Why It Pays to Get Your DD-214 Right
Whether you served three years or three decades, you’ve done something few other people have. You put up your right hand and swore yourself to the service of your country; you’ve likely traveled to far off places (admittedly some nicer than others), probably learned things your friends at home can hardly imagine, and almost certainly made new friends for life.
Along with those friendships and memories, you might have a hard drive (or even an album!) full of pictures, a wall full of lithographs, and maybe even a shadowbox showcasing the awards and ranks you’ve earned. But while all of these experiences and mementos are great, they’re not the key to unlocking all of the benefits you’ve earned.
Only your DD-214 does that.
What Your DD-214 Does
You don’t have to spend much time around service members and veterans to learn what a form DD-214 is. Pretty much everyone knows it’s the “Report of Separation,” or – in simpler terms – the paper you get when you get out. After years of dedication and sacrifice, many folks are excited to get it. It’s another tangible symbol of your service, and more than that, it’s the one that symbolizes your transition to a new chapter – a chapter many of us are excited to start. There’s an entire cottage industry selling tee shirts, mugs, and even blankets making reference to, or even featuring, the form as a way to celebrate completing a military career.
But it’s more than just another souvenir, more than a license to spend less time shaving or skip the barber shop. It is the single legally-recognized proof that you served, and it’s the key to federal, state, and local benefits for veterans.
It’s used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish your eligibility for things like home loans and the GI Bill; it proves your eligibility for military honors at your funeral when you pass. Some states offer special license plates with reduced fees for veterans; some localities provide varying degrees of property tax relief. If you’re applying for a federal job, it’s your DD-214 and not your resume that determines whether or not you’re eligible for Veterans Preference.
You can’t get any of these benefits with just your shadowbox.
It Pays to Get It Right
Transition out of the military can certainly be a busy process; at times, hectic. There are the physical and dental exams, and maybe even scouring your medical record in preparation for making a claim with the VA. You may have some gear to return (or charges to settle!), and you might have to set up one last household goods move.
On top of all that, at some point, a separations/retirement clerk will send you a draft of your DD-214. With everything going on, you might be tempted to simply give it a quick glance and say it’s good to go, but it’s worth investing a few minutes to make sure all the details are right. You can fix it later (another article for another time), but it will save you time to do it now before it’s signed.
Obviously, you’ll want to make sure your service is correctly characterized in Block 24 – in most cases, “honorable.” How your service is characterized can affect what benefits you’re entitled to, and can also be a helpful thing to show prospective civilian employers, too.
You’ll want to make sure that your service dates are recorded correctly in Block 12, and your post-separation mailing address – if you know it – is accurate. Though the military and Department of Labor have collaborated to develop tools to help capture your skills and training for prospective employers, you’ll want to make sure that the blocks depicting your primary specialty and military education are consistent with what you’ll be advertising in your job hunt.
As strange as it may sound, you even want to make sure your decorations and medals in Block 13 are correct. It may seem trivial, but depending on your circumstances, it could be almost as important as getting your dates and character of service right!
A Humble Confession
Maybe, for whatever reason, the awards section of your military record was inaccurate. Maybe you’re the kind of person who never really worried about it. You were still getting paid, and you weren’t in trouble – and perhaps that was good enough since there were always more important things to worry about.
No judgment here; I was the same way.
But in many cases, the awards section is the only place that will unequivocally show combat service. And while you’ll certainly want to make sure individual awards like Bronze Stars or Air Medals are there, even the humble campaign medals are important.
Consider this: one of the elements in establishing eligibility for five point Veterans Preference is having served in a war, campaign, or expedition for which a medal has been authorized. Other hiring programs, both in the government and the private sector, similarly recognize combat service. Some state and local governments that offer reduced fees for taxes for veterans provide an additional discount for having deployed in combat.
So, you want to make sure all of this is documented on your DD-214, the very document the VA, your state, and maybe even a prospective civilian employer will look at. If something is missing, talk about it with your separation/retirement clerk while you’re reviewing it, before you sign it. In many cases, it’s a simple matter of providing a copy of a citation. In other cases, you might need to find something else.
In my case, none of the units I’d deployed with submitted paperwork documenting our service over Afghanistan in ENDURING FREEDOM or off the coast of Libya in UNIFIED PROTECTOR. But after looking at what I did have and talking to the clerk who was helping me, I was able to send photocopies of logbook pages showing missions over Afghanistan and off the coast of Libya. Other official documentation, like an evaluation or performance report that mentions your service in an operation or campaign, might be just as helpful.
For me, it took a couple days of back and forth with my retirement clerk – and asking a few friends who’d already retired if it was worth the effort – plus an afternoon making copies, highlighting, scanning, and emailing. But I ended up with an accurate DD-214. It’s done. I don’t need to worry about going through the correction process. I’m not in a personal or professional situation where I need to prove any eligibility, but if I ever do, I know my paperwork is ready to go. That peace of mind is more than worth the modest investment of time to get it right the first time.