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New Online Tool Makes GI Bill Easy

Like most government programs, the Post-9-11 GI Bill has stipulations that can make it difficult to determine how much and exactly what you are eligible for.

A new online tool vows to make that that process easier.

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is on the news and talk show circuit this week to introduce the GI Bill Comparison Tool, produced by Joining Forces, a national initiative by Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama to engage communities in reaching out to military families and provide them with opportunities and assistance. The announcement also highlights the organization's third anniversary.

Previously, the same information regarding the GI Bill was available, but at several different websites which veterans had to dig into to find the data.

Now, Biden said, veterans can use this one website to estimate tuition and fees, housing allowances and book stipends for each school they are interested in.

So, curious, I popped into the site to see exactly what it does. And, it does a pretty good job of compiling a lot of info. There are dropdown tabs to input your eligibility level and a dropdown menu to find your school. If it doesn't pop up, it means you cannot use your GI Bill benefits there, simple.

There is a button to indicate whether you will be strictly an online student or attend on campus and waalaa! The site posts the amount of tuition your benefit will cover, how much housing allowance you will receive per month (full time students only) and your annual book stipend.

It also indicates whether the school  participates in the federal Principals of Excellence program and agrees to adhere to strict guidelines in order to receive federal funding for veteran education, the Yellow Ribbon Program in which the school covers part of the tuition costs for veterans and the number of GI Bill beneficiaries who attend.

Finally, the page provide the school's graduation rate, the default rate for students of that school and the median amount of money family's generally borrow to fund an undergraduate education at this school.

I'm not going to lie, I spent more than a few minutes putting in different schools to see where the best deals could be had. And it was a much more pleasant experience to simply type the name of the school rather than compare several open tabs on my screen. To find this same information on my own, I would have trekked and searched at least five different websites.

For military families, who typically don't have a lot of time to waste searching, I say, this site is a winner.

And considering that the Veterans Affairs Department estimates that it has distributed more than $30 billion in tuition and education-related payments to more than 1 million veterans and family members, my guess is this site, is going to provide a lot of help, to a lot of people.

Check it out at:

Can’t you just be here?

Jason’s been home from his fourth deployment for about three months now.  We’re adjusted to being back to “us.” It’s been long enough to feel immense gratitude that our marriage is still strong, and long enough for the TDY’s to start.

Jason just finished a 10-day TDY, which is nothing in the scheme of things, but I was ready to snap. Stomach flu ravaged our house, taking down myself and three of the boys. In my experience as a mom, there’s nothing quite as icky as puking while you’re taking care of a puking kid . . . or three. Nope.  Nada. 

At this point, I’m lying on the ground next to our daughter’s jumper while she happily watches Baby Einstein, and I’m praying for swift recovery, or death, and all I can feel toward Jason is white, hot resentment. How is it that we just went through another deployment and he still can’t manage to be home when I need him? I always joke that my husband is the most dependable person in the world to everyone but his wife. Well, it kind of felt like the truth, as irrational as my emotions were. I hadn’t just puked up breakfast, oh no, I’d lost my common sense too.

Now, 10 days apart is really nothing. We do that without a blink. We know some people who left for schools within a month of redeployment, and some who are headed out for a few months now. Jason’s turn for the 3-month school will come later this summer. I understand how the Army works. I know that he has to train and get these schools done, that they make him a better soldier when he returns to war. But really, he’s home, so shouldn’t he actually be home?


Unfortunately, the answer is no. And it’s always going to be no. I’m not going to pull the whole, “you knew what you were getting into,” speech because quite frankly, nothing irks me more than someone who throws that in my face. I’m a dual military brat. I remember enduring months when I didn’t see my dad because he was at work before I got up and returned home after I went to bed. There were months I didn’t see my mom because we were separated at different duty stations. I firmly “knew,” but that doesn’t seem to make it easier, not when I get bold enough to count up the amount of days I actually have “with” my husband now.

It’s hard to sit back and embrace the idea that just because he isn’t deployed doesn’t mean he’s home, and that I have to maintain the same level of independence I do when he’s gone. In the year he will be at “home,” he’s estimated to be gone about a quarter of it. But he’s stateside, and not getting shot at, so I’ll take that over the alternative. I’m not saying it doesn’t bite, because it does. I’m physically sick of missing him and sick of explaining to the kids why he’s missing – fill in the blank of important event here.

The good news? I love him a heck of a lot more than I could ever resent him for not helping me clean up puke. And the days he’s here mean so much more than the days he’s not. We’re careful with the time that we have, and make the most of it, because time isn’t something we can get back. Maybe that’s one blessing of the military family: we understand just how precious the time we get is.

Because he may be gone for a quarter of the year, but he’s here for three quarters, and I’ll take that any day.

Go to sleep, now

I am, by nature, a night owl. I drag through the 3 p.m. homework hour with my kids, cling to the coffee machine and vow to be in bed by 9 p.m.

Come 9 p.m., a second-wind has swept in from nowhere and I am awake, alert and ready to go. And every night - every, single, night - I am awake until the clock officially ushers in the next day. And the next day, I regret it, but hit the repeat button just the same.

The whole process leaves me, in a word, exhausted.  A 2005 study confirmed that while there are minimum amounts of time that people need to sleep at different ages, that amount depends on the individual person as well.

It seems my internal alarm dinging at 9 p.m. is not a bad thing. My taking advantage of it and continuing on until my eyelids droop is.

And there are thousands of overworked, overstressed military wives out there just like me who are trying to cram the leftovers of the day into those last hours when the house is quiet and, they hope, they can hustle through the last of the day's chores quickly.

Experts say, let it wait. Just go to bed.

No matter how little sleep you think you can function on, most adults, scientists at the National Sleep Foundation say, need a minimum of seven hours of sleep every night.

My five, even four hours of snooze may allow me time to read that last page or fold the last of the laundry, but could cause havoc the next day.  The foundation's studies have linked a lack of sleep to:

- increase in drowsy driving

- greater likelihood of obesity

- increased risk in diabetes and heart problems

- increased risk for psychiatric conditions including depression and substance abuse

- decreased ability to pay attention, react to signals or remember new information

For moms on the go who are constantly being handed new information to handle, or adult students who are studying at night, a lack of zz's could be disastrous.

It's hard to do. I push on until I fall into bed at night. But it has to be done. Go to bed. Just let yourself sleep. It can wait until tomorrow. 

Don't worry about the tech talk: just change your password

I am not the most tech savvy person. But what I learned about the 'Heartbleed' security flaw that scorched the internet this week terrified even me.

If you didn't hear, there was a major, online security breech that basically put the majority of the information on the internet up for grabs for cybercriminals who knew how to access it.

Tech talk aside, to break it down Barney-style: there was a bug in the technology that changes the passwords and personal information that you type into a website into code so it cannot be read by outsiders who try to break into the site. Nearly two-thirds of websites use this program to keep information hidden from criminals.

But, the virtual lock wasn't as tight as everyone thought. The problem has been present for two years, but not everyone knew about it. Now that it has been announced in public, websites are in a race against criminals to lock their information back up before the site can be compromised.

Large banks and retailers such as Amazon have slammed the door shut. But, it's not enough.

The way the bug works, if a user has accessed the site in the last week or so, and the door was open, the information may have toppled out, and still be out there. Meaning, their password and private information may already be in the hot little hands of the bad guy.

The fix: change your passwords. All of them.

Pain the tail, I know.

This website claims to be able to tell you if a corporation has snapped their doors shut and fixed the bug:

Even if your website comes up clean, change your password.

I say again to military spouses whose husbands handle all the computer stuff around the house, change your passwords. 

Planning a baby? For military couples it takes three to tango

With my baby now 13-months-old, I should have seen it coming.

Heck, I’m surprised it took this long.

But it hit me like a wallop when I was checking out at Costco with the whole family in tow.

“Oh, they are so cute!” the cashier said. “When are you going to have another one?”

My husband was nervously wriggling and I was reaching for the receipt before it had even finished printing.

I did not want to answer that question. Especially not right now.

The Navy changed plans on us, recently. And, like we always do, we adjusted our year a bit. We mourned what my husband would miss and celebrated what times we could anticipate he would be home. It was nothing new.

And then, we realized what the Navy’s new plan for my husband’s deployment schedule would really mean.

Baby No. 3 was in limbo.

Our second child was a sweet surprise. My two girls are only 20 months apart, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but it was a lot to handle this past year - mostly because I was alone.

So our baby wasn’t but five-months-old – when I told my husband, “We need more time before we have another baby.”

I am a planner by nature, and though the Navy has given me a lot more flexibility than I knew I possessed, I want to at least attempt to make a smoother transition growing into a family of five than we did into a family of four.

And everything seemed to be leaning that way. And then plans changed.

Now, we are faced with the decision of when to get pregnant. Do we push things up a bit? Get pregnant before we’re ready? Have a baby before I feel safer and more secure and more ready?

Or do we wait? And until when? Till he comes home?  Wait till both girls are older?  Older than I wanted them to be, if I’m being honest.

And it’s not just that. If we wait, we run into the chance of moving with a very new newborn. Possibly overseas. At which point, when I start thinking about it, I get woozy and disoriented because, well, the sheer thought of it makes my blood pressure rise.

So we are quite clearly stuck between a rock and a no-good-time-to-make-a-baby place.

And we have no good answer for the tumult of people that seem to be asking that dreaded question, all of a sudden.

Because it’s not just Mommy and Daddy that need to be taken into account when planning for another child.

The Navy plays a big role, too. The biggest, in fact.

It should be as simple as the birds and the bees. But with a military family, it’s anything but.


California Study Says Military Kids More Likely to Bring Guns to School

I remember after just a few years of repeated deployments to the Mideast, military folks, civilians and government officials all began to wonder aloud what long-term effect the exhaustion of war would have on military families.

Now, more than a decade later, studies have been conducted and the results are rolling in, most with not so good results. As I read most of them, I find that I agree with the results and have even experienced some of the lingering hardships that come with having a spouse who is repeatedly exposed to combat.

However, a study released by the California Department of Education in January made my blood boil.

Researchers say they found that military-connected students were more likely than nonmilitary students to be "physically victimized, which included being pushed or shoved, being in a fight, and having property stolen." It adds, "These students were also more likely to have rumors spread about them and to be the subject of sexual jokes and gestures."

This, I can believe.

When you are consistently the new kid in school, you are the easiest target. Military kids live a life of constant transition that few adults could handle. The findings agree. The leader author, Tamika D. Gilreath, assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said in a release, "Such relocations cause youth to lose important social supports and networks."

Um, duh.

Thousands of military spouses could have saved them the work and told them that. But I digress. The study's next finding is what upset me. 

The study reports that the number of military children who reported bringing a gun to school was double that of nonmilitary students - 8.3 percent compared to 3.6 percent. The study also found that students who had endured a deployment carried a gun more frequently than those who had never been through a combat deployment - 5.6 percent compared to 2.8 percent.

The study compared 14,512 students in grades 7, 9 and 11 who attend schools in six, military-connected districts in southern California.

There. With one single study of a miniscule, fraction of military kids, they all have been labeled as the dangerous kids who brandish weapons in the school hallway.

The California Department of Education should be embarrassed to have even released this study.

Let's put this out there now, military kids are not dangerous.

The fact that they are familiar with weapons and talk of war and battle means they have endured a very heavy burden. They have done more to serve their country than the average American.

It does not mean they are going to shoot up their school.

In 2012 the DOD estimated that there were approximately 1.9 million military children in the U.S., ranging in age from newborn to 18-years-old. Of those, 1.3 million were of school age. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors estimates that currently 4,897 children have lost a parent on the battlefield since the war began.

In my view, 14,512 students, only a portion of which are military, does not speak for 1.9 million.

Yes, military families are struggling. War is hell - on the battlefield and off. Military children see it every day. Being a soldier is not a 9 to 5 job that can be left at the office. Talk of combat, injuries and weapons, unfortunately, are part of the everyday discussion in military households.

And yes, there are many, many military families, including children, who are struggling with the aftermath of deployments. Mental health issues are rampant. Abuse is happening in military households. Suicide rates are skyrocketing. There are many needs to be met.

I cannot explain why children in these California school districts feel the need to bring a gun to school. Obviously, that is an issue that needs to be addressed and handled. No student should carry a weapon onto campus.

But what I do know is that this report will only help to isolate and ostracize military children, nationwide. Now will non-military families who meet a military child try to keep their distance because they are afraid? Will they suspect that every military child they meet is carrying a weapon? Will this report create a cloud of fear around military kids who attend schools with low military populations? My fear is yes, it will.  

How about, instead of labeling military kids as the potential bad guys, we help make sure that never happens. How about, as a nation, we reach out and give military families the help they need. 

Military kids are among the strongest in the nation. They have shouldered the weight of a decade of war while most of the country continues on as if it never happened. It is time to relieve them of their burden.

Help them, don't label them. 

Setting an Example, One Word at a Time

Mother and daughter studyingRecently, my stepkids, who live with their mother, came for the weekend. We are lucky enough to live fairly close to them, and as such, they occasionally bring school work with them. On this particular weekend, my stepdaughter brought two things to accomplish:  a list of twenty spelling words (on which, when originally quizzed at school, she received a D) and an ongoing board game project. 

I only knew about these projects because her mother had briefed me. When I asked my stepdaughter about them, she sighed heavily and yanked them out of her bag. It was a heavy sigh. The kind of sigh that lets you know you’ve become the center of an 11-year-olds utter disdain. 

Challenge accepted, missy.

I took her upstairs to my room, where we could have some quiet, and I gave her one of my school notebooks. It was one of the prettiest notebooks I’d bought in a long time, and had been hoarding for a math class I wasn’t looking forward to. But right then she looked like she’d rather chew her own arm off than pick up a pencil to work on those spelling words and needed a little something to give her a push. 

And I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there. 

So I shut the door, turned on some music, handed her a pen and we went over her spelling words. Then, we went over them again. I worked on a philosophy paper, pausing to read her the words. We took a break and started the process over. Each time, she improved. Soon, she’d filled up 20 pages with spelling words. All 20 words, 20 times each. By the time she’d filled the last page, there wasn’t a single error. Not one. 

When I looked at the clock, I realized we’d been studying for a few hours. I felt a little bad and I asked her if she wanted to stop working for the day and go watch a movie. She smiled a bit and said, “What if we worked on my board game project now? I like the way we’re working. You’re good at this.”

My heart swelled. 

There are times that studying doesn’t feeling rewarding - times when multi-tasking becomes synonymous with exhaustion and we’re ready to just toss our books out the window. At least metaphorically, anyway because, let’s be real, most of them are rented. 

But without realizing it, by simply balancing the best way I knew how, I’d set an example. Her need for spelling improvement and my philosophy requirements seemed like routine doldrums to me - just another thing to check the box on. But to my stepdaughter, it was an opportunity to spend time together and learn the pride and profit of dedication. 

And, in the end, isn’t that what education is really about?  

Even When Away, He is Here

My husband is home after a month long TAD. It was our longest time apart since the birth of our second son, a year and a half ago. I admit, in the past I have often compared my life as a military spouse and mother to that of a single parent. From sun up to sun down, I do it all when it comes to the house and kids. We welcome dad as a dinner guest when he can make it. But after the last month, I can honestly say that although my husband was not physically present with our kids as much as we would like, I am far from a single parent.

Leading up to this TAD, I really thought I had everything under control. I wasn’t even sweating my husband being in a different country for a few weeks. The two months leading up to the trip were filled with some long work hours so I figured I was already used to being solo Monday thru Friday, what would a few extra days be like? Difficult but clearly manageable. Right? It’s only a month! Chick flicks on the DVR were saved, wine and breakfast for dinner were on my agenda. I could do this.

I was not prepared for the amount of long days, stress and illnesses that took over our house. The first week I barely slept three hours a night. We had a leak in our ceiling, in our new house, and our builder did not return my call for four weeks. Our cat (who is the source of our allergies I would later learn) had a new bad habit of climbing and breaking things and managed to ruin a wall - and all of our family pictures. The dog ran away (make a mental image of me carrying our 30-pound toddler and 30-pound dog down the street while screaming at my 3-year-old to bring me a leash). My toddlers turned into picky eaters and dinner after dinner went untouched. Then we got the stomach bug. One by one, we all went down. And it’s only been two weeks. No to mention the weather. Oh the cold, rainy weather!!! I couldn’t catch up. Laundry piled up, things were out of their place and my anxiety levels were through the roof.

I had an emotional breakdown. I had not mentally prepared for all of these things to happen one after the other and to be housebound with two active toddlers. I was a bit rusty in this whole TAD thing. Military wife of 7 years? I felt like it was my first month. And imagine a deployment?! No way I could survive! But even though my husband was thousands of miles away, I still had him. I could email him, call him if I really needed him. And I did. I vented and cried and told him it was more than I thought and I took advantage of the fact he was home with us every day. How did I ever complain about his long work day? I would do anything to have him home by bedtime right now! And even though I knew there was nothing he could physically do to help me, just having him listen was all I needed. I wasn’t alone in this military life. We were a team, even when we were apart.

Somehow the emotional breakdown I had was what I needed to put life back into perspective. I stopped trying to do it all and realized I never have done it all by myself. Since we have had our boys, I have always had my husband in some way or another. I have never really been a single parent. Even when he is away working, he is providing for us - financially and emotionally. The boys and I look forward to that break in the day when he comes through the door and goes from Marine to Dad to husband before he does anything. I have always known how lucky we are but this time apart showed me that even when I feel alone in this military life, I always have my Marine. He may not make it home for dinner or to do the dishes, but he is home. And that I will never take for granted again.

Mom by Day, Author by Night - Congrats Rebecca!

Rebecca Yarros released her first book to international audiences on a Monday. She went on vacation just a few days later, which was just a few weeks after her husband returned from his latest deployment.

Yep, it's just how military spouses roll. And Rebecca, mother of five, nationally recognized blogger, wife of an aviator and now best-selling author, can roll with the best of them.

Rebecca, also a Salute to Spouses blogger, released her first novel, Full Measures to eager audiences earlier this year. The book, currently only available as an e-book, quickly climbed the charts, not just in the U.S., but around the world.

"You figure that first day it will do ok because my mom is going to buy it. But then it's been out for a week and a half and people I don't know are buying it. It's legitimate. It's more than your mother trying to push it on her book club," Rebecca said.

Full Measures tells the story that Rebecca most fears, the aftermath when a soldier is killed in action. Her main character's father is killed in Afghanistan. Rebecca said the story felt very personal and that she almost didn't write it.

The fact that she wrote the tale during her husband's own deployment to the same region would make most military wives shudder. Rebecca said she began the tome before he left and had to walk away from the keyboard for a month as her own emotions ran high when her husband left. Still, the writing is what kept her going during the sleepless nights.

"I have a hard time sleeping if I know he's awake," she said. "Instead of reading I would write until my eyes crossed."

Rebecca said she makes it a point to write a page every day. That was the easy part. The hard part, was admitting that she was doing more than simply typing away - that she was writing a book.

 "If you tell someone you are doing it, suddenly you have this goal and now you are accountable for it. Anyone can say, 'I want to write a book.' But now you have to finish it," she said.

Moving the story from her computer to audiences was a journey that Rebecca said is not for the weak. She sent letters and her manuscript to 32 agents.

"It is awful and you get rejected and if you can't handle rejection you should not be a writer," she said.  "It can take months for them to read it. I was biting my nails every day."

Her agent is also a military spouse who connected with the novel instantly. Now, readers around the world are doing the same.

"I feel extraordinary blessed to have this career, it's my dream career," she said. "It was a lot of hard work and heartbreak but it is still worth it."

Rebecca still writes at least a page every night and has several projects in the works. Readers hungry for more can check out her work at Salute to Spouses and her own blog, The Only Girl Among Boys  which was named 2013's #1 Top Military Mom blog.

The book is the icing on the cake for a busy year in which Rebecca endured a deployment and adopted a baby daughter all within a few months.

"Everything I ever wanted has been handed out so fast it is like drinking from a waterfall," she said.  

Love Thy Duty Station

shoveling snowSo, I hear it all the time: how we should bloom where we’re planted, thrive in new environments, blah, blah, blah. Let me just tell you, I’m having this moment, where I totally, completely and utterly loathe my duty station. Now, no worries, this feeling is fleeting and will melt with the snow, but for right now, I totally get how people can hate their duty stations. 

I haven’t seen grass, real, green grass since November. I think it’s underneath this monstrous gathering of Fort Drum snow, but I really don’t trust anything anymore. The drifts are up near my shoulders. My car is no longer gunmetal gray. Oh no, it’s this grungy, whitish color because the salt comes back the minute I spray it off.  I’m pretty sure my kids have forgotten how to tie their shoes because they live in their snow boots and if the school declares a snow day one more time I may in fact just become a winery so that uncorking a bottle at 2 p.m. is acceptable. When my friends stationed in far warmer climates complain about their weather, I’d like to crawl through the Facebook screen and do them bodily harm. Did I mention it snows here? Oh, I did? You get the picture.

We’ve lived here just shy of four years and I always feel this way in March. Some people call it winter depression. I call it the “Month of I-hate-Fort-Drum.” Why – because I love it here almost every other month. There’s nothing compared to the autumn colors here, or the summers hiking in the Adirondacks. But this one measly month, when the snow has worn out its welcome and is turning me insane, it’s too easy to forget the good and dwell on the loathing of our snowblower.

Everyone hates their duty station at some point or another. You’re too far from family, or you can’t get them off your door step. It’s too hot, too cool, too humid, or too arid. There are a thousand reasons to hate a place. But you know what? There are just as many to love it.

If you’re thinking you hate your duty station, let’s check these options out.

  1. Get involved – Loneliness is downright awful. Get involved in your FRG, Red Cross, local library, local school, or anything that gets you out and about in the community. It’s hard to hate a place if it’s full of friends!
  2. Start a day-trip folder – We loved doing this in Europe. Do a little research about the activities closest to you that qualify as a day trip. One benefit of moving all over the world is that we have the chance to explore it. When you absolutely have to get out, do it. Chances are there’s something close that you’ll end up loving.
  3. Find your Zen – Locate one place at your duty station, be it in your house, the local coffee shop, or a book store, where you can feel totally at peace. Go there.
  4. Remind yourself that it’s only temporary – unless you’re retiring at that duty station, and this is only temporary. You’ll be out eventually, headed to another base, so take advantage of everything you can while you’re there.
  5. Dwell on the positive – It’s easy to lose yourself in the doldrums of I-hate-it-here woe. Try instead to focus on what’s great about it. Even when Drum is covered in snow, I can admit it has a stark beauty found nowhere else. 

I know these are easier to say than to do and that sometimes you simply can’t stand a certain post. I get it.  But face the military facts – if you want to live with your spouse, well . . . you’re pretty much stuck where they send you. Why not make the best of it?

Yes, it’s supposed to snow here again tomorrow. Yes, I just uttered the words, “man, I hate it here.”  But you know what? My husband is finally home, no longer deployed, and that is worth any snow-shoveling price Fort Drum asks of me.  That’s one thing I’m proud of.   My zen is my husband, and he tends to PCS with me, so it’s impossible to hate every part of any duty station when he’s next to me.


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