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The transition from military service to civilian life poses a unique set of challenges. For many veterans, the pursuit of higher education is often a key component of their reintegration into civilian life. It provides them with the opportunity to develop new skills, enhance their knowledge and prepare for a new career path.

However, the financial burden of tuition, books and living expenses can be a significant barrier to entry for many. Without accessible education, veterans may struggle to find their place in a civilian workforce that increasingly demands higher education qualifications.

VA benefits and various scholarships play a pivotal role in making higher education more accessible for veterans. They alleviate some of this financial strain and allow them to focus on their studies rather than how they will pay for school.

Fortunately, there is a wide variety of benefits and scholarships available to veterans, each with its own set of criteria and benefits. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at the federal, state, private and institution-specific benefits and scholarships available to help you plan for your continued education.

Federal and State Education Benefits

The GI Bill offers various programs, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Montgomery GI Bill, each with its own eligibility criteria and benefits. These benefits can cover tuition and fees, provide a monthly housing allowance, and even offer an annual stipend for books and supplies. To be eligible, veterans typically must have served a minimum period of active duty service, and the benefits can vary depending on the length of service and other factors.

In addition to federal benefits, many states offer their own education benefits for veterans. These state-specific benefits can include tuition waivers, scholarships and grants that can be used at state colleges and universities. Some states also offer benefits for the dependents of veterans, such as children and spouses. These benefits can sometimes be used in conjunction with federal benefits, further reducing the financial burden of higher education.

Private Scholarships and Grants

Private organizations play a significant role in supporting veterans' educational aspirations through scholarships and grants. These organizations range from veteran-specific groups to philanthropic foundations, and they often seek to honor the service of military members by easing their transition to civilian life through education.

Some well-known organizations include the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Their scholarships can be particularly beneficial as they may fill gaps not covered by the GI Bill or state benefits, such as summer courses or study-abroad programs. Veterans should explore the various private scholarships available to them, as they can be an invaluable resource in funding their higher education.

Institution-Specific Scholarships for Veterans

Many colleges and universities recognize the value that veteran students bring to their campuses and offer dedicated scholarships to support them. These institution-specific scholarships can vary widely in terms of eligibility, award amounts and application requirements. Some schools provide scholarships that cover the full cost of tuition, while others offer smaller awards that can be used to pay for books, housing, or other educational expenses.

When considering these scholarships, veterans should also look at the overall support system the school offers to veteran students. After all, a scholarship is just one aspect of the educational experience, and attending a school that provides robust resources for veterans can be just as important as the financial aid itself.

Consider factors such as the presence of a veterans' resource center, the availability of counseling services,r and whether the school has staff members dedicated to assisting veteran students. By choosing an institution that offers both financial support through scholarships and a supportive environment, veterans can set themselves up for success in their academic pursuits.

Continuing Support For Veterans' Education

We offer the Charles C. Blanton AFBA Family Survivor College Scholarship to surviving family members of eligible fallen AFBA members. More information on this scholarship can be found here. Beyond that, AFBA members and their dependents can apply for scholarships through our partnership with AUSA. More information on these scholarships can be found here.

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For first responders, high-stress situations are the norm, not the exception. They are routinely exposed to traumatic events, life-threatening scenarios, and the pressure of making split-second decisions that can have profound consequences. This constant exposure to stress can take a significant toll on their mental and physical well-being, making stress management not just beneficial, but essential.

In this blog, we'll explore five practical stress management techniques that can help first responders navigate the challenges of their demanding roles:

1. Breathing Exercises

The act of taking deep, controlled breaths is a powerful tool for mitigating the immediate effects of stress. When we engage in deep breathing, we activate our body's natural relaxation response, which can counteract the surge of adrenaline and cortisol that accompanies emergencies. This physiological shift can help first responders stabilize their heart rate, lower their blood pressure, and calm their nerves, enabling them to think more clearly and respond more effectively.

First responders can incorporate simple breathing exercises into their routine with minimal effort and no equipment. A basic technique involves inhaling slowly through the nose for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of four, and then exhaling through the mouth for a count of four. This can be repeated several times and can be done amid a busy shift or during a brief moment of downtime, providing a quick and accessible way to manage stress on the job.

2. Physical Fitness: Strengthening Resilience

In addition to breathing exercises, first responders can also use regular physical exercises to manage stress. Not only is this vital for the demanding aspects of their work but also for strengthening their psychological resilience. Exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural mood lifters, which can help to alleviate the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

First responders can benefit from a variety of exercise routines, from strength training and cardiovascular workouts to flexibility and balance exercises. Activities such as running, cycling, or team sports can fit well into their schedules and can also provide the added benefit of social interaction. Even brief bouts of exercise, like a quick walk or a 10-minute bodyweight circuit during a break, can make a significant difference in managing stress levels.

3. Cultivating Calmness Through Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment with openness and without judgment. For first responders, cultivating mindfulness can be a refuge from chaos, allowing them to reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on the present rather than worrying about past or future events.

Meditation is often practiced as a component of mindfulness and can be tailored to fit the unpredictable schedules of first responders. Techniques such as guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, or even short, focused sessions of breathing meditation can be integrated into their daily routines. These practices can help create a sense of inner peace and can be particularly effective during times of crisis or after exposure to traumatic events.

4. The Importance of Community

The shared experiences of first responders create a unique bond that can be a powerful source of support during stressful times. By connecting with colleagues, individuals can find comfort in knowing they are not alone in their experiences. Sharing stories and coping strategies can also provide validation, reduce the sense of isolation, and foster a supportive community that understands the specific challenges of the job.

There are both formal and informal support systems available to first responders. Formal systems may include employee assistance programs, peer support groups, or mental health services provided by their agency. Informal support might come from debriefing with colleagues after a tough call, engaging in team-building activities, or simply having a trusted partner to talk to. Both types of support systems are invaluable resources for managing stress and promoting mental well-being.

5. Seeking Professional Help When Stress Becomes Unmanageable

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. First responders should be encouraged to monitor their mental health and to understand that it is okay to reach out for help when the burden becomes too heavy to bear alone. Early intervention can prevent more serious mental health issues from developing and can provide individuals with the tools they need to cope with stress more effectively.

Many organizations now recognize the importance of mental health and offer services that are confidential and tailored to the unique experiences of those in high-stress professions. Outside of their employers, first responders can also find a range of counseling services, stress management programs, and crisis hotlines specifically designed to cater to their needs.

For instance, Safe Call Now (+1 206 459 3020) offers a confidential 24-hour crisis referral service for first responders and their family members.

Utilizing these resources can make a significant difference in a first responder's ability to maintain their mental health and their capacity to perform their duties.

Integrating These Techniques Into Daily Life

First responders need to take proactive steps toward managing their stress. This might mean setting aside time each day for a breathing exercise, finding moments for physical activity, or reaching out to a colleague or mental health professional when the signs of stress are becoming overwhelming. By integrating these strategies into their daily routines, they can achieve a greater sense of balance and peace of mind, even in the face of adversity.

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Military life comes with its own set of unique challenges that can impact a family's financial stability in many ways. The very nature of military service, for example, means families could find themselves moving frequently. This can disrupt employment for spouses, education for children and lead to additional costs that come with moving.

For all these reasons and more, military families need to recognize these unique challenges and address them with a comprehensive financial plan. If you're a member of a military family, read on for tips for creating a financial plan that can help address your needs.

1. Understand your financial situation

First, you need to have a clear sense of your financial situation. Gather key financial information, including income, assets, expenses, debts, savings, and so on.

2. Establish financial goals

Next, you want to consider your short- and long-term financial goals. Do you plan on buying a home? Do you have debt to pay off? It's important to have clarity on these plans as you put together a plan.

3. Create a budget

When developing a budget, you want to account for your regular expenses, such as housing, utilities, groceries and transportation. But you also need to set aside money for your savings and any debt repayment.

Tip: To make setting aside money a lot easier, use automatic transfers to savings accounts and retirement plans.

4. Set up an emergency fund

Given the unpredictable nature of military life, an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses or loss of income is critical. Your established financial situation and budget should influence the scope of your emergency fund.

Tip: To determine the appropriate size of your emergency fund, calculate your average monthly expenses and multiply that by the number of months you want to cover. The stability of your income, the predictability of your expenses and your current financial obligations are all factors to consider.

5. Know your benefits

As a member of the military, you have access to many benefits that should factor into your family financial plan. Here are just a few not to forget:

Tip: By incorporating your discounts and benefits into your financial plan, you can reduce everyday expenses and put more funds toward savings and debt reduction.

6. Plan for deployments

If there's a chance you'll be deployed, make sure you have a plan in place to manage finances while away from home. Your spouse or a trusted family member should have access to key financial information if you're unable to oversee everything while deployed.

7. Consider education expenses

Whether you, a spouse or children plan to pursue higher education, start saving for tuition and other education expenses. Fortunately, there are education benefits available to military families, such as the GI Bill.

8. Be ready to make changes

Understand that a family financial plan isn't just something you set once and forget about. It will require constant monitoring and adjusting depending on your family's financial situation.

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Being a first responder is not just a job; it's a calling that requires a unique set of skills and attributes that can mean the difference between life and death. These heroes are the first on the scene of accidents, natural disasters or any other critical incidents where life and safety are at risk. These emergency situations often demand high levels of physical exertion, sometimes over extended periods.

First responders must be able to carry heavy equipment, move debris or even carry individuals to safety. In addition, they must also maintain mental alertness and resiliency while being able to recover quickly. The ability to work long shifts under these conditions is a testament to their dedication and the rigorous training they undergo to serve their communities effectively.

In the blog, we'll be exploring some of the often-overlooked physical demands of the job, from training to the hidden health toll many first responders face.

Preparing To Be a First Responder

Preparation is key in the unpredictable world of first responders. Their training programs are a comprehensive regimen encompassing everything from strength training and cardiovascular conditioning to agility drills — all designed to keep them fit for the rigors of their work.

Simulated emergency scenarios play a crucial role at this stage, offering a realistic yet safe platform to hone their skills, build muscle memory and confidence and foster team coordination. These exercises ensure they're not just physically ready, but mentally prepared to make critical decisions in the heat of the moment.

The Long-Term Health Implications

The physical exertions and emotional strains of first responders are not without consequences. Repetitive motions, exposure to adverse conditions and the sheer physicality of their tasks often lead to musculoskeletal disorders. Meanwhile, exposure to hazardous materials can escalate their risk of chronic diseases.

Beyond the physical labor of their daily responsibilities, first responders often wage a silent battle against the stress and adrenaline that come with their line of work. The fight or flight response, which they may face on a daily basis, can have long-term health impacts, not only leading to physical issues, like hypertension, heart attacks and strokes but also mental health problems.

Not only are first responder jobs high-stress environments with irregular work hours, they also expose workers to potentially traumatic scenes. This can lead to issues like anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, PTSD and other mental health issues. Addressing these needs is essential, not only to help our heroes in return but also to reduce the stigma around seeking help in the first place.

Supporting Our Heroes

Whether they're maintaining resilience on the job or joining the road to recovery, first responders deserve a helping hand. Access to quality healthcare, specialized rehabilitation centers and mental health services is fundamental, ensuring they can recover from injuries and cope with the mental toll of their duties.

Peer support and counseling offer additional layers of support, providing a space to share experiences and coping strategies. Many first responder organizations offer professional counseling services designed to address the specific needs of those in the profession. Similarly, departments and agencies will often provide employee assistance programs (EAPs), which offer confidential assessments, counseling and referrals for a range of issues, including stress, mental health, substance abuse and family problems.

There is also a wide range of first-responder charities and foundations providing essential support to our heroes on the frontlines. Whether you need assistance or you're looking for ways to help, consider checking out these organizations:

As first responders continue to bravely answer their call of duty, it's our collective responsibility to protect and serve those who do the same for us.

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Tracing its roots to the early colonial militias of the 1600s, the National Guard has evolved significantly over the centuries. It has played a pivotal role in every major American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to the recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, its core capacity to serve local communities has never changed.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at three crucial roles the National Guard plays in our communities.

1. Disaster Response and Relief

When natural disasters strike, the National Guard is often among the first to respond, saving countless civilian lives. Their rapid mobilization capabilities allow them to provide immediate assistance to communities facing crises such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.

The Guard's presence brings not only manpower and equipment but also a sense of security and hope to affected areas. Their ability to quickly deploy and operate under challenging conditions makes them an indispensable asset during these critical times, helping to stabilize situations that could otherwise spiral out of control.

The National Guard's search and rescue operations are a testament to their bravery and skill. Whether it's navigating floodwaters to rescue stranded families, digging through the rubble of a collapsed building, or airlifting individuals from remote locations, the Guard's personnel are trained to handle a variety of rescue scenarios.

But the job doesn't stop there. After a disaster, their role shifts from immediate response to long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation. Members work tirelessly alongside local authorities and organizations to rebuild infrastructure, restore essential services, and help communities recover from the devastation.

2. Health and Medical Support

In times of crisis, such as the pandemic, the National Guard's emergency medical services are a lifeline for communities facing dire situations. Guard units are equipped with medical personnel and resources that can be deployed to supplement overwhelmed local healthcare systems. Their swift action in setting up field hospitals, providing triage, and delivering medical care is crucial in preserving the health and well-being of affected populations, ensuring that no one is left without access to essential medical services.

Beyond emergency response, the National Guard also engages in ongoing healthcare programs and assistance. These programs aim to improve the overall health landscape of local communities, particularly in underserved areas. Initiatives may include health screenings, vaccination drives, and public health education campaigns, all of which contribute to a healthier populace. The Guard's involvement in these programs demonstrates their role not just as responders, but as proactive agents of health and wellness within the community.

3. Training and Expertise Sharing

Training local first responders is an essential service provided by the National Guard, ensuring that communities have skilled professionals ready to handle emergencies. The Guard offers specialized training programs that cover a range of skills, from emergency medical techniques to disaster response strategies. By sharing their knowledge and experience, the Guard enhances the capabilities of local emergency services, which is vital for the safety and security of the community.

The National Guard's role in sharing military expertise with community agencies extends beyond traditional emergency response. Their personnel often provide insights into logistics, communications, and coordination, which are critical in managing complex situations. This transfer of knowledge helps community agencies to operate more effectively, whether they're planning large public events or improving their readiness for potential crises.

The National Guard's presence is a cornerstone of strength for countless communities. Their unique ability to operate both as a military force and a community service provider allows them to address a wide range of needs, from disaster response to youth development and public health. As challenges evolve and new threats emerge, the Guard will no doubt continue to adapt and expand its capabilities to meet the needs of the nation.

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Military discounts are a token of gratitude offered by businesses to the men and women who have served or are currently serving in the armed forces. These discounts are a small way to honor the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families, helping them save significantly on everything from groceries to travel expenses.

To help you take advantage of these savings opportunities, let's take a look at the top 5 discounts available to military servicemembers and veterans.

1. Automotive Discounts

The automotive industry has a long-standing tradition of supporting military personnel through various discount programs. Many car manufacturers, rental companies and insurance providers offer special pricing to active duty servicemembers, veterans and sometimes even their families. These discounts can apply to the purchase of new vehicles and are often in addition to other rebates and incentives available to the general public. Some of the most well-known car brands have structured programs that can save military members thousands of dollars on a new vehicle purchase, making it more affordable to own the car they desire.

2. Retail Benefits

The retail sector offers a plethora of exclusive in-store and online discounts to active-duty military members, veterans and their families. These discounts span across a wide range of brands and products, from clothing and electronics to home goods and sporting equipment. Many stores have a fixed percentage off the regular price, while others may offer special promotions during military appreciation events or holidays. Some online retailers also partner with military discount services to verify servicemember status, which you can then use to access discounts across multiple online stores.

3. Travel and Accommodation Deals

The travel industry is well-known for its support of military personnel through a variety of special offers and discounts. Many airlines provide reduced fares for active duty military members and their families, recognizing the need for affordable travel, especially when it comes to last-minute trips or emergency leave. Hotels and resorts also extend special rates to military personnel, often under a dedicated military discount program. These military rates can result in significant savings on accommodations, whether for leisure, during a PCS, or while on temporary duty.

4. Dining and Entertainment Discounts

Restaurants across the nation express their gratitude to military members by offering military discounts on meals. These discounts can range from a percentage off the total bill to a free appetizer or dessert. Some dining establishments may even offer a completely free meal to servicemembers on certain holidays like Veterans Day. It's a gesture that not only helps servicemembers save money but also gives them a warm welcome and a sense of appreciation from the community.

Entertainment centers like movie theaters and amusement parks also show their support for military members by offering special military pricing on tickets. This discount can make a night out at the movies or even a weekend resort more affordable, allowing servicemembers and their families to enjoy themselves without straining their budget.

5. Financial Services and Banking Perks

Financial institutions often provide tailored services to meet the unique needs of military members, including reduced loan interest rates. These lower rates can apply to mortgages, auto loans and personal loans, helping service members save money over the life of their loans.

Some lenders also offer special programs for military homebuyers, such as VA loans, which come with additional benefits like no down payment and no private mortgage insurance requirements. Active duty service members are encouraged to explore these options to maximize their financial benefits and make borrowing more affordable.

Looking for More Military Member Benefits?

Discover the discounts an AFBA membership has to offer.

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Dogs are more than just pets; they've been loyal companions to humans for tens of thousands of years. In ancient times they helped us hunt, but today, they serve a wide range of roles, from our best friends to vigilant protectors who keep us safe.

Each year, March 13th is dedicated to National K9 Veterans Day — a day for recognizing and honoring the service and sacrifices of military and working dogs. It marks the official birthday of the United States K9 Corps, which was established back in 1942 for the first military dogs who served during World War II.

These dogs, and those that followed, have played critical roles in patrol, detection, search and rescue, and as loyal companions. The observance of National K9 Veterans Day is a testament to the enduring partnership between dogs and humans, particularly in the realm of national defense and public service. It's a day to reflect on the heroism of these animals and give thanks for their countless contributions to our society.

The History of the K9 Unit

The K9 unit, as we know it today, has a storied history that began long before its formal establishment. Dogs have been used in warfare and security since ancient times, aiding the military forces of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. However, the official use of dogs for military purposes in the United States began during World War II with the inception of the War Dog Program, or "K9 Corps," on March 13, 1942.

This marked the beginning of systematic training and deployment of canines for combat and other military-related tasks. The K9 Corps initially recruited civilian dogs and their owners, training these teams for various duties, including sentry, scout, and messenger roles.

Over the years, the role of K9 units has evolved significantly. In the public sphere, police forces have adopted the concept of training dogs for law enforcement tasks such as drug and bomb detection, search and rescue operations, and the pursuit of suspects. Today, these K9 units are an indispensable part of both military operations and public safety efforts, showcasing the remarkable adaptability and skill of these working dogs.

The Life of a Working Dog

Working dogs play a pivotal role in contributing to public and national security. Their keen senses, particularly hearing and smell, make them invaluable in detecting explosives, narcotics, and even certain medical conditions. Our canine companions are also often the first line of defense for national security, working tirelessly at borders, airports, and high-security events to sniff out potential threats.

The life of a K9 unit begins with rigorous training, where handlers hone their natural abilities to perform specialized tasks. This training is both physically and mentally demanding, ensuring that the dogs are prepared for the challenges they will face in the field without getting distracted.

Throughout their service, K9s form an unbreakable bond with their handlers, built on trust, respect, and mutual reliance. When these dogs retire, they often do so with the same handler or another loving family, where they can enjoy a well-deserved rest and the companionship they have earned through years of loyal service. In some cases, after their tenure in active duty, K9s can often find new ways to contribute to society — especially as the roles of working dogs are continually expanding.

As therapy dogs, they provide comfort and support to veterans and civilians alike, helping to alleviate stress, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms. As service dogs, they assist individuals with disabilities, offering them greater independence and quality of life. Whatever they get up to, K9 units continue to serve and inspire long after their official duties have ended, proving that their heroism extends far beyond the battlefield or the line of duty.

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Historically, the military has been at the forefront of medical innovation. The necessity of saving lives on the battlefield has led to important discoveries as well as the development of cutting-edge medical techniques and technologies.

Major Walter Reed, for example, led the Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba in 1900, according to the Department of Defense. This commission’s work found that mosquitoes carried Yellow Fever — a discovery that saved countless lives.

Then, there’s the fact that because of wartime medical advancements, the survival rate for wounded and ill soldiers increased from 4% in World War 1 to 50% in World War II, per the U.S. Department of Defense.

The connection between military and civilian medicine is undeniable, as many advancements initially intended for soldiers have found their way into everyday healthcare practices. Let’s take a look at a few additional medical advancements that originated in the military.

Field Triage and Evacuation Systems

Military forces developed efficient triage and evacuation systems to provide timely care to injured soldiers. These systems have been adapted for civilian emergency response, ensuring that critical medical attention is given to those who need it most during such events as accidents and natural disasters. The military’s readiness and protocols for crisis response and disaster management have also been integrated into civilian disaster preparedness and response efforts.

Hemostatic Agents and Blood Clotting Innovations

The military played a significant role in advancing blood clotting technology. Hemostatic agents developed for military use have been instrumental in saving lives on the battlefield. Today, they’re widely used in civilian healthcare to control bleeding during surgery and trauma cases.

Trauma Care and Surgical Techniques

A bit more on trauma — battlefield surgery innovations have led to enhanced emergency surgical techniques in civilian healthcare. Military surgeons’ expertise in dealing with high-stress, trauma-related surgeries has improved outcomes for civilian patients in emergency rooms worldwide.

Prosthetics and Rehabilitation

The military’s dedication has driven innovations in prosthetic limb technology to rehabilitate injured soldiers. These advancements have greatly benefited civilian amputees by providing them with more functional and lifelike prosthetic limbs.

There have been significant advances in prosthetics since 9/11, according to the Military Health System and Defense Health Agency. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs funded a clinical trial focused on percutaneous osseointegrated prosthesis, or POP implants. These implants are surgically anchored to an individual’s remaining thigh bone. In addition to several benefits compared to traditional prostheses, patients have reported that the POP implants feel like they are a part of them.

Telemedicine and Remote Healthcare

For everyday folks, telemedicine is more common than ever, but they may not realize that the military has pioneered telehealth. This technology has had a substantial impact on rural and underserved civilian populations, improving access to healthcare services. For the military, telemedicine has enabled remote medical consultations and diagnosis for soldiers deployed in remote locations.

Vaccination and Preventive Medicine

The military has played a vital role in vaccine development and distribution, from smallpox to COVID-19. Lessons learned from military-led vaccine research have paved the way for widespread vaccination campaigns and bolstered public health efforts.

In addition to vaccines, the military has excelled in preventive medicine strategies, including disease surveillance and prevention. These strategies have proven effective not only for soldiers but also for civilian populations in preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

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February is Black History Month — an important time to recognize and honor the profound contributions and sacrifices of African Americans throughout our nation's history. Despite the immeasurable hardships and discrimination they've faced in a country that had, until around 60 years ago, denied their rights as citizens, African American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have continually shown exceptional valor and resilience both on and off the battlefield.

This year, to celebrate and honor our nation's Black service members, we'd like to take a look back at their heroic journeys throughout history, shedding light on their often unsung stories.

The History of African Americans in the Military

From the very inception of the United States of America, Black service members have demonstrated an unwavering commitment, courage and determination to defend the nation. In fact, they've answered the call of duty to serve and sacrifice in every single U.S. war, from the Revolutionary War through Iraq and Afghanistan.

As we commemorate the enduring legacy of African Americans in the military, let's trace their remarkable history from the 1700s to the modern day.

The Revolutionary War

Beginning prior to the Revolutionary War, both free and enslaved Black people rose up against the British during the Boston Massacre. In fact, Crispus Attucks is considered to be the first casualty of the revolution, bravely leading the protest before the tragedy transpired.

Following the Boston Massacre, over 5,000 Black soldiers from all 13 colonies fought for the American cause, seeking the prospect of freedom from both the British and the colonists. Unfortunately, only about 20% of those who served were freed from their bonds.

The Civil War

While Black minutemen and soldiers served in regiments throughout the later 1700s and early 1800s, it wasn't until 1863 that the U.S. government officially allowed African Americans to enlist in the armed forces. However, the Civil War was obviously a turning point for Black military history, as by the end of it, nearly 200,000 Black soldiers had served in the Union Army. Meanwhile, the Confederate Army had recruited a small group of Black soldiers toward the end of the war, but they wouldn't see combat before its end.

The Great Wars

By the time of World War I and World War II, the horrors of chattel slavery had ended, and Black Americans were quickly becoming a much larger part of the nation's military — despite continuing discrimination and segregation. To put it into perspective, the First World War saw over 380,000 African Americans serve in the army, while over 1 million Black men and women served in the second.

Fighting fascism on one front and racism on the other, Black service members demonstrated extraordinary courage and resilience, with legendary groups like the Tuskegee Airmen leaving an indelible mark on history.

Modern Military Diversity

In today's modern military, the landscape has significantly evolved. The U.S. military is continually committed to improving racial diversity and providing equal opportunities for all service members. And with each branch making a more proactive effort to recruit and train a diverse force of soldiers, sailors and airmen, the nation can not only strengthen its capabilities but also reflect the values of equality and inclusion that are so central to America.

Honoring Black Heroes

As we continue into Black History Month, and throughout the year, it's important to take the time to reflect on and commemorate the sacrifices and contributions African Americans have made in the line of duty. Their stories of bravery and determination inspire us all and remind us of the strength found in diversity and unity.

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The word "valor" conjures up images of bravery in the face of incredible danger — a description well-suited for service members. But did you know that valor can be stolen?

The Stolen Valor Act is meant to help protect service members and their reputations and identities. It's also a defense against any false claim of military decoration, stopping people from lying about awards, medals or other recognitions. However, like most legislation, the Stolen Valor Act is an ongoing story — one that's about to get more complicated.

Here's everything you need to know about stolen valor and how to protect yourself.

What Is Stolen Valor?

Stolen valor is essentially a lie. It involves falsely claiming military service, rank, recognition or even someone else's identity. While it's not technically illegal to just "make things up" — for example, to impress friends at a party — stolen valor is more complicated than that, which is why it is considered a crime. (So is military impersonation, a similar offense committed willfully, wrongfully and with or without intent to defraud.)

What makes stolen valor so complex? One example is nuance. In some cases, a service member may have received the wrong authorization and could be unknowingly wearing a medal or other decorations inappropriately. That's right: Even active service members can commit an act of stolen valor. These acts are covered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), while veterans and civilians answer to civilian federal law.

The Stolen Valor Act is a series of attempts to clarify these issues, balancing military service protections with free speech rules. Here's a look at the legislative history:

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005

This legislation made it a misdemeanor to lie about earning any kind of military medal or honor. These lies included wearing, manufacturing and selling any medal without legal authorization. The reasoning was clear: "Fraudulent claims surrounding the receipt of [military honors] damage the reputation and meaning of such decorations and medals." Penalties included fines and imprisonment.

However, the legislation didn't last long. In the United States vs. Alvarez, one of multiple stolen valor cases, state official Xavier Alvarez's legal team argued that these rules infringed upon the First Amendment protection of free speech. In 2012, the Supreme Court declared the legislation unconstitutional.

The 2013 Amendment

In 2013, stolen valor rules came back, this time with a new caveat: The lies in question must result in some kind of tangible benefit before they can be considered legally problematic. This helps focus legislative language on fraudulent activity that isn't protected under the First Amendment.

The new Stolen Valor Act identifies protections for military awards including:

  • Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • Distinguished service cross.
  • Navy cross.
  • Air Force cross.
  • Silver star.
  • Purple Heart.
  • Combat Action Badge.
  • Combat Action Ribbon.

Penalties include fines, imprisonment for up to one year or both.

"Our nation can never fully express our gratitude for all that our men and women in uniform have experienced on our behalf," said Senator Dean Heller, one of the creators of the amendment, in 2013. "Their acts of valor helped ensure the safety and security of our nation, and the honor of their awards should never be compromised.

A New House Provision

In mid-2023, the House Appropriations Committee released its Fiscal Year 2024 bill, which included a potentially problematic provision for stolen valor laws. This would make it far more difficult to obtain military service records.

The idea is mostly an attempt to defend service member privacy, which is more important than ever in today's world. However, there's a perhaps unintended consequence: It would be incredibly complicated to disprove any fraudulent claim of military service. You could technically get the information if you really needed it, but you'd have to get permission from the service member or their family — and if that didn't work, you'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which could take months or years to come through.

It's crucial to protect personal information, sure. But opponents of the provision point out that it's equally important to be able to disprove lies that could hurt service members or their families.

How To Spot Stolen Valor

Although ongoing legislation shifts the playing field for the Stolen Valor Act, you can still help spot trouble. Here are a few red flags that someone could be lying about a military honor:

Incomplete Understanding of Military Duties

Military duties are rigorous and highly regulated, as any service member should know. You'd probably be able to list the specifics of your responsibilities even decades after active service. That's why it's often suspicious when someone has an incomplete or incorrect understanding of military duties — whether the tasks they supposedly completed or the functions of the military overall.

If you suspect someone could be committing an act of stolen valor, ask yourself this: Does it sound like they learned everything they know by watching war movies? This kind of surface-level or even flat-out wrong understanding of the military is often a giveaway that you're not hearing the truth.

Of course, if someone is truly dedicated to such lies, they may have done in-depth research. That means this red flag isn't always applicable, and you may need to look elsewhere for signs of deception.

Lack of Details

These days, it's easy to look up details about particular deployments or military operations — but someone who's falsifying their experiences won't have the specifics. They might be purposefully vague, avoiding in-depth discussions and changing the subject, or they might make things up to fill in the gaps. While a civilian may not notice inconsistencies in such a story, service members and their families will likely be the first to suspect that something isn't right.

This is particularly true if the person mentions a particular deployment location and date. Do other service members' recollections line up? There's always a chance that someone has simply forgotten a detail or had a different perspective and experience — but in general, everyone's stories should be similar.

Suspicious Language

There are a few ways to break down someone's language if you suspect stolen valor.

First, consider whether they "talk like a service member." Do they use the right terminology in the right places? Do they treat certain topics, responsibilities and fellow service members with respect? Do they speak about their experiences with familiarity? Everyone's experiences are different, so it can be difficult to know for sure — but trust your gut on this one.

It can also be helpful to remember the context of stolen valor as a legal term. If you were to hypothetically charge someone with this crime, they would have to be getting some kind of tangible benefit from their fraudulent claim. That means they might weave certain kinds of language into their speech or writing. Are they trying to get something from you or others? Do they sound like they're persuading you logically, emotionally or ethically? Can you link anything they're saying or doing to a money-making opportunity?

Protecting Your Valor

Service members and their families shouldn't have to fight for the valor they rightfully earned, but sometimes, it's necessary. That's why you should keep an eye on stolen valor laws and watch out for suspicious activity in on- or offline communities where you can't verify someone's military background. Most importantly, look for any kind of identity theft that could impact your reputation, finances or quality of life.