by Kelley Phillips
This past week, my brother hit a milestone: he has served twenty years in the U.S. Navy. That’s longer than I’ve been a lawyer. It’s longer than I’ve been married or had kids. It feels like a lifetime.
If you’re a regular reader, you probably know that I have two brothers. Both are military veterans. I was a senior in high school when my older brother joined the military. My little brother signed up a few years later. While we were always together as kids, that became a lot more difficult once they were active duty. You don’t get to set your own schedule in the military which means lots of missed holidays, birthdays and other big moments. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a break and everything falls into place: in fact, when my mom reached a birthday of a certain age (insert loud throat clearing here), we were all together. That would have been the last time we were all in the same room at the same time until last December – nearly 14 years.
I’ve noted before that it’s easy to think that we know what being in the military is really like. The news makes it feel like it’s all about the scary stuff: land mines, gunfire and enemy combatants.
But sometimes the toughest parts aren’t the life-threatening moments, they are the life-altering ones. The missed birthdays. Graduation. First steps. First touchdown. Illnesses. Bad news. Good news. Spelling bees and science fairs. Prom.
I have learned a lot about duty, leadership and honor from my brothers and their service for this country. They’ve sacrificed a lot to keep me – and you – safe. And those that love them, they’ve sacrificed a great deal, too.
They’re not alone. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that there were, as of 2013, 22 million veterans alive; that number is expected to decrease dramatically over the next thirty years (slideshow downloads as a pdf). By 2043, the VA estimates that there were will be just under 15 million. There are approximately 1.4 million active duty personnel in the military (chart downloads as a pdf) but that number is expected to drop under a proposal put forth by Department of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel which would shrink the Army to its smallest size since before World War II.
The shrink, of course, is largely budget-related. There are other budget challenges, too, which may result in cuts to benefits and services at a time where many of those who served are already facing hardship. Today, there are nearly 50,000 homeless veterans in America while about 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty – and the number of young homeless veterans is increasing. Hundreds of thousands of veterans have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service to our country, including almost 31% of Vietnam veterans; as many as 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans; 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan; and 20% of Iraqi war veterans. And last year, there was an increase in the number of military families who rely on food stamps as poverty in military families, especially those who are newly enlisted, continues to be a concern: about 1.5 million active duty and veteran military families benefit from the controversial Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the low-income version of the Child Tax Credit (CTC), credits targeted towards low income families.
So, how you can you help? There are a number of ways you can help a veteran and/or active service member – and many of them carry a tax benefit. Here are 14 ways (updated from 2013) that you can say thanks:
Military personnel gather up a field-sized U.S. flag before an NFL football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New York Giants on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Seattlepi.com, Jordan Stead)
Write your Representatives and Senators. Unfortunately, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) for hiring certain workers, including vets, expired last year. That credit, which could be as high as $9,600 per qualified veteran for taxable employers ($6,240 for qualified tax-exempt organizations), was a significant tax savings for employers – and the resulting job was a steady source of income for a qualified veteran. The credit was included in several versions of the tax extenders bill which Congress has yet to act on.
Hire a vet. Credit or no credit (see #1 above), hiring a vet – or the spouse of active duty military (a group that faces particularly high unemployment rates) – is still a good move. Starbucks SBUX -0.81% made news for doing this exact thing: the company has committed to hiring at least 10,000 vets and active duty spouses through 2018. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says about the move, “I’m here to tell you these are high-performance people who can add real value to your business.” On the flip side, if you’re a vet looking for a job or a military spouse looking for a job, mosey on over to the Starbucks site for more information on how to apply. If you’re a vet looking for a job outside of Starbucks, check out vet-specific job boards like hireveterans.com or through military.com.
Help send a care package to a service member. My college friends and I spent many a day making care packages for service members: we baked cookies, made cards and gifts and put together toiletry packages (especially for female service members). Today, in a post 9/11 society, sending individual care packages to “any service member” is discouraged for security reasons. A number of organizations, however, have stepped in to fill the gap. Now, you can send money to organizations like MarineParents.com, Inc. Care Package Project™ which will assemble and send packages for you. Remember that to claim a tax deduction for your gift, you must donate to a qualified charitable organization. MarineParents.com, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization – they say so right on their website (always a plus when organizations share their information online). If you’re not sure whether an organization meets the criteria, you can search online using IRS Exempt Organizations Select Check.
Write a check. Or use your credit card. There’s nothing like simply making an old-fashioned cash (or cash-equivalent) donation. This is the easiest, least labor intensive way to help – and you may qualify for a charitable deduction for your gift if you meet the criteria (don’t forget to check to make sure you’re supporting a qualified charitable organization). If you donate online to an organization like Operation Purple Program which offers camps for kids with military parents, offering them a break from wartime tension at home and coping skills to handle mom or dad’s absence, your credit card receipt can be a useful record for your taxes; your canceled check is also good. Keep excellent records and get a receipt for your taxes.
Donate through your workplace. If you don’t have time to research individual charitable campaigns on your own, consider donating to an organization that’s already been vetted (pardon the pun) for you. A number of employers offer the opportunity to support charities through payroll deductions: one example, Veterans Inc., is a member of the Combined Federal Campaign, the world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign, made up of federal civilian, postal and military donors. Donating through your paycheck also helps you with record-keeping: under the Pension Protection Act of 2006, a pay stub, form W-2 or other document furnished by your employer that shows the total amount withheld as a charitable donation along with the pledge card that shows the name of the charity will be sufficient documentation for you to claim the charitable deduction on your federal income tax return.
Volunteer at a military VITA site. Free tax return preparation assistance is available for eligible military members and their spouses. The IRS and U.S. Armed Forces participate in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which provides free tax advice, tax preparation, return filing and other tax assistance to military members and their families. You can become a volunteer with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Don’t worry: you’ll get plenty of training – and it’s lots of fun, I promise. And if taxes aren’t your thing, you can still help: centers need greeters, screeners, interpreters, site administrators and computer troubleshooters (at the center where I volunteered for years, we also needed folks to help pass out the cookies and provide lunches for volunteers). For more details, submit your contact information using federal form 14310, VITA/TCE Volunteer Sign Up (downloads as a pdf) or email TaxVolunteer@irs.gov. Include the city and state where you want to become a volunteer – let them know if you have a specific interest in helping out at a center which focuses on military families.
Donate your car. If you have been wondering how to get rid of your old car, truck or RV, consider donating it. You can use a free, convenient service like this one through the Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation. When you donate your vehicle to a qualified charitable organization, the rules are a little different from your run of the mill charitable donations so be sure to read the fine print. Generally, you are entitled to deduct the sales price of your vehicle as the value of your donation when it is sold; if your vehicle sells for less than $500, you can deduct the Fair Market Value of the vehicle (up to $499). At sale, the charity will provide you with the sales receipt or federal form 1098C for your records.
Run. Running (or walking) for charity is one of the best ways to make a difference for vets. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s good for you. And you can do it with friends. You can even do it in cool places – like Disney. You can’t deduct the cost of your race registration but you can donate money that you contribute over and above the registration fees. And if you volunteer, you can deduct your out of pocket expenses (yes, that includes travel). A number of organization, like Homes for Our Troops, which assists severely injured veterans by raising money, building materials and professional labor to build homes, have done all of the leg work (ahem) for you, even going so far as to figure out the racing logistics and providing you with fundraising webpages.
Unload those appreciated securities. Donating appreciated securities gives you a double tax benefit: you avoid paying tax on the gain (which you would have to pay if you sold those securities) AND you get a charitable donation for the entire value – gain and all – of the securities as of the date of the donation. Additionally, donating rather than selling might help keep you under the income threshold for the net income investment tax (NIIT) or other taxes for high income taxpayers. Organizations like the Army Emergency Relief, which provides emergency financial assistance to soldiers – active & retired – and their dependents, would love to have your donations of securities throughout the year. It’s a win, win, win – well, win.
Buy a vet a cup of coffee. Okay, this one won’t get you a tax deduction since making a gift to individuals – even really deserving ones – doesn’t qualify for purposes of the charitable donation. But it’s a super nice thing to do, so do it anyway.
Offer freebies at your business. On Veterans Day, many businesses offer freebies for vets and their families: why not do the same? It’s deductible to your business, it’s a great way to promote your business – and did I mention how awesome it is to give free stuff to military families (especially those with limited budgets)? Starbucks is offering a free tall (12 fl. oz) hot brewed coffee for veterans, active duty service members, and spouses. IHOP is offering up free pancakes, while Krispy Kreme will hand over a free doughnut and small coffee to anyone who identifies themselves as a veteran or active duty military personnel. Red Lobster is offering a free app for vets while Applebees, Chili’s and California Pizza Kitchen are offering special deals for vets, too. Check with the individual companies before heading out and please feel free to share details in the comments if you know of more deals.
Tune in. Tonight, HBO will air a Veterans Day concert to honor our vets. The performance, called Concert of Valor, will be held live on the National Mall (it’s free if you’re in the area). The line-up is amazing: those scheduled to appear include the Black Keys, Bruce Springsteen, Carrie Underwood, Dave Grohl (of the Foo Fighters), Eminem, Jennifer Hudson, Jessie J, Metallica, Rihanna and the Zac Brown Band. And no, you don’t get a tax deduction for watching TV but did I mention Bruce Springsteen? And Metallica? The concert, presented by HBO, Starbucks and Chase, will air at 7 p.m. ET.
Buy a ticket for a Vet to attend a fun event. Brown Paper Tickets Salutes shows you how to donate event tickets that will get into the hands of a vet in the city of your choice: the program has delivered more than $1 million in entertainment tickets to military families by event organizers and ticket buyers in 48 states. Events of all types in price ranges from $5 to $100, from sporting events to comedy shows, farm-to-table dinners and comic book conventions are listed in cities across the country, and you can purchase one or more tickets that will get donated directly to Vets hoping who could use a night out. In return, you’ll receive a receipt for your donation that makes it tax deductible. The tickets are actually put into the hands of the Veterans through an integration with Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix), a 501(c)(3) organization. Active U.S. military, veterans and their immediate families can sign up and browse events offering them donated tickets here.
Say thanks. You don’t get a tax deduction for this one. But it’s also crazy easy. And I promise you, it means a lot.
There are so many ways to show your appreciation on Veterans Day – and all year round. I hope you’ll consider showing your appreciation to all of those who have served and are serving our country, no matter how you do it.
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