Advisors Help With Post-Deployment Transition to Civilian Life
By Army Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum
Special to American Forces Press Service
Arlington, Va., Sept. 26, 2008 How do I file a Veterans Affairs claim? How do I get enrolled in the V.A. system and get an appointment? What’s the difference between the TRICARE Reserve Select and TRICARE Prime health plans?
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Jeff Unger, left, a Wisconsin National Guard transition assistance advisor. counsels Capt. Dan Hanson, his wife Jen, and their children Mitch, Jake, and Liz, at his office in Madison, April 4, 2007. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
These are just some of the questions asked by National Guard troops returning to civilian life from deployment. Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Jeffrey Unger, of the Wisconsin National Guard, is among those known as transition assistance advisors who help get them the answers.
“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,” Unger said.
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 troops in accessing Veterans Affairs benefits and healthcare services. Most advisors are like Unger: retired servicemembers or disabled veterans who have been through the benefits process and know what works and what doesn’t.
Guard spouses also make up transition assistance ranks, said Alex Baird, the deputy surgeon for the bureau’s Warrior Support program, which manages the TAAs. All of them know the process so that Guard members can get the benefits they’re entitled, he said.
The process starts with understanding what benefits can be received. TAAs help Guard members receive disability compensation, healthcare through TRICARE, Veterans Benefits 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 Army Spc. Demond Love, a cannon crew member with Wisconsin’s 1st Brigade, 121st Field Artillery. Love’s vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb during an Iraq deployment. 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 V.A. 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.
When Love wanted to transfer units, Unger made it happen with one phone call, Love said.
TAA help is not limited to Guard members. Unger worked with an 84-year-old World War II veteran who faced large medical bills from multiple surgeries. He had injured himself falling out of 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 Veterans’ Benefits Association. About four months later, he received notification that he was now 100 percent 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,” Baird said. “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 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,” Unger said. “There is no better feeling than to know you’ve helped somebody like that.”
(Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum works at the National Guard Bureau).