Get what you want from your Voc Rehab Counselor

The right recipe. When I cook, it’s an experiment. On many occasions I like to just take things that I have at hand, throw them all into the pot and see what comes out. Sometimes I hit a home run and sometimes the dogs won’t eat it. It is a lot of fun to create this way. Yet, if I don’t’ take the time to actually measure and write down what I’m doing, there is one thing that I can count on; I will never be able to recreate the exact same dish again. Creating just the right fish stew requires the right mixture of seasonings and ingredients following a period of taste testing and experimentation. When complete, the recipe must be written in order to recreate the concoction.

When it comes to disabled veterans needing retraining, the same holds true. Here, the application of assessments, the formula of ingredients, should be studied. In so doing, a myriad of questions come to mind. Three of them are:

  1. For each Veteran, what service is necessary to find gainful employment?
  2. Should every Voc Rehab Counselor be allowed to experiment with the stew?
  3. How important is rapport between the VA Counselor and the Veteran?

For the purpose of this article, VR& E was consulted to provide insight into the program and intake process. There is one underlying question. Is the VR&E intake based on subjective conclusions or objective data? In response, the VR&E counselor told us the process is largely “subject to interpretation of each vocational rehabilitation counselor…” Further, no one criteria is “weighted” as more important than another by the vocational rehabilitation counselor or clinical psychologist.

Up until 2008, the Vocational Rehabilitation had never conducted an in-depth analysis into why some disabled veterans succeed and why others do not. This is over 70 years after the VA first started providing veterans vocational rehabilitation assistance. Without this data, how can appropriate criteria be established to help disabled veterans? The answer is simple – it cannot.

Now what? There is one key to winning at Vocational Rehabilitation when the process is broken – differentiation. Knowing the system is broken is the first step. I always advise veterans to adopt the attitude that it doesn’t matter who broke it, you’re here to put it back together, as it relates to your case. Nothing else matters, not politics, not your dog, not your ex-wife. In fact, the more you spin these types of issues in front of the counselor, the less likely you are to get your benefits. Since the system is largely subjective, the counselor’s perception of you is the primary deciding factor in his decisions. Keep this in the back of your mind at all times.

Everyone has an annoying uncle (or aunt). Ever notice that when they stroll into the party, the mood is immediately different. I’d say the most irritating personality type for me is a pessimist. Everything is wrong with the world, even you. Regardless of the conversation, they seem to always pick some off the cuff detail to throw a curveball that derails any topic and divert attention back to their own needs. Don’t be that guy. Put on your politician hat. Forever be the optimistic one, even if you are the annoying uncle in reality.

Your key – Differentiation. Win the mind of your counselor by being different. A few months ago I received a call from an attorney and military veteran based in New York. His goal was to impart some knowledge he had gleaned over his career in working with Workers Compensation claims. His advice to veterans – differentiation. Be forever different from everyone else in the room when it comes to certain issues.

The advice I received from a friend prior to entering the US Air Force was this: keep your head down in basic training. Do not try to show off. And that’s what I did. Come the final week of basic, my TI had no idea who I was. His comment to me at that moment, “You’re either a genius or an idiot.” That is not what my advice is to you. With Vocational Rehabilitation, the counselors have come to expect that disabled veterans will go away if ignored long enough. So, do not go away. There, that’s the first part. Be persistent, with your head up.

Your second step will be to document everything. Do this in a way that is assertive and not pushy. Sending harsh emails or reminding the counselor that you are documenting things can be seen as threatening. Print out all correspondence and keep it in a 2-hole classification folder, like attorneys use. When needing vital decisions or information from the VA, do not email it. Counselors have over 100 cases going at any time. They will likely not read the email. Instead, send all correspondence that is important via certified mail with return receipt. Keep a copy of everything in your folder, including the return receipt. This will keep you in the “special” file and out of the circular file.

Most important. The last step is attitude. “I need your help.” Remember, unlike the military, where everyone must do certain things or they get a reprimand, in the civilian world you must convince people they should want to help you, even if it’s their job to help. This is especially the case when working with a large governmental bureaucracy. They have no direct customer service incentive other than saving money (ie., if you go away, they save money).

To recap, you now have the key to getting what you need done with your vocational rehabilitation counselor. Keep in mind, they cannot do things that are not supported by regulations, but they can do almost anything within the grey area once you convince them of your need. Try to get them to feel like they are teaming with you in your success. Be that one case that makes their day when you come in, because you are a successful person. This will open many more doors for you beyond the realm of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, too. Best of luck.

A special thanks goes out to Vietnam era veteran Ray Ferns, CEO of Restorative Correctional Services, for his help with this article and for his interest in lending a hand to other veterans in need and to the system helping them.

33 COMMENTS

  1. I find this information in this article very helpful, I only wish I had known it sooner. I guess I would be considered one of the successful cases, as I have just completed my Bachelor of Science in Mathematics with Computer Information Systems minor through a private college. The sad part is my wife is also a disabled veteran and she began her services under the same counselor, and yet she could be considered one of the unsuccessful cases. This is not for her lack of trying. Most of the information in the article applies directly to her case, but a few things seem to be missing that we believe impacted the counselors decisions.

  2. I have just relocated to South Carolina and I am a vet with a 30% disablity. I need some help getting in contact with a Counselor for Vocational Rehabitation.

  3. Hey Ben, I can use a bit of advice. I am a service-connected vet rated at 50%. I actually applied for VR&E about 4 years ago and had to put my plans on hold while my health/medical issues kept me from continuing at that time. So, I ended up becoming totally disabled with the Social Security Administration and since haven’t been able to work let alone be retrained for a new career field. My question for you is this; Since I am totally disabled with SSA and 50% service-connected with VA, are there any type of education/vocational benefits available to me that will allow me to get trained with computers for example for me to use on my own without having to be retrained for a new career field and have to be placed in a job? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  4. Hmm, so you’re asking if Voc Rehab can set you up in some sort of computer related field for self employment? If that is what you mean, Chapter 31 Voc Rehab does have a self employment track for disabled veterans in your type of situation. I would suggest reapplying for the VA disability benefit and see where it goes. I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a guide for that purpose, but have not done it yet.

  5. I am a vet who went through the VA chapter 31 program, got my degree, ended up a voc rehab counselor for a state VR program. My advice to people who do not qualify for or are unable to get served by the VA program is to apply through your state agency. You can receive services from both state and federal agencies, as long as you do not repeat any specific services. For instance, I got my education through the VA and got my wheelchairs through the state agency later on. The same things that made you eligible for federal services will make you eligible for state services. Just be sure you tell the state counselor that you were a VR client so they will not repeat anything you will have already received from the VA.

  6. KS State – Interesting comments, I was under the impression the [VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment] and/or Ch31 program was a Fed program that is manage and run at the state level. So where is the division?

  7. Hi Dean – maybe I can lend some insight. The state VR (http://www.oregon.gov/DHS/vr/about_us.shtml) programs get their funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Chapter 31/Voc Rehab gets its funding through the Department of Veterans Affairs. They are two separate entities and have different governing regulations, despite both working to rehabilitated disabled people.

    While a disabled veterans can qualify and use state VR programs, a non-veteran cannot use Chapter 31 Voc Rehab services, since those are exclusively for veterans with service connected disability ratings.

  8. Hmm, after reading through the OVRS link, it appears they only assist individuals in retaining or getting job, but not starting your own business. I will be calling them to confirm, but it appears to be truely disappointing already.

  9. Ben, I could use your advice. To make a long story short, I was injured in service and told my injuries were pre-existing and I would be denied a VA disability rating. 20 years later, I met a wonderful VA Service Rep who said that was untrue, submitted my case and now I am 20% disabled. I went to Voc Rehab and asked for educational benefits. I was denied by the counselor who said I already had a degree and they would not offer any additional educational assistance. My undergrad is in Dairy Sci., my MA is in Mgt….there’s not much call for dairy sci majors and physically, I’m limited. So, I wanted to go back to college for business courses with a goal of a bachelor’s degree in Accounting. I get the impression that the Voc Rehab counselor just wants to offer training…any kind…to get me off the books. How can I get to MY goal and not compromise to achienve to HIS goal?

  10. Barbara, my advice is to apply for CH31 (VR) if you haven’t already. Get the denial officially – then appeal the denial. What you will need to demonstrate is that you are unable to obtain or maintain (keep) employment in the field for which you are trained. You will do this during the first meeting, so keep track of what you said and the replies. But even more important is what is the “official” reasoning – what is on the letter of denial you get. You don’t need to write everything down and don’t be antagonistic or argumentative. Your appeal issues will focus on what is on the letter, not what was said, anyway. And never accept “That’s what he/she said” – get it in writing or it didn’t happen. If you want to contact me – my email is [email protected] . Put something like “VA Voc Rehab” in the subject.

  11. I would like to get hep in how to write a letter to my va counselor. I got a bachelor degree in International business and I am requesting for an upgrade to a master degree. My counselor asked me to write her a letter why she would approve me for the program. Also, I have to choose a program and I think it has to be related to my bachelor degree. The letter have to contain my program selection job opportunities outlook.
    Please let me know if you can help me. I have no idea how to do it.

  12. I need help…. I am a disablid veteran at (60%) currently. I am unemployeed and have been for 8 months now. I am married with two kids and would like to go back to school and get a degree in something that would help me in gaining meaningful employeement such as computer security. I was told several things by my voc rehab 31 counselor when I applied. One — because I have a 4 year degree. I would not QUALIFY. I tried to explain to the rep that my degree is specialized in Criminal Justice and I could not preform that job/profession any longer. She said it doesn’t matter. A college degree automatically disqualifies you. Secondly, I am over my 12 years. I explained that the reason I didn’t apply earlier is because I was under the percent needed of 20% to qualify which the same voc rehab 31 rep stated I needed to qualify several years ago and I thought I could still become a police officer or something like that at the time. The rep was not very nice and not any help. I am going farther and farther in debt and there is not much help out there and even less answers. And when there is an answer it’s not the one’s that would help. There is much more to my issues but one thing at a time. Thanks to anyones help.

    • Hey Brian. Pick up a copy of our guide and begin to work through the process. Issues like yours are covered within the text. If you have any questions once you get moving, send me an email. Basically, Voc Rehab pays for many people to attend college with undergraduate degrees. And, if what you are saying is accurate, you will need to appeal. You can either do that yourself or with the help of a Veteran Service Officer in your area. Though, keep in mind that many VSO’s do not have a ton of experience when punching it out with Voc Rehab. For that reason, you will need to get as educated as you can about the process and the regulations. Best of luck.

  13. I have a 100% shaedular diability, I was denied in Jan, 2007 because of my ptsd, I never appealed the dicision because I was to depressed as I’ve been battling with the VA. for forty years. But I went to Stand Down in San Diego in 2011 and was told by a aid to Congress woman Susan Davis to reapply. So I did and the counselor said she would fast track my approval. But when it got to the same VRC. that disaproved in 2007 she called the VTS counselor and said not to approved me. What can I do to move this along. I need four certifications to sail as a 3rd officer in the Merchant Marine. I’ve been sailing in the Merchant Marine for 30 years but now you need more certifications to sail because of Homeland Security regulations requirements. The school is in Florida and only for 1 month.

    • I’m not really sure of the specifics. I suggest talking with a VSO at the DAV or VFW or similar. Then, appeal the decision via an Administrative Review. Now, the counselor needs to actually mail you a denial. Just conversation of a denial is not the same. Once you have been formally denied, you can appeal that decision. So, appeal the decision and consult with a VSO about the matter.

  14. Ben,
    I’m putting together my application for VocRehab to attend a certification program to teach workshops with an accredited educational institute. With my disability rating at 80% and 100%IU, my main focus is to be clear about my plan to regain independence with a realistic educational goal (4-5 weeks of training per year for 3-4 years) and working part-time rather than full-time. Will I have to be reevaluated for my IU rating before applying? And will I risk losing my benefits? Also, I am past the 12-year eligibility period by about 1 year, but I did find the reference where that can be extended.
    Thanks,
    Marysue

  15. SUBJECT: REQUEST RE-READ OF MY CONTRACT AND EXCEPTION TO POLICY TO CONTINUE MY EDUCATION BENEFITS.

    Dear Mr. Morris
    I am currently enrolled in the VOC Rehab program in OKC, OK. Mrs. Janet is my current counselor. I was enrolled into this program by Mr. Billy in Dec 2008, originally for Criminal Justice program at Southern Nazarene University.
    I feel I was coerced into this VR&E program for reasons other than my welfare as a veteran. When I was contacted by Mr. Grimes I worked for Norman Public Schools as a diesel mechanic, I had been injured on the job and had surgery on my right shoulder and had returned to work after my physical therapy. I was still on light duty but was still making about $3000.00 a month.
    Mr. Billy contacted me by letter requesting my presents at the Federal Building in OKC, OK. Over the next couple of weeks I was given a series of test and counseled in the program. My highest scores were in protective services and or security but Mr. Billy refused these test results or scores and stated he would only approve a program that would be sedentary in nature.
    Mr. Billy told me that I would have to resign my position with Norman Public Schools since it would do further harm to my current disabilities and if I did not I was subject to lose some of my disability payments based on my current job irritating my current disabilities. I submitted my resignation on 30 Dec 2008.
    Mr. Billy stated he would send me back to school, assist in my future job placement and I would receive a stipend while I was going to school. I expressed my concerns about my financial responsibilities and he stated he understood and would assist me in suitable employment. Mr. Billy stated it had to be a position that was sedentary in nature so I would not irritate my current disabilities.
    Mr. Billy told me to go to the OKCVA Medical Center and talk with a Mr. Tim who was at the time the acting Chief of Police, and the current human resource representative for Police Service Ms. Jill . I was then told a GS-4 Telephone Operator position was open, but after reading my resume and my military qualifications Mr. Tim expressed an interest in me being hired as a Police Officer for the VA Hospital and stated that I would make more money and have promotions since the Police Officers started at GS-6 to a possible GS-10 or even higher depending on my service time with the VA.
    Since I had started my education in Police Science at Webster Community College in Webster, NY and had some credits I wanted to enroll in the Criminal Justice program at Southern Nazarene University. I had a meeting with Mr. Billy stated he would not approve a program for me unless it would result in a position that was sedentary in nature. I told him about the position as a Police Officer and he stated that I could possibly cause further injury to my disabilities and he would not approve it.
    I was initially accepted into the Bridge Program at Southern Nazarene University January 30, 2009. I started my Bachelor’s Degree program at Southern Nazarene University in Business Administration in February 2010. I currently have 157 semester credit hours while maintaining a 3.2 GPA and will graduate in June 2011.
    My starting date with the OKCVA Medical Center was 4 January 2009. I am currently the Lead Operator (no available grade increases) at the OKCVA Medical Center in a dead end job currently making $28,345 annually. I have had one grade increase while with the VA from GS-4 to GS-5 and I am still making approximately $8000 less than I would have been making at my old job with Norman Public Schools.
    I have had two annual evaluations both with an exceptional rating. I have received five performance incentive awards based on my work ethics and performance.
    I have applied at a number of jobs in the Federal Service and have been denied since most jobs at my abilities, aptitudes and interests require me to have a Master’s Degree.
    Based on the M28 VOC Rehab directive that states the Veterans Administration would assist me in finding Suitable Employment, work that is within a veteran’s physical and emotional capabilities and is consistent with his or her pattern of abilities, aptitudes, and interests. As a representative of the VOC Rehab program Mr. Billy has failed miserably in his duties as a counselor in the assistance he has provided me as a veteran. I don’t believe that giving a Veteran an ultimatum of resigning from a job that made $1000 more a month than I do as a GS-4 Telephone Operator or I would lose part of my disability is not the intent of this program.

    This position as a Telephone Operator is not consistent with my abilities, aptitudes and interest based on when I retired from the active duty Army as a Command Sergeants Major of the largest deployment base in the United States, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, deploying 100,000 troops in 1998 my retirement year. I was awarded the Legion of Merit by General Colin Powell for my dedication and service to this country.

    I have applied for and been accepted in the Masters of Science, Management focusing on human resources through the MSM program at Southern Nazarene University.

    I have a great opportunity to fill an internship position in Human Resources with the OKCVA Medical Center. The requirement is for me to have enrolled in a Master’s Program and be qualified to graduate during or after the internship training.

    I have requested help getting a better job but since I have a job that punches the ticket for my current counselor, even though my current job has nothing to do with my interest or abilities. When my stipend for school runs out I will be unable to meet all my financial obligations.

    • You will need to show that your training was insufficient to get entry level work in the area or related area for which you were trained, not for employment in your perfect world idea of what a job would be that requires additional schooling. It just doesn’t work that way. The regs only require the minimum, not the maximum benefits.

  16. Very useful information, thank you!

    Recently got approved for chapter 31 employment through long term services. Working on Bachelors degree for Biological Technician then job placement! So far so good.

  17. I was recently approved for Chapter 31 and working on my Training Plan as we speak. My next meeting with the VR Counselor is a week away and before I submit it, I wanted to get your two cents worth on an idea.

    Considering that I; A) live in Indiana where public transportation is virtually non-existent, and
    B) am unable to drive, A relocation would be a good idea. My thoughts are that my best success for completing the program and being “rehabilitated” would mean moving to a larger city with better mass transit readily available, such as Chicago.

    Could I request a relocation to Chicago as part of my Rehabilitation Plan? Do you think they would assist with moving expenses?

  18. Live in the deep south and am a die hard vet, and lets say I know a thing or two about ch 31. TO CLARIFY ENTRY LEVEL EMPLOYMENT. Entry level employment is not the aim of the program. All counselors spin this bs to their veterans because it is an easy way for them to do less work. There is a circular letter from the top that addresses this issue, and clarifies along the following lines- “a miss conception has been identified in the ch 31 program, entry level employment only means entry level in whatever your career goal is, it does not and I repeat does not mean entry level employment, i.e. janitor, home health aid etc… Think about, no one needs a JD and few need masters, but this happens. Why? Because, they justify on the basis that entry level means entry level into the specific field the counselor and you have decided on.

  19. I am a disabled-vet with a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice (2009). I was assigned to my Voc Rehab Counselor 7 mos. ago. He RARELY responsds to my emails & NEVER returns my voice mail. I just want a little feedback and job placement help/advice- I don’t what to do with my dead-end $8/hr job.

  20. You know? I know that I can be a bit of a devils advocate player but I really do believe the Va is trying to help us. I also believe that this site is an absolute necessity. In the short while I have been reading on this site I have learned very much. I hate to think the VA does not have our welfare in mind when they make their decisions but I am getting to think that this is the case more often than not. Please keep up the work. Be it good or not. All this needs to be said.

  21. I was enrolled in Vocational Rehab. I received my Bachelor degree in Management. However I have been unable to find work in this field. In September I enrolled in another university to complete my Master’s degree in education in one year. I am in my third class. My counselor told me I had 7 months left on Vocational Rehab and it would not be a problem to get an extension/approval for the other 5 months. My counselor has now informed me that my Vocational Rehab has been denied. Her supervisor stated that I would not be able to teach school because of my medical condition (Fibromyalgia). Recently, that diagnosis has been changed. Tests came back within normal limits. I have been accepted in a teaching position. The money for school has to be repaid. Is there an appeal process?

  22. Hello Mr. Krause,

    I have a 20% rating from the VA and applied for Vocational Rehab. I have my meeting with the VA counselor on the 27th of this month. I have a bachelor’s degree (Poli Sci) with a terrible GPA. I wanted to get back into the military after college but they were not taking my MOS. I tried for quite a while, but have now aged out.
    I have been working in fast food, a little construction since graduating. I’m very ashamed of my condition, as 90% of it is from my own incompetence.

    I need job skills to get out of fast food. I want Voc Rehab to pay for a trade or something along the lines of an associate degree in the medical or telecom field.

    I have a chance to move to Europe, with a place to live indefinitely. I would like to do that. Chapter 31 seems to stipulate that one must be married to a foreign citizen, being relocated with active duty spouse, or in possession of a job offer. This is to establish legal residence.

    I am eligible to get a passport which allows me to live and work in the EU. I can change my mailing address to the residence in Europe.

    Can I come to the counselor with those two items Passport/Mailing address and tell that I already have a new legal residence, so I don’t have to fulfill any of the first three criteria? *relocation, spouse, job offer*

    • Trying to get reinstated into Voc rehab. Been denied 4 times and this last time was very disheartening. Counselor was very unprofessional and showed no encouragement at all. I had to make her email my denial letter that she claimed she mailed out — still waiting on via mail. She even blocked my phone number!!!. Can they do that?? After I cool off and de-stress I will pursue my appeal or even contact my state representative about how I was treated.

  23. I was approved for va rehabilitation chapter 31 and want to become self employed.iv completed the business plan and have even completed some certificate courses through the program from our local tech college.im now at the a point that my feasibility score for my plan has been turned in and i received good scores.along with my business plan i requested vr&e assistance with equipment that was included with my business plan.now my rep tells me im category 2 and they wont help me with purchase of equipment.they will only help with classes ,but i will get paid for going to classes.i asked about getting changed to a category 1 to receive the equipment assistance and she told me in her opinion i wouldnt get it.i know it says they will provide you with tools under category 2.iv been polite and tried my best to not to be rude but i have never felt like this person has been on my side.how do i find out that what she is telling me is true .thanks for your help and advice.
    Jh

  24. hI i WANT to go through self employment in South carolina for a business but they are telling me that they only give 3500. I will need more than that to open my business. Is there anyway to over right this. since north carolina can give over 30,000

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