Monday, June 29, 2015

Military & Veterans Affairs Committee: Stewards for Those Who Have Born the Battle

By Jeffrey C. Blumenauer

"To care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan ..."

President Abraham Lincoln spoke these hallowed words during his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, which foreshadowed the Civil War’s end and underscored the importance of stewardship for our nation’s veterans — and today this stewardship continues. 

As attorneys, we can be especially important stewards for veterans, so it is critical we know what to do or where to turn when they call our offices seeking assistance. Commonly, veterans seek legal counsel to help them obtain the various veterans benefits they have earned for their service. Even if the legal services are not ultimately rendered by us, there are a vast array of resources available, including many veterans service organizations (VSOs), which can provide veterans with assistance. The Department of Veterans Affairs, whose mission also contains the same excerpt from President Lincoln’s address, maintains a current directory of VSOs.

Some VSOs provide traditional veterans-related legal services, such as the National Veterans Legal Services Program. Numerous others provide crucial advocacy and assistance, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and the American Legion. Being knowledgeable about these resources and making a proper referral can make a tremendous difference in the lives of veterans. 

A veteran’s benefits are generally dependent upon the characterization of service as reflected on their DD Form 214 upon discharge and other information contained in their Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). Requesting an OMPF can be an important first step toward gaining access to benefits and may be made through the submission of a Standard Form 180 (SF-180) to the applicable governmental agency listed on the form. The SF-180 can be found through the Nation Archives

The type of discharge a veteran receives is important as it is based on the nature and quality of the veteran’s military service. The highest characterization of service is an Honorable Discharge and entitles veterans to all of their earned benefits. When discharged through the administrative separation process, a veteran can also receive a General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions or an Under Other Than Honorable Conditions (UOTHC) Discharge. Service members can also be separated without a characterization in service. Uncharacterized discharges are generally the result of an entry-level separation where the service member served less than 180 days on active duty or is otherwise unable to complete initial entry training. Any discharge with less than an honorable characterization can significantly diminish a veteran’s access to benefits. 

If a veteran was discharged with less than an honorable characterization of service, or if his or her OMPF contains an error that precludes access to veteran’s benefits, the veteran can request an upgrade in discharge or a correction to military records. Requests for discharge upgrades are not automatic and generally require a showing that the veteran’s characterization of service was inequitable. Corrections to military records and requests for discharge upgrades are made by completing forms DD 149 and DD 293, respectively, and each must be submitted to the appropriate military review board agency for review. These forms can also be found online through the National Archives. 

By being knowledgeable about the abundance of resources available to veterans and taking the time to provide the right guidance, we as attorneys can provide more than just legal services — we can continue President Lincoln’s noble call to care for those who “have born the battle.”