Summary: this veteran wrote in asking for input on how to get Voc Rehab to pay for another degree despite being employed in a high-level government job. His stated goal was to be more competitive. This is bad. My way is better.
Question: how can I convince Voc Rehab to pay for an advanced degree in my situation?
Teaser: smart veterans can generally get the VA to agree to things. It is all about perception and how a veteran frames their claims. I cover this in the guide I created called The Voc Rehab Survival Guide.
It is the veteran’s job to frame their claim in a way that is most favorable to themselves. Let the VA pick apart your claim on their own. For you, your job is to understand what you are asking for and to convey this message in a convincing manner.
Beyond this, knowing your goal is imperative – and that goal must be concrete. Back to my teaser, the veteran should strive for something beyond merely “being more competitive.”
Over the years, hundreds of veterans have written to me after having been denied benefits because they told the VA they wanted to be more competitive in their current job. There is a right way and a wrong way to convey this reality. Without much thought, it would be easy to get denied by the Voc Rehab Counselor if you went down this path.
Here’s the drill: Each week, I take an email from a veteran that would have broad appeal to many veterans. I then analyze it for a week and post my input here in our weekly segment: Mailroom. Basically, I take out all the identifying information from the best emails and post them here with my answer.
If you have a burning question about your veterans benefits, sent me a note selecting the contact tab at the top of this page. If I think your situation will be helpful for other veterans, I will repost it here.
* If you do not want me to write about your situation, please feel free to let me know within the email. I have no problem keeping a lid on the situation, too.
Email from Veteran:
I really appreciate the information and time that you have put in to assisting other veterans in gaining much needed education. I have sifted through a great deal of information; both on your site as well as other forums across the Internet.
While I have obtained some great information, I have unfortunately not run across a case that is similar to mine. Here are some of the details to questions that you have posed to other who have asked for assistance:
I served on active duty in the Marines. Honorably discharged in 1998. I began my BS in Sept of 1998 and used just a couple months of my Montgomery GI Bill (which has now surpassed the 10 year period, my loss) prior to gaining authorization for Voc Rehab. I am rated at 100% P&TD (Permanent and Total). I was granted my initial disability rating in 1999 and raised to 100% in 2003. Despite being rated 100% I am employable and still work full time. The VA has been very supportive of my scenario.
I graduated with a BS in Computer Science 2004 and was “successfully rehabilitated” effective 7/2004. While I don’t believe that I have used a total 48 months of Voc Rehab, it is with the GI Bill time.
My education has afforded me opportunities that I would have not had otherwise.
I am now at an impasse in my career. I work as a federal civilian in a computer engineer billet. I have seniority due to time and experience on the team that I work on, even though I have less education than my peers. I was fortunate to be selected for my specific position and hired into an engineering slot due to my experience and extensive math courses taken in college.
Now, with the current financial situation of the government (once considered one of the most stable places to work), I have found myself looking for ways to remain competitive. The organization that I work for has discussed the possibility of reduction in force. I am not too concerned with this as IT positions are pretty high on the desired list and my time in service and disabled veterans preference keeps me pretty safe. However, being a GS-13, my peers and supervisors all have more education and for me to have a better chance at career progression, I need the MS. Not only for the sake of looking better on paper, but a MS in engineering would solidify my stance in the billet that I currently hold. During a RIF I could be moved to another position if compared to my peers.
I have read through the pamphlet describing the opportunities for education and the possibilities of extending benefits. The main difference with my situation is that I am employed. My disability has not worsened as it is about as bad as it can ever be without having secondary conditions.
That pretty much leaves the following as the only way that I know to be admitted reentrance:
“The occupation for which the veteran previously was found rehabilitated under Chapter 31 is found to be unsuitable on the basis of the veteran’s specific employment handicap and capabilities (Authority: 38 USC 3101(a)).”
Please let me know if you have any ideas to aid in my gaining additional benefits from VR&E. I have also looked at central education opportunities but they are waffling right now due to budget constraints as well.
Kelly (fake name)
Email from Benjamin Krause (me):
I have thought about your situation for a week.
What you have here is a problem of perception that can be fixed through framing.
Many veterans write to me with a fundamental misunderstanding of their position. This is where perception is the problem.
I liken it to when most veterans go into the evaluation with the disability compensation doctor. Many of us fall back into the “tough guy” role we played while in the military. As a result, the doctor perceives that we are better off than we are. The result is that we get lowballed on our disability rating and show back up on the VA’s doorstep when the condition gets worse to file an appeal.
Kelly (fake name), in your situation you may be perceiving your situation to be better than it really is. Or, rather, better than you should be in order to gain approval from VA Vocational Rehabilitation.
Here is the spot in your email that concerns me:
I have seniority due to time and experience on the team that I work on, even though I have less education than my peers. I was fortunate to be selected for my specific position and hired into an engineering slot due to my experience and extensive math courses taken in college.
Now, with the current financial situation of the government (once considered one of the most stable places to work), I have found myself looking for ways to remain competitive. The organization that I work for has discussed the possibility of reduction in force. I am not too concerned with this as IT positions are pretty high on the desired list and my time in service and disabled veterans preference keeps me pretty safe. However, being a GS-13, my peers and supervisors all have more education and for me to have a better chance at career progression, I need the MS.
The issues you need to focus on are your goal and the answer the following question. Is your goal in line with your skillset? Do your disabilities impact the job you currently have now?
As you presented this to me, VA will probably look at your case and say, “It’s not our job to keep you competitive or to help with career progress. We are a back to work program, not a back to school program. It is our job to make sure you can gain entry level employment.” So, if you convey that you are merely looking for a leg up against your competition, you will likely lose.
Perception comes back into play when you analyze what it is you are really trying to do. To do this, you need to identify your goal and reverse engineer that goal to fit a proper framework. Framework will be the new construct within which you perceive and convey your situation. As you unravel what this is, you will unearth a new perception of your situation.
That perception, when communicated clearly, could convey your needs in a way where the Voc Rehab Counselor will know that you qualify for benefits rather than firing you back out the door.
For example, let’s say your disabilities are impacted in some way by your IT career. This would make sense since IT is more physical than not. You are now 10 years older. It would stand to reason that your conditions might be aggravated by the job.
Take that tidbit of knowledge and combine it with a new path. Let’s assume you have a good gig working in IT. It sounds like that’s the case anyway. However, let’s further assume that there may be a more sedentary type job that will not aggravate your injuries as much.
Let’s say you want to be a manager or lawyer or something. Neither of these kinds of sedentary type jobs is generally achievable with a mere BS these days (being a lawyer requires a Juris Doctorate), especially a BS in computers within the government hiring structure.
In government, you do need an advanced degree for management type jobs. Once you are able to frame your needs with your physical conditions with your goal, you may have a more persuasive claim.
However, as previously noted, saying that you want to be competitive and then asking VA Vocational Rehabilitation to supply another degree will usually get your fired right out of the office. It is not advisable.
Instead, use your disability, the length of time in employment, and your goals to reframe your claim. So long as your goal is not to merely be promoted within the same exact job title, you may stand a chance.
This gets me back to my analogy about the disabled veteran acting like a tough guy. If you trump up your situation too much, you will do a disservice to you and to the counselor. It is very important that you be very real about what is going on.
From my limited impression of this email, I suggest you dig in and really seek out what it is you want to do. I set this out in my guide within the 7 Essentials to a Voc Rehab Win. I suggest you read this to help you orient yourself to the VA and to develop a helpful framework.