How to Be Your Own Advocate – How You Can Affect Change for Military & Veterans Benefits

If you have ever looked at a Department of Defense or government policy and immediately hung your head in frustration, you are not alone....

If you have ever looked at a Department of Defense or government policy and immediately hung your head in frustration, you are not alone. Countless policies are either outdated, incomplete, or just plain annoying.

However, just because you are military-connected does not mean that you can’t advocate for change. This article will outline things you CAN do to be your own advocate.

What’s the Problem?

The military community is HUGE, with 1,369,262 active duty members, 2,926,536 DoD employees, 1,596,169 family members, and 20.8 million veterans.

All of these groups have their unique priorities and agendas. This does not mean that your needs and the agendas of others do not align. Often pain points felt by servicemembers and veterans are known issues. Once problems are acknowledged by multiple parties, it is vital that these problems move from an individual venting on social media to an advocate sharing workable solutions.

Examples Of Lobbying Improving Benefits: Concurrent Receipt

Concurrent receipt is the idea that you cannot get paid for the same thing twice. This concept is in place to prevent “double-dipping” of government funds. This sounds reasonable, but it has been met with frustration and justifiable outrage when servicemembers and surviving families are simply trying to collect fully earned benefits.

Here are three prominent examples of concurrent receipt — two of which have been partially or fully overturned, and one example that is still an ongoing battle.

Concurrent Receipt for Retirement Pay & VA Disability Benefits – Partially Overturned in 2004

Prior January 1, 2004, military retirees who received VA disability compensation would have their retirement pay reduced by the amount of VA disability compensation they received. VA Disability compensation is tax-free, so retirees received a net gain by receiving a portion of their retirement pay tax-free.

Starting in 2004, however, the military stopped offsetting retirement pay by the disability compensation for retirees who had a disability rating of 50% or higher. This is benefit is called Concurrent Receipt and Disability Pay (CRDP). There was a 10-year phase-in period for this benefit.

Retirees who have a 40% or lower rating continue to have their retirement pay offset by the amount of the VA disability compensation.

The following article covers additional laws that may impact how disability compensation affects retirement pay.

The Widow’s Tax – Overturned in 2019

The “widow’s tax” is another example of a well-intentioned policy gone awry.

In the case of the military “widow’s tax,” survivors were trying to collect from the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) by the DoD, which is essentially an insurance benefit that was paid into by the servicemember and the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) which is a survivor benefit program paid by the VA. The income received from the SBP was offset, dollar-per-dollar, by income received from the DIC.

For example, if a family member was entitled to $1,001 per month of SBP and $1,000 from DIC, they would only receive $1,001, instead of the $2,001 they could have otherwise been eligible to receive if the funds were not offset.

Families, who sacrificed it all, felt as though they were being asked to sacrifice yet again.

The 2020 National Defense Act included language that overturned the Widow’s Tax in phases over the next three years. Beginning in 2021, survivors will have one-thrid of the payment restored, followed by two-thirds in 2022, and the full amount starting in 2023. This article covers more about the repeal of the Widow’s Tax.

For 40 years, survivors battled to get paid the amount they were owed as a result of their loved ones’ service-related death. On the surface, it didn’t make sense why it took so long.

The bottom line was money. Fixing concurrent receipt issues is costly and the funds must come from somewhere and this requires not only financial support but the political willpower to make the change happen.

Ongoing Battle – Medical Retirement and VA Disability

Another ongoing concurrent receipt issue surrounds Disability Retirement and Chapter 61 retirement. Medical retirees are forced to choose only one of the two benefits—medical retirement pay or VA disability compensation.

There is ongoing legislation to fix these issues, but like the “widow’s tax” it has been met with resistance.

Learn more about VA Disability Compensation Recoupment, Offset, and Withholding.

How You Can Take Action as an Advocate – Research, Research, Research

As an advocate, when you are asking to change a law, you cannot just complain. If you only focus on the problem instead of proposing reasonable solutions you will not go far. You will need to research the problem.

  • What is it? 
  • Who is impacted? 
  • What solutions have been proposed in the past?
  • What didn’t work? Why?

If it is a well-documented issue like the ones mentioned above, read as much as you can on the topic. One good place to start is a simple internet search. From there narrow down your results to examine news outlets like Military.com, MOAA.org, Stars & Stripes, The Military Times, or other news and advocacy organizations that you respect.

Next, review their sources. Did they pull information from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or a DoD Instruction? Based on what you find, keep digging.

If you want to target your search results to only search a .edu, .gov, or .mil websites you can type “source: .edu” or “source: .mil” before you type your search terms. This will help you avoid having to navigate blog posts in addition to official releases.

DoD Instructions are very tricky, not only to read, but to find. Some instructions are listed under the service branch vs. DoD and you need to know what you are searching for to get the result you desire.

The Press Can Be Powerful – Reach Out to Them

If it is unclear you can always reach out to the author of the story to request their source. Not only will you get the information you need, but you could make a good connection. In asking for the information, you can always share your personal experience with the issue or problem you are researching. You never know, it may turn into an article that can help your cause.

For example, Doug Nordman, the founder of The Military Guide, wrote an article about prior-enlisted officers who were being forced to retire as enlisted members as part of a Force-Shaping initiative. He was interviewed by a writer for the New York Times, which published an article on the topic that received attention from some prominent members of Congress. This lead to a hearing and a change in the rules that allowed most of these officers to remain in the service long enough to retire as commissioned officers.

Helpful Websites

Congress.gov

  • Find out who supports and sponsors what type of legislation. You can search for specific bills or topics to see what exists. Once you find the legislator’s name you can easily contact their offices.

DoD Instructions

  • Searches via this site are more productive if you have the instruction number. The site does not use search engine optimization and entering search terms will not scan the document. You MUST know the instruction number or title to find what you are looking for.

Federal Register

  • Is a one-stop-shop for government agency rules, proposed rules, and public notices. It is published every weekday and you can sign up to receive customized alerts to certain topics in which you are interested.

Connect to Existing Advocate Organizations

Many advocacy organizations exist to support causes like yours and others. Military Service Organizations with an advocacy focus include (but are not limited to):

There are individual organizations that are niche to subject matter like Partners in PROMISE who fight for Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) families and National Military Spouse Network (NMSN) who advocates for military spouse employment.

You can also start small, by looking for social media groups to partner with. Find organizations that are task-oriented and well-organized vs. a community chat room. The former can get your agenda moving, while the latter may just be a distraction.

If there is a cause you want to support, chances are there is an established organization you can come alongside. Contact these organizations with questions or even volunteer to help your cause. Even a few hours a month can help build momentum.

Contact Your Congressional Representatives

Unsure of how to connect to your representatives? Reach out to Secure Families Initiative. They offer training opportunities for military spouses, active duty servicemembers, and veterans that range from “How to Tell Your Story” to “How to Lobby Your Elected Officials.”

Items covered in these free courses include the laws that place restrictions on federal employees (the Hatch Act) and active duty members (DOD Directive 1344.10).

You don’t have to take a course to contact your officials. Start by looking up who they are here:

Once you put in your location and get the names of your representatives (two senators and one congressperson). You can search their websites and request a meeting, call, or send them an email. Write an email and save it to your computer for future copy/pasting.

Another way to connect to your representatives is on Twitter. Most, if not all, tweet or at least have accounts. If you have something to say, tag them! Hashtags like #AxeTheWidowsTax helped the grassroots efforts of many military widows.

Advocate by Running for Office

For many, running for elected office feels like something that is someone else’s job. But nothing could be further from the truth. As a veteran or military spouse or family member-turned-advocate, you have a unique insight into a world that less than one percent of the population understands, the military.

As we lose members of the Greatest Generation and as Baby Boomers retire, the percentage of government representatives with a military connection drops. Sharing your experience and insights into military life is a form of “second service”.

Sounds good, but don’t know where to start? Organizations like Veterans Campaign and the J.D. Spouse Network’s Homefront Rising offer resources and training to military veterans and spouses interested in getting involved in politics.

And involvement does not have to include running for national office. You can run for the school board or a local government position. Or you can simply become a more vocal member of your local community, participating in town halls and regularly voting.

No matter how you decide to advocate you have already made the right choice because your voice and insights deserve to be heard.

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