As Jonna Barker prepared to retire from the Navy in 2001, she had to confront a lot of unknowns. But she had no one to turn to for help about what to expect once she was out or what Department of Veterans Affairs benefits she was eligible for.
“Everything I learned, I learned as a veteran,” she said.
So that others don’t have a similar experience of “going it alone,” Barker became a DAV transition service officer— a benefits advocate for service members separating from the military.
Like DAV national service officers who are benefits advocates for veterans, she helps her clients navigate the VA disability claims process and understand what they earned based on their service and sacrifices.
Alan Worthy went to Barker when he decided to retire from the Navy in 2021. He said the service she provided was invaluable because she had expertise that other resources, like Navy career counselors, didn’t.
“They have all the information the Navy gives them, but they don’t have the information from the VA,” said Worthy, who had command of a unit when he transitioned.
His experience with military resources was a lot like Barker’s own experience two decades earlier. Her last assignment, as she looked around her command for help with veterans benefits, was as a career counselor.
DAV benefits advocates can help bridge the informational gap. There are 30 DAV specialists, including Barker, who handle claims for active-duty service members. The advocates work at military installations around the country, and the services they provide are free.
“Getting out of the military is a major life event. It forces veterans and families to face the unknown, and the overload of important decisions can be overwhelming,” said National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “People need to know they aren’t alone. DAV is there to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”
Barker said part of her role is to educate service members about the importance of being properly prepared to leave the military so they can take advantage of the VA’s Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program, which allows transitioning service members to start their disability claims process between 180 and 90 days before their separation date. The goal of the program is to get veterans their VA disability rating as near as possible to the end of their service.
Filing a BDD claim is often faster than waiting until after service to file claims with the VA.
Barker’s office is at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego. She works with members of all branches, but because of her close proximity to Naval Base Coronado, California, she frequently meets with transitioning Navy SEALs.
“I have learned so much over the years working with them,” Barker said. “I probably know their bodies a lot better than they do.”
She said the stresses their bodies endure in training and while deployed are akin to those of a high-performance athlete.
Doctors say that, like other special operations forces, SEALs commonly exhibit symptoms of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, endocrine system imbalances and a host of other medical issues related to their job’s stressful and intense nature.
“They’ve been through hell and back, especially those that have been in combat numerous times,” Barker said.
With everyone she meets, Barker is meticulous in her work as she reviews medical records, helps prepare VA forms, reminds them of filing deadlines and explains the nuances of VA policy that may affect their benefits.
“The first claim that you do is so important, because if you don’t do it right the first time, you will be spending a lot of time disagreeing with the VA’s findings,” she said.
For Barker, being a benefits advocate is about doing all she can to make someone changed by their service whole again.
“I want to make sure everybody gets the opportunity to file,” she said. “To see them get what they deserve is very satisfying.”
There’s no reason for anyone to feel overwhelmed by VA benefits and programs. DAV benefits advocates are a no-cost resource available to anyone who is transferring out of the military or who is already a veteran. DAV’s service office locator is at benefitsquestions.org.