What to know about veterans benefits (and there’s a lot!)

. (Photo by Kevin McCartney from Pexels)

Let’s say you’re in need of certain Veterans Affairs benefits, but you’re unable to get the help you require. What do you do?

For example, if you had a less-than-honorable discharge, and you needed a discharge upgrade, who would you call?

There’s a lot to know when it comes to veterans benefits, which are the benefits earned through military service in the U.S. Armed Forces.

No one knows this better than Marissa O’Connor, a manager of public interest and public benefits and an accredited veterans representative at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.

O’Connor advocates for veterans, and helps people untangle the red tape involved in pursuing a claim for VA benefits, a discharge upgrade or survivors’ benefits.

She has been with CLS for about four years after working in private firms. She’s been in her current role for about three of those years.

So, we asked: What should people understand when it comes to veterans benefits? O’Connor provided the following insight:

When it comes to services for veterans, there’s likely more help available than you realize.

Most counties have veterans programs and service officers available, as well. These VSOs, as they’re called (veteran service officers) can help with applications for disability claims, or perhaps in some cases, they’re able to assist with pension questions. And when it comes to medical care, there’s a main Veterans Affairs med center, and oftentimes, there are clinics in the more rural areas or the surrounding regions.

“A lot of (vets) don’t realize -- or maybe now they do, but the older ones, not as much,” O’Connor said. “Some people don’t want to take advantage of the benefits, but they’re there for them.”

Even if you’re not a veteran, there might be benefits available to you.

Think about survivors of veterans. This isn’t as well-known, O’Connor said, but if a veteran passes away, depending on what his or her cause of death is, or if there was a service-connected disability, there might be benefits available to a spouse or a child.

These things can get complicated.

People who call Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida are often veterans or survivors. Many are trying to navigate how to receive service-connected disability.

There are a few main types of claims, O’Connor said: Through the VA, service-connected claims (tied to active duty), and non-service-connected pension claims.

“These are often confused,” O’Connor said.

The pension isn’t tied to active duty, but it is income-based. Officials look at the person’s income, age, whether he or she is receiving Social Security Income, if the person is in a nursing home -- factors like that. And for a pension, the veteran has to have served at least one day in a war-time era, O’Connor added.

The firm sees a lot of requests for discharge upgrades, as well. This goes through the branch of service the veteran was in. If someone isn’t eligible for certain VA benefits, it may be because of a less-than-honorable discharge.

“We get people who had ‘under-honorable’ conditions, which is a general discharge,” O’Connor said. “And this allows them to get every benefit except the GI Bill. You need an honorable discharge for the GI Bill.”

The GI Bill provides educational assistance to service members, veterans and their dependents.

A veteran might try to get a discharge upgrade in order to receive service-connected disability, keep his or her housing or obtain health care.

VSOs and workers from other veterans organizations do a great job, O’Connor said, but sometimes, people might need more assistance or hand-holding.

These VA decisions can take a long time, especially considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It can take forever,” O’Connor said. “It’s hard to get in touch with people or to get an answer, or something will get stuck as ‘pending.’”

And of course, veterans can go to private attorneys to handle these sorts of issues. But there’s no regulation on fees. A lawyer might charge a $10,000 retainer. Not everyone can afford that.

Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida works with grants and other organizations to offset costs. A majority of the group’s clients are homeless, at risk of homelessness or low-income.