I’ve seen this question many times. What do I do before leaving the Military? How do I set myself up for success? Service members close to getting out of service wonder what to do. How can they be better prepared as far as the VA is concerned. I was very fortunate in having a good friend retire about 5 years before I did. He and I stayed in touch (and continue to stay in touch). He gave me a lot of excellent advice of what to do and what not to do. Thank you Tim!
So the question is this. As a Service Member, how do I set myself up for success? Following are some actions which will place you in a good position as you leave for civilian life.
Make Sure You Have Your Medical Records
You need to verify your medical records have followed you to each station. Make sure they are at your final station where you plan to leave service. I had a fellow NCO who put in his retirement papers. Only then did he realize that his medical records were not on the base. The medical clinic on the small base where we were stationed searched and the records could not be found. His medical records for 20+ years were simply missing.
My friend spent the next few months going to the Dr. constantly. He was trying to re-build his medical files from 20+ years. This included several years of airborne status with the aches and injuries from that service. Needless to say, trying to do all of that within 8-10 months is difficult, at best.
See the Doctor Over the Last Three Years
None of us like going to the Doctor. Military members really don’t like going to the Doctor. However, it is important to schedule visits in the last 2 – 3 years and ensure that any issues are adequately reflected in your medical records. You cannot take it for granted that you mentioned your fall from the rappelling tower one time three years ago so the information is in there. If the shoulder is still bothering you, follow up with requests for treatment.
I know that the military is a culture of ‘suck it up and carry on’, but when it comes to your health that is the worst thing you can do. A headache is one thing. But constant migraines may be a sign of serious problems. A sore back from a ruckmarch can be taken care of with some Tiger Balm and a massage. Pulled muscles may need more treatment and continued over use can lead to ongoing problems. The point is, if the medical records do not reflect what has happened, there is no proof when it comes time to file a claim with the VA. Over those last 2 – 3 years, make sure everything that you might be concerned with are in there.
File Your First Claim Before You Get Out
If you have an illness or injury that has occurred in service and you want to file a disability claim before getting out, there is a way to do that. In this way you may very well have a decision on your claim by the time you are ready to leave service.
The Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program is in place to allow service members to file a claim 180 to 90 days before leaving service. Most service members may utilize this program, but there are several stipulations. The requirements can be found here, or you can speak to a local Veteran Service Officer about the program.
Conduct a Good Exit Physical
I have spoken to many Veterans who have said they either didn’t get an exit physical or it was very rushed. When I retired from the Army, that last month or so was my time to make sure that my family and I were set up for civilian life. The night before my exit physical I sat down with my wife and went over everything I wanted to bring up with my Doctor to include in the physical. I went over it with her, because she was able to add in some things that I wasn’t thinking of. That way, when I went in to the appointment, I had an actual list in front of me so I didn’t’ forget to mention everything. I went in to my exit physical and sat down with my Doctor and listed every physical, mental and emotional problem that I was experiencing.
I don’t care if you have been in Service for 4 years, or 40 years. If you have any illness, injury, or ongoing condition that is connected to your time in service make sure it is notated in your service records. Your exit physical is your final opportunity to make sure this happens.
Get Your Final DD214
I have mentioned the DD214 many times, and will mention it many more. That is because this is the single most important piece of paper from your time in the military that you will ever receive. The DD214 is your one proof of your time in Service. It proves your Characterization of Service. It proves Combat experience. The DD14 is the single proof that most agencies, including the VA, will require for any Veteran benefits.
When you are given your DD214 at outprocessing, take the time to look at it and verify all of the information. Make sure any combat deployments are annotated on it. Ensure the dates of service are correct. I have talked to Veterans who took their DD214 and didn’t even look at it. They just wanted to get on the road to where they were going. When they looked at it the next day, they realized there was something wrong with it, but decided it wasn’t worth getting fixed. Now, 15 years later, they are realizing it needs to be corrected and the process is not quick. Bottom Line: Get your DD214 and make sure it is absolutely correct before you leave the Outprocessing office.
Take a Copy of Your Medical Records With You
You made sure your medical records were there two or three years ago, right? Good, now make sure you have a copy of them on you before you leave the post for the final time. You will need those medical records down the road if you decide to file a VA disability claim. In addition, if you made the decision to enter the VA Healthcare System just give them the CD so that they can upload all of your Service Treatment Records into your medical files. Hint: Make a digital copy of the files for yourself first!
And there you have it. I knew some of this before leaving service because I watched my friend go through all of it as he retired. I didn’t know some of it until after beginning my time as a VSO, and so I want to share what I’ve learned with others to hopefully make their transition easier.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Veteran Service Officers are there to help you in filing for VA disability. Most Veterans would be more than happy to talk with you and give you their advice on the best steps to take as you are preparing to get out. Don’t try to go it alone. We are all here to help.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to email us or leave a comment below.