How the Gary Sinise Foundation Helped a National Guardsman and Special Education Teacher

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Renee Villareel holding her daughter, Natalie, above her head.

By Brandon Black of The Gary Sinise Foundation

At the start of the year, one semester separated Renne Villareal from earning a degree in Special Education. One semester stood between her and starting a career teaching kids and adolescents diagnosed with physical and mental learning needs.

Her years-long endeavor started in high school, fueled by what she saw as malicious attacks on the boys and girls whose impediments made them targets of harassment. They were teased and bullied because of how different they looked and spoke. Some were called “stupid,” while others were called “lazy.” Villarreal was not one to stand idle and watch. She felt the instinct to charge to their defense. It was the right thing to do, no doubt, and it came as second nature.

Both her parents served in the military, which is how Villarreal inherited their values and sense of duty. Standing up for the rights of others, and advocating for kids with disabilities became her mission ever since her time as a student at Lyman Hall High School.

“I realized this is what I’m going to be good at. I want to be a teacher,” she said. “I want to help and stick up for these kids that need me.”

At Southern Connecticut State University, where Villarreal is currently an undergraduate, her fieldwork in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy puts her side-by-side teaching children with autism. Under the guidance of an accredited therapist, she develops individualized lesson plans focused on improving her client’s interpersonal behavior and learning skills.

At the same time, for the last two years, Villarreal has been serving part-time in the Connecticut Army National Guard, attached to the aviation unit of the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. Joining the National Guard was her way of fulfilling her patriotic duty and honoring her parents’ service. The pay isn’t much, she admits, so to make ends meet, she supplements her income from the army and therapy by working a few days a week at the neighborhood PetSmart.

Up until the second week of March, she was living paycheck-to-paycheck. But the 23-year-old single mother, the sole breadwinner with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, was unprepared for the public health pandemic sweeping across the country.

A crisis loomed on the horizon.

On March 8, Governor Ned Lamont announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. The dominos fell right after with COVID-19 infections popping up in counties throughout the state.

Southern Connecticut State University closed its campus, opting to deliver the curriculum online for the next semester, which pushed Villarreal’s fieldwork courses from the spring term to the fall. It also pushed back her graduation date to later in the year.

One by one, her primary sources of income started drying up. The National Guard reduced her service hours, and with that, a drop in her monthly paycheck. Parents of her clients canceled ABA therapy sessions for the foreseeable future. And a number of part-time employees at PetSmart, including Villarreal, were furloughed.

Her life was upended in a matter of weeks. “How am I going to pay rent?” she asked herself. “How am I going to put food on the table?”

Sleepless nights beget sleepness nights. Alone and caring for her daughter with limited resources at her disposal, Villarreal was overcome by a cruel mixture of stress and depression. Standing amongst the throngs of people waiting in line at the local food bank one day, Villarreal felt she had hit rock bottom.

“I felt like a bad mom because I wasn’t able to provide,” she said. “No mom wants to feel that way.” As her finances started dwindling, Villarreal had her reasons for hesitating in asking for help.

“In my mind, I’ve always done everything by myself,” she said while ticking off a list of life decisions she made independently of others from enlisting in the army and working multiple jobs to paying for her bills and education.

By the time she contacted the Gary Sinise Foundation at the end of March seeking financial assistance, Villarreal said her situation was making her “drown with worry.”

“I put in all my effort to try to make the best life for my daughter and me that I can. I felt like it was all about to go down.”

To keep her afloat, the Foundation paid two months of her rent through the Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service fund. Villarreal also received a Walmart gift card to cover the costs of groceries and other out of pocket expenses, such as buying diapers.

“The foundation literally changed my life,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have made it without them.” In a matter of days after receiving help from the Foundation, Villarreal has experienced an about-face in her life.

No more waiting in line at the food bank with her fingers crossed that staples such as milk and eggs will be available, and more importantly, not past their expiration date. No more stressful days and sleepless nights that mired her for weeks on end.

Renee Villareal's daughter, Natalie, smiling up at the camera
Renee Villareel’s daughter, Natalie, who will be three in September.

“It’s scary to think that I could have lost everything I’ve worked so hard for,” she said about being embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. In short order, she and her daughter, Natalie, have become glued at the hip.

“I’m able to really take advantage of my time now and just catch up with myself,” she said about having time to relax and read a book or take Natalie outdoors to go fishing and to the park.

When Villarreal graduates this fall, she will be among a growing number of professionals nationwide who are entering an in-demand occupation. Projections from the Connecticut Department of Labor show a dearth of special education teachers at the primary and secondary school levels. Increasing numbers of children over the years have been diagnosed with a physical or mental disability that adversely affects their ability to learn in the classroom, explained Villarreal.

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 70,000 students in kindergarten to 12th grade in the state of Connecticut required special education. That number has since ballooned in the last five years to well over 79,000 students representing 15.6% of the state’s student population.

Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead for her and Natalie with the state yet to see a bend in its curve of coronavirus cases, Villarreal remains focused on becoming a special education teacher.

Guide to Veterans Affairs benefits and loans

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Smiling woman in camouflage holding cardboard box and looking at camera with blurred military man on background

In a nutshell…The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers many benefits for eligible veterans, including VA loans, the GI Bill, job training, medical benefits and housing grants for disabled veterans.

After your time in military service, you may be eligible for numerous veteran benefits. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, offers a range of services and assistance for eligible U.S. veterans and qualifying family members to help transition into civilian life.

Read on to understand the different benefits and loans available through the VA.

VA housing and homebuying assistance

One of the most well-known veteran benefits is VA housing assistance. It is meant to help veterans, service members and surviving spouses buy or build a home, refinance a home or make home improvements. Below are some of the specific programs and insights into each one.

VA home loans

A VA home loan is a type of mortgage loan that is backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Note that just because the loan is backed by the VA doesn’t mean it’s risk free. The VA backs the loan to protect the lender, not the borrower. If you miss payments, you still risk getting hit with late fees, decreased credit scores or — worse — possible home foreclosure. VA loans can be used to …

  • Buy a home
  • Build a home
  • Buy a home and fund improvements
  • Make energy-efficiency improvements to an existing home
  • Refinance an existing loan

Specific eligibility requirements can vary based on when you served. But veterans, surviving spouses and those joining the military today must generally meet one of the following eligibility criteria to qualify for a VA loan:

  • Served 90 total days of active service during wartime
  • Served 181 continuous days of active service during peacetime
  • Served six years of service in the National Guard or the Reserve
  • The applicant is a surviving spouse of a service member who died in the line of duty or passed away from ­a disability that resulted while serving.

Additional eligibility requirements apply in some circumstances, so check with the VA for specifics.

The VA offers just one type of direct loan — through its Native American Direct Loan program for purchases on qualifying tribal lands. Otherwise it offers borrowers indirect, VA-backed loans from private lenders that participate in the VA loan program. Be sure to shop around and compare mortgage rates to choose the best mortgage for you. Ask friends and family for lender recommendations and be sure to look at online reviews.

VA loan programs specify that the home purchase being financed must be for a property used as a primary residence. Here are some other rules to keep in mind:

  • Property requirements: VA loans are for single-family residences with one to four family units and must be primarily residential in nature.
  • Qualifying income considerations: VA loan rules on using rental income as qualifying income for the loan include having cash reserves for at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments and providing the previous two years of tax returns showing the rental income.

There are some key differences between VA loans and other types of mortgages that make VA loans so appealing. These differences are:

  • No down payment may be required: Most types of home loans generally require some form of down payment. The VA loan typically requires nothing down — although you can make a down payment if you want to try to lower your total loan amount and monthly payment. If your home is appraised at a lower value than the listing or asking price — or if the lender needs it to meet secondary market requirements — you may have to make a down payment.
  • The VA has no minimum credit score requirement: There are no credit score requirements set by the VA — however, the specific lender you go through to apply for a VA loan may have their own credit requirements.
  • You may not be subject to loan limits: Unlike FHA loans, VA loans of more than $144,000 do not have a borrowing limit, as long as you have full VA loan entitlement — meaning you have not already taken out a VA home loan, or you have fully repaid a previous VA loan.
  • You do not need mortgage insurance: Unless you put 20% down, lenders typically require mortgage insurance to protect themselves in case you don’t pay your mortgage. Since a VA loan is backed by the VA, you are not required to pay for mortgage insurance.
  • VA loans have a funding fee: VA loans may require a one-time funding fee. This fee can range from 0.5% to 3.6% of your loan, depending on a number of factors, and can be wrapped up in your loan if you’re unable to pay it outright.

Types of VA home loans

There are several types of VA loans that are designed especially for the varying borrowing purposes listed above. These are:

  • VA purchase loans: A loan program that qualifying individuals use to buy, improve or build a home
  • VA cash-out refinance loans: A loan program that allows qualifying veterans, service members or surviving spouses to replace an existing loan with a new one, allowing them to borrow against equity in their home or refinance a non-VA loan into a VA loan
  • VA interest rate reduction refinance loan (IRRRL): A program that allows qualifying individuals to refinance your VA loan under new terms, potentially allowing you to reduce your monthly mortgage payments or interest rate.

There are both fixed-rate and adjustable-rate VA mortgages. With fixed-rate mortgages, you lock in your interest rate for the life of the loan. With adjustable-rate mortgages, your interest rate fluctuates according to the index of interest rates. The VA no longer prescribes specific interest rates — adjustable-rate loan changes depend on whether the loan is a standard or hybrid adjustable rate mortgage. Be sure to talk with your lender about which option is best for you, and learn how often these rates are subject to adjustment.

Homeowners insurance for veterans

Like almost any type of mortgage, institutions offering VA loans will typically require the borrower to purchase homeowners insurance. Additionally, the VA requires borrowers to have a hazard insurance policy where appropriate (flood insurance, for example, in known flood zones), which may be included in the conventional homeowners policy required by your lender. It may be worth asking your insurer or agent about possible military discounts for these types of programs.

State-specific veterans benefits

If you do not qualify for a VA loan or you are simply looking for additional housing benefits, there are generally state-specific organizations and programs designed to help veterans and others with housing at the state level. Be sure to check with your local VA office to help point you in the right direction.

VA disability benefits and programs

If you became sick or injured while serving in the military, or have an existing condition that got worse as a result of military service, you may qualify for VA disability compensation. You can file a claim for VA disability compensation online or at your local VA regional office — or send the appropriate information via mail to the address below.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Claims Intake Center

P.O. Box 4444

Janesville, WI 53547-4444

You will need the following documentation to submit your claim:

  • Military discharge papers (DD214 or any other separation documents you may have)
  • Any service treatment records
  • Medical treatment records that show proof of disability (for example, doctor reports, X-rays, test results, doctor orders/recommendations for treatment, mental status examination or operative reports)

Be sure to apply for disability compensation as soon as possible since the claims process can take a while — generally in the neighborhood of four to five months. The VA site regularly updates the average time it takes to approve or deny a claim — it was 134.4 days as of June 2021 and 139.6 days as of July 2021.

VA benefits for disabled veterans

  • Disability compensation: This is a tax-free monthly benefit paid to disabled veterans who are considered 10% disabled or higher. The exact dollar amount you receive each month fluctuates based on the degree of your disability and if you have dependents.
  • Clothing allowance: This is an annual allowance for eligible veterans and service members whose clothing has been damaged by prosthetics/orthopedic devices or topical medication for a skin condition.
  • Service-disabled veterans’ life insurance (S-DVI): This insurance benefit is for eligible veterans who may have service-connected disabilities but are in good health otherwise. The amount of premium you pay depends on your age, the type of plan and the amount of coverage you need.

The eligibility requirements and application process for each benefit can change, so be sure to check with your local VA center to determine whether you qualify and how to access the benefit.

VA disability housing programs

  • Home Improvements and Structural Alterations (HISA): The HISA program provides up to $6,800 in funding for home improvements and structural alterations to a disabled veteran’s primary residence. The intent behind the program is to improve home accessibility.
  • Specially Adapted Housing grants (SAH): The SAH grant helps certain veterans and service members with disabilities work toward independent living by creating barrier-free environments.
  • Temporary Residence Adaptation grant (TRA): The TRA grant may be available as part of the SAH program described and linked above. It is used to help veterans and service members make accommodations when living temporarily in a family member’s home that needs changes to meet their needs.

Automobile allowance for veterans

Although the VA does not offer specialized car loans for all veterans, it does provide an automobile allowance for veterans and service members with qualifying injuries. This is a one-time allowance for disabled veterans and service members to help them purchase a vehicle that better accommodates their needs.

Qualifying individuals can use this allowance to purchase a new or used vehicle that is already equipped with adaptive equipment, or they can purchase and install adaptive equipment to an existing vehicle.

VA education, training and employment benefits

The VA offers several education, training and employment benefits to veterans, service members and their qualified dependents to help with education costs, finding a training program or career guidance and counseling. Below are the different VA education and training benefits.

  • Veteran Readiness & Employment (VR&E): The VR&E program is designed to help veterans and service members with service-related disabilities with job training, employment accommodations, resume developments and job-search coaching. In some cases, these benefits may extend to dependents.
  • Personalized Career Planning and Guidance (PCPG): The PCPG program offers education/training, career, academic, resume and goal-planning counseling to eligible service members, veterans and dependents.
  • Dependents and Survivors Educational Assistance: This is a specialized program for spouses and children of veterans or service members who died or received permanent disabilities while serving. The program helps with tuition, housing, books and school supply costs.
  • Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses (VET TEC): The VET TEC program helps veterans with training and educational courses in high-demand areas of the tech industry. The training is for computer software, computer programming, data processing, information science and media applications.
  • VetSuccess on Campus: This program is designed to help veterans and service members transition from life in service to life on campus. Each school that is a part of the program has a VA Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor to help support veterans with assistance needed to pursue their educational and employment goals.
  • Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR): The MGIB-SR program pays for up to 36 months of education or training benefits for qualifying reservists and members of the Army National Guard or Air National Guard.
  • The National Call to Service Program: This program offers a choice between a $5,000 cash bonus, up to $18,000 of student loan repayment, or educational assistance for eligible veterans who performed a period of national service.
  • Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program (VRRAP): The VRRAP is a temporary program that provides up to 12 months of tuition and schooling fees as well as a monthly housing allowance for qualified veterans who became unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligibility for other unemployment and education benefits can impact eligibility for this program.

Next steps

To find out if you are eligible for VA home loan programs, visit the VA website or your local VA regional office to discuss the programs and your service record.

Continue to read the complete article on CreditKarma.com

Serving the Called — Letter From the Editor

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Kellie Pickler featured cover story

Merriam-Webster defines military service as “time spent serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, etc…” A simple, literal definition whose meaning goes so much deeper.

Service is at the heart of every facet of the military, no matter which branch you serve.

You might hear servicemembers and veterans alike speak of being ‘called to serve,’ or inspired to be of service in any capacity to their fellow man, their country and the greater good.

It’s this devotion to serving others – and the sacrifice it requires – that puts us in awe of our veterans, military members, spouses and families. It’s why we can never thank them enough.

Our cover story, singer Kellie Pickler, is attempting to do just that by serving those who have been called. By partnering with the USO (United Service Organizations), Pickler, alongside other celebrities, gets the chance to give back to a community that means the world to her.

“They have enabled me to be a part of something that matters,” Pickler shares.

“Working with the USO, it’s really all about keeping the families connected and keeping our servicemen and women connected with their loved ones. We take a piece of home to them.” Read more about Picker’s mission to serve on page 88.

If you’re preparing to transition from service, or have already started a new job, check out these 10 career tips on page 25 to keep you on a positive course.

Kat Castagnoli headshot
Kat Castagnoli, Managing Editor, U.S. Veterans Magazine

Looking for new career options? Consider putting your military experience to work in the electronics industry on page 28.

If you’re a recruiter, check out these 3 tips companies need to successfully attract and hire veterans on page 36.

Maybe offering a work-from-home option could be a draw, as most employees want to continue working from home on page 38 in these postpandemic times.

In honor of all of those who have served or are serving, we here at U.S. Veterans Magazine are proud to provide the information, content and stories that continue to serve you and your career and business needs.

Navy Federal Credit Union Report Reveals New Financial Habits for Military Families During the Pandemic

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Military Spouse, husband in fatigues and daughter pose casually in frontyard

Navy Federal Credit Union recently released a new report on the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on military families.

The survey of more than 1,100 active duty servicemembers, veterans and military spouses illustrates the new financial habits military families picked up, their financial plans for the coming months, differences in saving and spending across generations, and the disparate impact of the pandemic on military spouses.

Household Expenses and New Financial Habits

As a result of the pandemic, Navy Federal found that the majority of military households cut expenses and adopted new financial habits in 2020, with 89 percent of respondents indicating that they spent less on an expense in 2020. The most common expenses cut include:

  • Vacation travel (63 percent)
  • Eating out (58 percent
  • Entertainment (57 percent)
  • Self-care (41 percent)
  • Clothing (40 percent)
  •  
    Military families did more than just cut back on their spending though, with 77 percent indicating that the upheaval of 2020 caused them to embrace at least one new financial habit. The most common new financial habits reported were:

  • 43 percent cut back on daily spending
  • 36 percent kept track of finances more closely
  • 27 percent established or added to an emergency savings fund
  • 26 percent paid off credit card bill monthly
  • 25 percent used digital/contactless payment
  • 23 percent maintained a monthly budget
  • 20 percent set up autopay for bills or recurring payments
  •  
    “The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of our lives, and our members have taken this turmoil in stride and adapted their financial habits to face this new challenge,” said Clay Stackhouse, a retired Marine Corps colonel and regional outreach manager at Navy Federal. “At Navy Federal, we’re passionate about supporting military communities and dedicating resources to ensure they have financial tools and knowledge needed to meet their financial goals. Our proactive approach and ongoing dedication to our members allowed us to support military families during this challenging time.”

    Military Families Re-emerge: Summer Spending and Travel

    As more Americans are vaccinated and it becomes safe to travel; dine out at restaurants, shop or visit entertainment venues; and see family and friends, most military families plan to re-emerge this summer and start spending again. Overall, 69 percent of military families report they plan to do more or just as much in summer 2021 as they did in past summers. Similarly, 64 percent report they will spend either more money or just as much money as usual this summer. Still, a significant portion of military households plan to maintain their pandemic spending habits, with 35 percent indicating they will spend less than in past summers. Other key findings regarding summer include:

  • Military families report they plan to travel more frequently (43 percent), go out to restaurants and bars (31 percent) and shop in-person at stores (25 percent).
  • More active duty servicemembers (34 percent) plan to go out and do more things this summer than in the past than veterans (21 percent) and military spouses (23 percent).
  • Most military families plan to bring back vacation travel (60 percent).
  •  
    Differences Across Generations and the Impact on Spouses

    When looking at different age groups of servicemembers, veterans and spouses, differences begin to emerge across generations when it comes to pandemic spending, new financial habits and post-pandemic outlook. Navy Federal found that:

  • The younger you are, the more likely you were to pick up a new financial habit
    1. 18-34 (86 percent)
      35-54 (76 percent)
      55+ (66 percent)
  • Younger people in the military community are more likely to have increased the amount of food they have ordered for delivery or pickup
    1. 18-34 (46 percent)
      35-54 (33 percent)
      55+ (36 percent)
  • Younger people report feeling high levels of uncertainty or feeling stuck more so than older generations
    1. 18-34 (26 percent)
      35-54 (21 percent)
      55+ (12 percent)

    Additionally, the research study showed that military spouses experienced a greater impact from the pandemic, and its effects will likely last, even as the pandemic wanes:

  • Of households who reported they cut childcare expenses in 2020, 55 percent indicate they plan on delaying or not bringing back this expense.
  • 46 percent of active duty spouses report cutting back on self-care during COVID compared to just 31 percent of servicemembers.
  • 81 percent of active duty spouses reported a higher level of uncertainty about post-pandemic life.
  • Navy Federal uses the data and insights it gleans from this research to provide timely and relevant financial tools in support of its members’ financial journeys. Navy Federal has been continually recognized for its dedication in delivering exceptional service for its members, ensuring members are educated and can achieve their financial goals though all life stages.

    About Navy Federal Credit Union: Established in 1933 with only seven members, Navy Federal now has the distinct honor of serving over 10.5 million members globally and is the world’s largest credit union. As a member-owned and not-for-profit organization, Navy Federal always puts the financial needs of its members first. Membership is open to all branches of the armed forces and their families. Dedicated to its mission of service, Navy Federal employs a workforce of over 23,000 and has a global network of 345 branches. For more information about Navy Federal Credit Union, visit navyfederal.org.

    Federally insured by NCUA. Equal Opportunity Employer.

    Methodology: These are the results of a survey of more than 1,100 active duty servicemembers (n=255), veterans (n=543) and military spouses (n=334). Current and former military household interviews were conducted online among Navy Federal Members as well as a general population component through Maru/Blue. Data were aggregated and weighted on age and military affiliation status. The survey was fielded March 24 – April 6, 2021.

    The Motorcycle Club Helping Wounded Veterans

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    The back of an American Infidels motorcycle club member jacket displayed on man in group of other riders greeting each other in a room

    By Kellie Speed

    What started out with two US Marine veterans in Massachusetts looking for a way to help fellow veterans has turned into a federally recognized war veteran organization with numerous nationwide charters.

    “The motorcycle club culture was founded on veterans so we were only trying to get back to our roots,” said James Crosby, who co-founded the American Infidels Veteran Motorcycle Club with Matt Nelson. “We have been able to give people that have lost their way purpose in life and that purpose being in the community and watching out for the people that they care about whether it’s people in the club or their family.

    We constructed the Club based on three major points of people’s lives – family, work and club. Those are the three major things that you need to be fully invested in in your life. If you are going to be in the Club, you’re going to need to be able to give the same type of effort to all of these. We were just trying to take the approach that we care and we were able to create this environment that people want.”

    Whether the American Infidels Veteran Motorcycle Club is organizing nationwide runs for fallen warrior brothers like Mike “Wildman” Kennedy, Rob “Tinkle” Richards and Stephen “Jackel” Jackel, their mission is simple – honor the many freedoms we enjoy, which are “a direct result of the bloodshed on the battlefield by the warriors that have come before us.”

    “When I was in Iraq, this was something I had talked about with one of my buddies, Staff Sgt. William Callahan, who unfortunately ended up dying, so he’s part of this story,” Crosby said. “With the American Infidels, Matt and my goal was to create something – a purpose for people, for a portion of the population that signed up to do more for others and to be part of something bigger than themselves. What we do with the Club is we teach people how to get involved in their community and take care of each other. Semper Fi, always faithful – you don’t know what it truly means until you get out. You have no idea what you just signed up for because you just joined the biggest group of families. We are empowering people to stand up, have a voice and work with each other and that’s just what we have done with the Club.”

    The Club provides numerous undertakings on behalf of our nation’s veterans. “Each charter must accomplish the mission to stay in the organization or they will be removed,” Nelson added. “Some do free hunting trips, motorcycle runs and benefits that give directly to wounded vets or other vets causes, suicide prevention, career help through our network of friends, politicians and advocates, legal help, navigating healthcare available to vets, and on the day-to-day, we are supporting each other and fellow vets through the hard times of life. That’s probably the most underrated yet most beneficial. Getting people to socialize and help network before the real hard times come upon someone.”

    Nelson worked to have the American Infidels Veteran Motorcycle American Infidels motorcycle club members on a ride with several riding together in row Club become federally recognized. “Due to our membership criteria, we decided to file officially and follow the federal regulations in regards to 501c19 War Veterans’ Organizations,” he said. “There are two types of 501c19 veterans’ organizations – war veterans’ and veterans’ organizations. We keep 90 percent war time veterans and 10 percent “other,” which includes non-war time veterans and patriots. To put it in a common analogy, we are a step above the American Legion because the Legion is a veteran’s organization, not a war veteran’s organization. Being the latter, we are able to issue tax deductible receipts for donations to our organization without the need for a secondary 501c3 regular type charity with more specific guidelines.

    It’s a lot of red tape that we’ve done on our own and have recently contracted out to professionals. My proudest moment as one of the founders is when the brothers accomplish a mission. No matter how small. Especially when it’s helping a brother or sister vet in crisis. It’s not easy and it’s urgent so the ability for our network to react is extremely rewarding. Sadly, sometimes we hear of things too late or we just can’t affect the situation in a positive way. Those are the hardest and most discouraging moments. It’s a double-edged sword. Secondarily, when there are great social events and you can see the crowd and brothers having a great time.”

    Remembering America’s Military Heroes this Memorial Day with Ancestry

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    Ancestry

    This Memorial Day weekend, visit Ancestry® to find those in your family who served our nation and who lived through these remarkable chapters in history. Share your stories on Instagram with #ISaluteFor and tag @Ancestry.

    To help everyone find stories to share, from May 28-31 Ancestry is offering free access to:

    • Search more than 550 million military records on Fold3®, covering military conflicts as early as the Revolutionary War.
    •  
    • Personalized stories on Ancestry.com using its StoryScout™ tool which quickly sifts through millions of records and can curate stories about your ancestors to help you make meaningful discoveries with no research needed.

    To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Memorial Day as a federal holiday, Ancestry partnered with Wounded Warrior Project, The Greatest GENERATIONS Foundation, Combined Arms, and Jewish War Veterans to create a “50 Story Salute,” a joint tribute to those who sacrificed their lives to secure our freedom.

    The tribute on Ancestry’s social channels is a curated montage of military heroes through time highlighting powerful stories of strength and hope.

    Photo Credit: Ancestry

    Help Heal Veterans Hosts #VigilforValor to Honor Military Lost to War and Suicide

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    Veteran with PTSD sitting down with hands folded

    Help Heal Veterans (Heal Vets) will host a month-long virtual candlelight vigil in May to honor service members who have fallen in battle and military members who served honorably in war and fell victim to suicide later due to the invisible scars of combat.

    Help Heal Veterans is a nonprofit that provides free therapeutic arts and crafts kits to veterans and active duty military who are suffering from the physical, psychological and emotional wounds of war, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

    #VigilforValor kicks off May 1, the start of Mental Health Awareness month, and concludes on May 31, Memorial Day. The United States has suffered more than 100,000 military casualties of war since 1950, and in the last 10 years we’ve lost more than 65,000 veterans to suicide.

    “Our hope is to shine a light on the remarkable lives of those who have been lost,” said Joe McClain, retired Navy captain and Help Heal Veterans CEO. “Often times we honor the war dead as a group and not as individuals. This year, we want to give people an opportunity to learn about the remarkable lives represented by people who have paid the ultimate price for this country.”

    Participants in #VigilforValor will:

    1. Create a candleholder, either of their own design or one made from a kit provided by Help Heal Veterans for a $20 donation. (Note: a large number of candle kits will be provided free of charge to select veterans/active-duty service members).
    2. Customize the candleholder for the individual they wish to honor with a photograph, drawing, patch or other item. Those who don’t have someone in particular they wish to remember are encouraged to reach out in their community, school, church or search local news to find someone to honor.
    3. Light a candle and share a picture of it along with their story on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #VigilforValor so we may pay tribute to them together.

    For 50 years, Help Heal Veterans has been using craft therapy to help veterans and active-duty military heal the invisible wounds of war.

    “We have seen first-hand the healing power of crafting,” said McClain, “and it has been especially important over the past year, when isolation placed an extra burden on recovering veterans and military and the usual sources of support were not always available or accessible.”

    Studies show that crafting can provide therapeutic and rehabilitative benefits, including improving fine motor skills, cognitive functioning, memory and dexterity, and can help alleviate feelings of anger and the severity of negative behaviors triggered by PTSD and TBIs.

    To learn more about Heal Vets and the organization’s COVID-19 efforts, as well as find out how you can help, visit HealVets.org.

    Veterans who are in a crisis and need support can go to https://www.veteranscrisisline.net or call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

    About Help Heal Veterans
    First established in 1971, Help Heal Veterans has provided free therapeutic arts and crafts kits to hospitalized and homebound veterans for generations. These craft kits help injured and recuperating veterans improve fine motor skills, cognitive functioning, manage stress and substance abuse, cope with symptoms of PTSD and TBI, while also improving their sense of self-esteem and overall physical and mental health. Most of these kits are developed, manufactured and packaged for delivery at our production center headquartered in Winchester, California. Since inception, Help Heal Veterans has delivered nearly 31 million of these arts and crafts kits to veterans and veteran facilities nationwide, along with active duty military overseas.

    The City of Austin’s RENT Assistance program

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    RENT assistance program flyer with picture of nurses and doctors wearing masks

    The program is available for low-income Austin residents who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 and are struggling to pay their rent. 2020 has been challenging for everyone and the City of Austin has expanded its RENT Assistance program making it easier for eligible candidates to apply.

    The RENT assistance program will pay up to 12-15 months of rent for eligible Austin renters and may cover the following:

    Future rent payments will be provided three months at a time and families will be requalified every three months after that. If the government pays for a portion of your rent, the program can pay the additional portions not covered by the government subsidy.

    Residents may be eligible if they earn 80% or less than the average household income. If residents were assisted last year, they are still eligible for this new program and can help cover rents that are still due from April 2020 through December 2021.

    For example, a mother with two children who lives in Austin’s Rosewood neighborhood who made $54,500 a year but has lost her job due to the pandemic should apply for RENT assistance. She is currently unable to pay her landlord and may lose her apartment. She can visit http://AustinTexas.gov/RENT and submit her application.

    Another example includes a couple living in Austin’s Riverside neighborhood. They made a combined $62,500 and renewed their lease, but due to the pandemic one of them lost their job and they are now struggling to make future rent payments. They will qualify for RENT assistance.

    The RENT Assistance Program has established a priority point system to ensure those in greatest need are considered first.

    Renters in the first priority group will receive 3 points and will be considered first. That includes Renters need to meet two criteria: the renter must qualify for unemployment for at least 90 consecutive days before application and have zero or extremely low income (at or less than 30% of the area median income).

    Renters in the 2nd priority group will receive 2 points and will be considered after the 1st group. This includes renters who qualify for two criteria: renters who qualify for unemployment for at least 90 consecutive days before application, and have low income (between 30% and 50% of the area median income).

    Renters in the 3rd group will receive one point and will be considered after the 2nd group. These renters only have to meet one of the following criteria:

    • Renters who qualify for unemployment for at least 90 consecutive days before application
    • Low income renters (at or less than 50% of the area median income)
    • Renters who have experienced homelessness in the last 3 years
    • Renters who applied for the RENT Assistance program between August 2020 – December 2020 and did not receive rent help (this does not include inactive applications and applications that were denied.)

    All other applications will be considered after those in the 3rd group.

    With an easier application process, candidates do not need to submit documents with their application but will be requested if they are selected. Documents that will be needed include:

    • A Self-Certification form stating residents have been financially impacted by COVID-19. The form will be sent electronically requesting an e-signature.
    • Proof of current monthly income for all household members.
    • Proof that residents are at risk of experiencing homelessness or that housing is unstable, which may include past due rent or eviction notice.
    • Current lease showing address, name of the leaseholder, amount of monthly rent, and when the lease expires. The lease must be signed by both the resident(s) and the landlord.
    • A government-issued photo ID for the head of household. For example, a driver’s license, passport, or other photo ID.

    A social security number and legal status are not required for this application. Eligible applicants will be randomly selected, and if the application is selected, the RENT Assistance program will contact the landlord and pay rent directly.

    To learn more and apply please visit http://austintexas.gov/RENT. The portal will remain open through September 2021 or until all available funds have been committed.

    Five Financial Perks From Serving

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    By Natalie Rodgers

    From active-duty members of the military to longtime veterans, it’s no secret there is an array of financial resources you can utilize to best care for yourself and your family.

    However, many don’t know the specifics of some of these great benefits and how they can best be utilized. Here are five ways you could be better caring for your finances as a member of the military:

    1. Save While Deployed

    Service members currently in combat have access to the Savings Deposit Program, a bank account that will collect 10 percent interest to the deposited amount during and for three months after deployment. Money originally deposited to the account cannot exceed $10,000, must be done after deployment, and has to be via cash, check or allotment. To start contributing to your account, contact the finance officer in theater.

    1. Education for the Whole Family

    Many people know that the GI Bill can cover full college education, funding tuition and fees at public colleges for up to three years and for over $25,000 for students at private universities, but the benefits can also apply to spouses and children. Members who have served for at least six years with the intention to continue serving for at least ten years are also eligible to transfer their benefits to their spouse or children. These benefits apply for both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and can also cover the costs of books and necessities for full-time students.

    Former military members may also be eligible for free courses or job training following the events of the COVID-19 pandemic with costs covered by the U.S. military.

    1. Affordable Mortgage Plans

    Whether you are already utilizing a loan from the VA or are looking to purchase a home soon, the maximum amount one can receive for their home mortgage has grown significantly in recent years. Many veterans have been able to buy a home without a down payment while others have been able to lower their current rates by implementing an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance loan. More information on all of your mortgage options can be found on the VA’s website, va.gov. Additionally, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act can provide protections for your mortgage loans, along with many others, should deployment change your circumstances.

    1. Life Insurance Discount

    Regardless of your health or risk, active-duty military can receive up to $400,000 of life insurance through the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. This total can be obtained for only six cents a month for every $1,000 of coverage purchased, or about $288 a year. Military spouses can also receive up to $100,000 of coverage for as low as $54 a year.

    For retired or veteran members, Veteran’s Group Life Insurance has proved to be a popular option, especially for those with health issues. Coverage through this insurance does increase with age and should be compared to other options to find the best deal for you.

    1. Retirement

    The Thrift Savings Plan, a retirement plan available to veterans, is one of the lowest cost ways to save for retirement overall. According to new implementations applied to the TSP in 2018, service members who joined the military from 2018 to the present day, or who opted into the Blended Retirement System from 2006 to 2018, are now eligible to have their retirement funds matched by the Department of Defense, as long as 5 percent of your total income is going into the account.

    With these new rules, members can collect up to $19,500 in just a year, with higher capacities available to members over the age of fifty or to those who are receiving a tax-free income from a combat zone.

    Source: U.S. News

    Five Ways You Can Utilize Your Service for Your Finances

    LinkedIn
    Young couple looking at family finance papers

    By Natalie Rodgers

    From active-duty members of the military to longtime veterans, it’s no secret there is an array of financial resources you can utilize to best care for yourself and your family.

    However, many don’t know the specifics of some of these great benefits and how they can best be utilized. Here are five ways you could be better caring for your finances as a member of the military:

    1. Save While Deployed

    Service members currently in combat have access to the Savings Deposit Program, a bank account that will collect 10 percent interest to the deposited amount during and for three months after deployment. Money originally deposited to the account cannot exceed $10,000, must be done after deployment, and has to be via cash, check or allotment. To start contributing to your account, contact the finance officer in theater.

    1. Education for the Whole Family

    Many people know that the GI Bill can cover full college education, funding tuition and fees at public colleges for up to three years and for over $25,000 for students at private universities, but the benefits can also apply to spouses and children. Members who have served for at least six years with the intention to continue serving for at least ten years are also eligible to transfer their benefits to their spouse or children. These benefits apply for both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and can also cover the costs of books and necessities for full-time students.

    Former military members may also be eligible for free courses or job training following the events of the COVID-19 pandemic with costs covered by the U.S. military.

    1. Affordable Mortgage Plans

    Whether you are already utilizing a loan from the VA or are looking to purchase a home soon, the maximum amount one can receive for their home mortgage has grown significantly in recent years. Many veterans have been able to buy a home without a down payment while others have been able to lower their current rates by implementing an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance loan. More information on all of your mortgage options can be found on the VA’s website, va.gov. Additionally, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act can provide protections for your mortgage loans, along with many others, should deployment change your circumstances.

    1. Life Insurance Discount

    Regardless of your health or risk, active-duty military can receive up to $400,000 of life insurance through the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. This total can be obtained for only six cents a month for every $1,000 of coverage purchased, or about $288 a year. Military spouses can also receive up to $100,000 of coverage for as low as $54 a year.

    For retired or veteran members, Veteran’s Group Life Insurance has proved to be a popular option, especially for those with health issues. Coverage through this insurance does increase with age and should be compared to other options to find the best deal for you.

    1. Retirement

    The Thrift Savings Plan, a retirement plan available to veterans, is one of the lowest cost ways to save for retirement overall. According to new implementations applied to the TSP in 2018, service members who joined the military from 2018 to the present day, or who opted into the Blended Retirement System from 2006 to 2018, are now eligible to have their retirement funds matched by the Department of Defense, as long as 5 percent of your total income is going into the account.

    With these new rules, members can collect up to $19,500 in just a year, with higher capacities available to members over the age of fifty or to those who are receiving a tax-free income from a combat zone.

    Source: U.S. News

    The Bob Woodruff Foundation Releases Best Practices for Organizations Providing Emergency Assistance to Veteran and Military Families

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    famility portrait of mom dad and two children smiling

    The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic downturn have had a profound financial impact on millions of Americans, including our nation’s veterans and military families.

    The Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF) quickly pivoted their 2020 grantmaking plans to get critical funding into the hands of their partners, enabling emergency financial assistance (EFA) for veterans when and where it was needed most. Based on insights gathered from their grantees, BWF has now released “Emergency Financial Assistance: Best Practices,” the latest issue in their Stand SMART for Heroes research series, to share key findings that can help organizations minimize risk and maximize impact for veterans and their families.

    In April 2020, BWF released a pivotal research paper, “Veterans and COVID-19: Projecting the Economic, Social, and Mental Health Needs of America’s Veterans,” indicating that half of veterans between the ages of 25 and 44 had less than $3,000 to $4,000 in savings before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Additionally, 15% of veterans were employed in industries that were most likely to be impacted by the pandemic.

    In anticipation of increased need, BWF leveraged their findings and expedited their 2020 grants to provide direct support to the military and veteran population during the pandemic, broadening their usual granting criteria to include applications from programs providing EFA. At the same time, BWF developed a survey to evaluate applicants for risk and professionalism. The results of that survey formed the basis for this latest research paper publication.

    “Providing support to cover rent, groceries, home or vehicle repairs, or other unexpected expenses can help veterans maintain stability in the short term, so that they can thrive in the long term,” said Anne Marie Dougherty, Chief Executive Officer of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. “By sharing what we’ve learned from our network through our latest issue of Stand SMART for Heroes, we’re shining a light on this urgent need while also providing an important resource to organizations that want to help.”
    For more information, and for funders interested in supporting emergency financial assistance programs, please visit bobwoodrufffoundation.org/stand-smart-for-heroes/.

    About the Bob Woodruff Foundation:
    The Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF) was founded in 2006 after reporter Bob Woodruff was wounded by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq. Since then, the Bob Woodruff Foundation has led an enduring call to action for people to stand up for heroes and meet the emerging and long-term needs of today’s veterans, including suicide prevention, mental health, caregiver support, and food insecurity. To date, BWF has invested over $76 million to Find, Fund and Shape™ programs that have empowered impacted veterans, service members, and their family members, across the nation. For more information, please visit bobwoodrufffoundation.org or follow us on Twitter at @Stand4Heroes.

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