Even if you served in the military years ago, you may be eligible for valuable grants or interest-free loans for veterans — and not even know it. This year, special funds have been expanded to help vets and their families deal with COVID-related financial challenges.

These programs, from military aid societies and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), can provide thousands of dollars to certain veterans and their families for emergency expenses, college scholarships, disaster relief and home renovations to help age in place. (A new study from Own Up, which compares rates by lenders, found a large spread in the rates private lenders charge for VA loans.)

Retired Air Force Master Sergeant Jason Lingenfelter and his wife, Air Force veteran Christy Lingenfelter, are grateful for receiving a grant from the Air Force Aid Society after Hurricane Michael damaged their home in the Florida Panhandle in 2018. A tree from their neighbor’s yard fell on their roof, creating a 2-foot hole in their son’s bedroom, and the ceiling collapsed in their daughter’s room. After a neighbor told them the Air Force Aid Society was providing grants, they immediately applied. “We drove an hour and a half to Eglin Air Force Base to receive the $1,500 grant check, and we were so excited by how easy it was,” says Christy.

Here are details on grants and loans from military aid societies and the Department of Veterans Affairs:

How military aid societies can help

Every branch of the service — Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force — has a military aid society that provides grants and interest-free loans to assist service members and military retirees with unexpected expenses. These aid societies have generally been around since either the 1920s or the 1940s.

They’ve all expanded their programs for financial challenges due the coronavirus pandemic, such as child-care costs when schools were closed, bills when someone in the family was laid off and emergency travel costs as a result of a coronavirus-related death of an immediate family member.

“Other common categories of assistance with retired soldiers are basic living expenses such as food, utilities, rent, minor home repairs such as a new roof, new appliance, and auto repair such as new tires and transmission repair,” says Matt Howland of Army Emergency Relief.

In fact, more than 10,000 servicemembers, military retirees and family members have received nearly $15 million in COVID-19 relief grants and loans from the military aid societies.

The emergency funds are typically available to veterans who served 20 years or more on active duty or are retired due to medical reasons. Spouses and surviving spouses are eligible for many of these benefits, too. The aid societies also offer grants and loans to servicemembers and retirees (and their families) that aren’t related to emergency expenses.

For instance, The Air Force Aid Society provides college education grants of $500 to $4,000 to spouses and dependent children of Air Force servicemembers and dependent children of retirees.

“We set aside almost six million dollars every year for this program, and retirees’ families make up a great number of this group,” says Linda Egentowich, chief operating officer for the Air Force Aid Society. Those grants are need-based and recipients must be full-time students with a GPA of more than 2.0.

The Air Force Aid Society also provides up to $1,000 in interest-free loans for supplemental college costs, such as textbooks, and awards 15 to 20 merit-based scholarships of $5,000 annually to incoming freshmen.

Army Emergency Relief has a program for Army spouses that helps pay for full-time or part-time study toward an undergraduate degree or professional certification.

Most of the military aid societies also have robust disaster relief programs for servicemembers and retirees.

“We’ve been there for them during the hurricanes in the Gulf,” says Alena Howard, chief development officer for Coast Guard Mutual Assistance.

Read: How everyday Americans can help stressed-out veterans — it’s more than saying ‘thank you for your service’

Its loans come immediately after a hurricane or other disaster to help families until they receive any payouts from their insurers or the federal government. Then the amount of unreimbursed expenses usually converts into grants — such as to cover the insurance deductible, which can be as much as 5% of a home’s value in some hurricane-prone areas.

You can apply for military aid society loans and grants through the group’s representative in the community service office or family readiness center at a nearby military base or through the American Red Cross.

Alternatively, you can now fill out most of the applications online.

For more information, go to the websites of the Air Force Aid Society, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, Army Emergency Relief and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

VA money to age in place

Veterans with service-connected disabilities may qualify for grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs to make home improvements that can help them age in place. Many of the grants go to Vietnam veterans adapting their homes as they age and lose mobility.

The VA awarded over $120 million in 2,200 adapted housing grants in 2019.

Its Specially Adapted Housing grant, worth up to $90,364, and Special Home Adaptation grant, worth up to $18,074, can pay for renovations to make your home more accessible if you lose mobility. Those figures will rise in 2021 to $100,896 and $20,215.

Interest in these grants has grown recently as veterans and their families have seen the impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes and more of them want to adapt their homes so they can age in place.

Related: The problems with ‘aging in place’

You may be able to use the VA money to widen doorways, install a ramp, handrails and grab bars, add a roll-in shower or make other changes to the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and entryways allowing easier access.

If approved for the grant, you’re assigned a VA agent who can help you find contractors, though you can use any contractor you choose.

To be eligible, you must have what’s known as a VA disability rating, from a service-connected injury or illness while on active duty or a disability related to active-duty service that didn’t appear until you ended you service. (The VA website has more information about VA disability ratings.)

You needn’t lose mobility entirely to qualify, but you must meet specific medical requirements.

For a Specially Adapted Housing grant, for example, you need to have the loss or loss of use of both lower extremities or one lower extremity if you’re also blind or lose the use of one upper extremity or meet other medical requirements.

Veterans who are diagnosed with ALS automatically receive a 100% disability rating and can qualify for the Specially Adapted Housing grant. And veterans diagnosed during the disability rating process with Parkinson’s, diabetes or illnesses potentially connected to Agent Orange exposure may be eligible for the grants.

Some veterans with accessibility needs may qualify for a smaller Home Improvements and Structural Alternations grant of up to $6,800 for service-related conditions or $2,000 for a non-service-connected condition (such as losing mobility for reasons that aren’t related to time in the military).

For more information about applying for the VA’s adapted housing grants, go to the VA site. You can get help applying from a Veterans Service Organization, such as the American Legion.

Kimberly Lankford has been a financial journalist for more than 20 years and is the author of three books. Her financial articles have appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, AARP Magazine and Military Officer Magazine, and her syndicated columns were published in the Chicago Tribune and other papers. She received the personal finance Best in Business Award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2020 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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