EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second story in a series following Staff Sgt. VanWey's journey to separate from the Army. To read the first story, go to www.kdhnews.com/news/story.aspx?s=67335.

By Rose L. Thayer

Killeen Daily Herald

Sitting in his second Veterans Affairs briefing in two days, Staff Sgt. Jefferson VanWey leans over and whispers: "I'm getting deja vu."

Fort Hood's Howze Theater is about two-thirds full of soldiers preparing to separate from the Army as an all-day program, outlining the benefits service members receive upon leaving active duty, continues May 15.

Throughout the presentations, a steady flow of soldiers get up and exit the theater, only some return.

On the stage, Tom Edmundson, who conducts the class for the VA Regional Office in Waco, is repeating everything he said the day before during a half-day seminar describing how to file a claim with the VA, or as the agency refers to it, "the benefits delivery at discharge brief."

Service members are listening and applying. Last fiscal year alone, more than 223,000 veterans began receiving VA disability benefits, said Tom Morley, spokesperson for the Waco office.

In total, the VA paid veterans more than $39 billion for disability claims.

When discussing topics, such as when Edmundson would begin filing a claim, or how he would handle various situations, he offers advice about what he would do or what choices he made when leaving the Army.

The room is cool and dark.

Combined with the repeated information, VanWey has trouble focusing on the presentation projected onto a large screen.

"Death by powerpoint," VanWey jokes, when he tells another soldier about the class later that afternoon.

Insurance options

As Edmundson moves on to new information, VanWey — a public affairs noncommissioned officer in the 1st Cavalry Division who plans to leave the Army after 10 years of service and go back to school — sits up a bit in his seat to listen.

His active-duty life insurance only lasts 120 days upon separation, but he is eligible for a VA group plan, and is eligible for VA health care, but he must enroll.

He also learns he can participate in a home-loan guarantee program and college programs, including the G.I. Bill.

It's not exciting, but all of it is information VanWey will need once he steps out of uniform and into civilian life.

"I've always known they offer a lot of stuff," said VanWey once the briefing is over and he steps back into the bright May sunshine. "I knew generally about most of it, but it went into more specifics."

Reviewing information from the morning half of the brief, he said he is disappointed to learn the Army only pays for him to move back to his home of record, or an equal distance.

His plan to move to Ontario, Calif., after separating from the Army on April 10 could require him to pay about 50 miles of moving expenses.

"I need to research it a little more and see how much it will be," he said while walking to his truck.

Applying for benefits

May 14, the day before the Howze Theater briefing, VanWey attended a three-hour session outlining how to get benefits delivered at discharge from the Army for service-connected injuries. The briefing also focused on applying for health care.

Edmundson explains to the 111 soldiers sitting in a classroom of the Copeland Soldier Service Center that combat veterans get five years of VA health care. Co-pays are free for any service-related treatment, but veterans have to apply for it using a 1010-EZ to receive it.

"And trust me, it's not easy," Edmundson jokes. "I would get registered as soon as I possibly could. I wouldn't be surprised if some congressman said that maybe we can't afford that anymore. They'll seldom remove benefits if you're properly enrolled, but what if by the time you get to it, you no longer meet the qualifications?"

Filing a claim, Edmundson said, is much easier now than it will be after separation.

"If you wait, the two-page form becomes 12 pages and it'll take six to nine months to get your medical records," he said.

The most valuable piece of paper VanWey walks away with is a checklist, printed on blue paper, that lists everything he needs to participate in the benefits at discharge program.

His forms can't be submitted until 180 days from his separation date, but thanks to this briefing, most of his paperwork is filled out.

"When veterans make sure that they provide a complete response on each line or in each block ... the veterans can help avoid the need for follow-up contacts from VA to obtain the information needed to process their claims," Morley said.

All he'll need is his medical records and to determine what injuries he will try to claim.

"I've considered filing a claim," VanWey said. "I probably would have come even if it wasn't mandatory. I want to use everything they are willing to give to me."

Contact Rose L. Thayer at rthayer@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.

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