Guest contributor Chris Birk is director of content and communications for VA Mortgage Center.com, the nation's leading dedicated VA lender. The Missouri-based company has worked with more than 500,000 military families since its 2003 inception and serviced more than $1 billion in VA loans in the last year alone.
The VA loan program has helped nearly 20 million service members become homeowners since its creation in 1944.
Today, these flexible, low-cost loans are making a huge difference for a new generation of American veterans. Qualified borrowers can still purchase a home with no money down, a benefit all but unmatched given the current lending landscape.
At the same time, VA loans have proved resilient in the face of foreclosure. The agency's realistic credit and underwriting guidelines ensured approved lenders avoided the kind of risky loans that triggered the subprime crisis.
Amid the financial chaos of the past two years, VA loans have emerged as a model of safety and stability for service members nationwide.
But millions of veterans are still missing out.
Fewer than 12% of the nation's 24 million veterans have taken advantage of their VA home loan benefits. Many simply assume they don't qualify, while others aren't sure how to apply. Twenty percent of veterans didn't even know the loan program existed, according to a 2004 VA survey.
That surprising statistic is part of an overall awareness and education problem that stretches beyond the VA's home loan benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs does an excellent job of providing information, but sometimes service members fall through the cracks.
There can also be information overload. Veterans have access to dozens of benefit programs depending on their service record, disability status, and other qualifiers. It's easy for details to get lost within the deluge or for opportunities to go entirely unnoticed.
On Veterans Day, a simple yet powerful way to honor our veterans is to ensure they're aware of the benefits earned by their service. In that spirit, here's a look at some of the VA's most popular umbrella benefits, including their utilization rates among veterans during fiscal 2008:
Health care (61%)
The VA provides an array of health-care benefits for service members, disabled or otherwise. Recently, regulatory changes have made it easier for Gulf War veterans to receive care and disability compensation.
Loan guaranty (11%)
The home loan program features flexible underwriting guidelines that maximize a service member's buying power. The VA guarantees a quarter of each mortgage. About 80% of VA borrowers could not have secured conventional financing, making this an invaluable benefit.
Compensation and pension (11%)
Veterans with service-connected disabilities may be eligible to receive tax-free financial compensation. There are special programs for female veterans, victims of Agent Orange exposure, and prisoners of war, among others. Some older disabled veterans on limited incomes may qualify for additional pension benefits.
Enacted in July 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans with sweeping education benefits, from tuition and fees to monthly housing allowance. There's even an annual stipend to help cover books and supplies. Those who served on active duty at least 90 days since Sept. 10, 2001, are eligible.
And those are just some of the heavy hitters. In all, about 36% of the nation's veterans received VA benefits or services during fiscal 2008.The bulk used only one program.
The need for comprehensive benefits will only intensify in the months and years ahead, as service members return from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other turbulent points abroad. The continuing challenge is to keep them connected to a suite of programs created to reward their sacrifices.