Updated: November 28, 2013 6:24AM
Call it the last battle.
After soldiers go through the rigor of enlisting, of training, of shipping out, of maybe seeing combat or, usually, being a cog in the vast military machine, then finally their service completed, and after a few years or a few decades, comes a time when the newly minted veterans must make sure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
Meet form DD-214, informally known as “discharge papers.” A document that tells the world and, most important, the Veterans Administration, that you served your country well and were discharged. With so much depending on that — medical care, pensions, loans, educational benefits, even a military funeral — you would think vets would keep them in bank vaults, and some do. But others lose them or put them in boxes that are destroyed in floods.
Thus over the summer, Karen Yarbrough, Cook County recorder of deeds, started to reach out to vets, suggesting they bring in their DD-214s to be copied and permanently stored in her office, so the vet always knows where it is. Moreso, the recorder’s office has created a cheery intake center in the Cook County Building, 118 N. Clark St., decorated with patriotic posters, for them to come to.
“We want to make it as welcoming as possible,” said Brian Cross, veterans service coordinator. “We wanted this accessible.”
Chief Warrant Officer Mellody Frazier certainly found it accessible.
“I love it,” said Frazier, who was a naval registered nurse at the Portsmouth Medical Center in Virginia between 1992 and 1995. “It’s bright; it’s very friendly.”
She brought her form to be filed.
“I heard about the service and thought I would come back and actually get it done,” Frazier said. While she has lived in various places, as military people tend to, “this is my home of record, so I thought I would come here and have my information here.”
Of course there was one more form to fill out.
“Miss Frazier, just fill out these forms real quick and I’ll have you on your way,” Cross said.
“This is like a welcome home,” said Yarbrough, who took office in December. “You see their faces light up.”
One might wonder why the VA wouldn’t have copies of every vet’s discharge papers, and the answer is, a) they don’t get them automatically from the Department of Defense, but only receive one after a vet files for benefits, and b) just like the vets they serve, the VA is known to lose paperwork too. Or shred it by accident. The VA “has long operated in a veritable culture of lost paper” according to a 2008 expose in the Tampa Bay Times.
Yarbrough said her office was not waiting for vets to walk in, but doing “lots and lots” of outreach. “More and more veterans understand the importance of it,” she said. “The more we tell about it, the more do it.”
The VA neither discourages nor encourages the practice of filing the forms.
“It’s up to the individual veteran what they want to do with their DD-214. It’s always a good thing to hang on to, and always a good thing to have a copy,” said Craig Larson, director of public affairs at the Chicago office of the VA. Himself a vet, Larson filed his with the VA in Rockford, where he lives. “They keep a copy for me, in case for some reason I misplace it.”
More commonly, it is a vet’s survivors who can’t find the DD-214. John Mirkovic, director of communications for the recorder’s office, said an all-too-frequent situation occurs after vets have passed away and the family wants a military funeral but can’t find the form for the funeral home, which requires one for military honors. Usually, there isn’t time to get a replacement from the DOD center in St. Louis.
Registration avoids that.
“That way, no one has to go through pain of missing a military funeral,” Mirkovic said. “To me, that’s the most important thing.”