mind for Family members to know that their job is waiting for them while they stand by their wounded warriors.

OPM Director John Berry’s guidance on these extended FMLA benefits can help answer more questions, and AW2 Family members should talk to their AW2 Advocates for more information on their personal situation.

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AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families can submit a blog for AW2 by emailing WarriorCareCommunications [at] conus.army.mil.