The decision has been made and the paperwork submitted. It's time to hang up your BDU's and boots and replace them with sneakers and a book bag. You have decided to leave the Army and return to school to take advantage of the educational benefits the recruiter promised you. But, before you run out and fork over big bucks for tuition, there are some important questions to consider.
What Do You Want To Do?
The first and most difficult question is, "What do you want to do for the rest of your life?" If you have not made this decision, you definitely need to spend some time looking at your career options. Many veterans have spent much time and money pursuing a career for which they had neither the ability nor the interest. Your Education Services Office, the library, or the counseling center at a local university, are good places to start investigating careers.
Once the decision is made, you then need to look at the education options available to you. If you are considering a certificate of licensing program, then consider technical schools and community/junior colleges (both residence and correspondence). If you prefer a degree program, you need to consider public and private two- and four-year institutions. Regardless of what type of school you choose, make sure the school and the program are both approved for VA benefits. The school can verify this, or you can call the nearest Department of Veterans Affairs regional office. This is critical, since you cannot receive VA educational benefits if you choose a school or a program that is not approved.
Before You Leave The Army
You must make sure your Army records accurately reflect the appropriate educational program. First, before your discharge, ensure that your records show that you are eligible for the correct program, and that you participated as required (contributed to the VEAP program or had the required deductions made for the Montgomery G.I. Bill). Second, when you are discharged, ensure that your DD214 (Discharge Document) shows the correct year and months you served, and that it reflect an Honorable Discharge (any other type of discharge can make you ineligible to participate in several educational programs). If you are being release before your original separation date, then ensure your DD214 reflects that you are discharge early for Hardship, Medical Disability, or the Convenience of the Government. If not, you may not be eligible for VA educational benefits.
It's important that any corrections be made before your discharge. It's a very time-consuming and complicated process to try to have your DD214 corrected once you are out. Also, remember to take your DD214 to a Clerk of a Circuit Court or local records office for recording. They'll keep a record copy in case your copy is ever destroyed, and they'll make certified copies for you. Never mail out the original DD214.
Where can you get copies of your military records?
The individual military departments DO NOT maintain files or records pertaining to individuals no longer on active duty. When an individual is separated from military service (because of retirement, discharge from active duty, or death) his/her Field Personnel File (containing all military and health records) is forwarded for storage to the National Personnel Records Center (Military), 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63172. The Records Center is under the jurisdiction of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) of the U.S. Government.
Their web site is: National Personnel Records Center
Apply For School
Now, it's time to apply to the school you have chosen. Depending on when you want to begin classes and the type of school, you may need to start this process well in advance of your discharge. Many colleges, universities, and trade schools require applications three to four months before the school term begins. The veterans' coordinator or admissions office at the school can provide that information. You may also want to apply to more than one school. While you want to go to the best school possible, those schools often have the most competitive admissions policies, and you should be prepared with an alternate plan.
While it is difficult to anticipate every requirement at every school, the following is a list of information and items which are commonly required when applying for admission:
Fully completed and signed application, with application fee.
Official transcripts (high school and colleges).
Official DANTES or CLEP test results or transcript (if applicable).
Immunization records showing up-to-date immunizations.
Proof of residency.
ACT or SAT (and GED, if applicable) test scores, as required. Check with the school for test requirements; many can be completed prior to discharge for little or no charge.
Record of military and civilian schools attended, including addresses, dates of attendance, hours attempted/earned, grade point average (GPA).
Some form of identification, i.e. driver's license.
Apply For VA Benefits
Once admitted to the school it's time to apply for your VA benefits. Here again, the veteran coordinator at your school can help in this process. You will probably need the following in order to complete the application process:
Copy of DD214.
Dependency documents, i.e. marriage license, birth certificates (if applicable).
Copies of Delayed Enlistment Contract (if applicable).
Adequate funds to cover initial living costs and school expenses. Most schools have some form of VA deferment plan to allow you to pay tuition and fees after VA benefits have started, but other costs cannot be deferred.
To actually start receiving VA benefits, the school must certify your enrollment to the VA, and you may be required to verify your attendance. The veterans coordinator can provide you with more specific guidance. In general, your first VA check will arrive about eight to twelve weeks after classes begin. In some cases you can request payment in advance (paid at registration); check with your school to see if this is available. Please note that you must request advance payment at least sixty (60) days before classes begin.
In closing, you are about to make one of the most important and rewarding decision of your life. You should carefully decide about your career and the school you attend. The Education Services Office, as well as your prospective schools, can assist you in these decisions. You will need to make sure your military records correctly reflect your eligibility for VA benefits. Finally, when you apply to the school for your VA benefits, make sure you have all the necessary information and documents. If you have any questions, contact the Department of Veterans or the veterans coordinator at your selected school. Good luck.
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