Senior veteran looking at American flag | EyeJoy/E+/Getty Images

My husband and I attended a reunion of the men who served on the USS William M. Wood, a U.S. Navy destroyer. The reunion is annually timed to coincide with Columbus Day, which honors Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the New World and opened the doors to life here.

Only about 100 former sailors and their spouses attended our reunion a few years ago — a small segment of the thousands of men who served their country aboard the Wood. Because the Wood was launched during World War II and continued to be in service through the Vietnam War, nearly everyone who attended was at, or near, retirement.

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We go every year and we always have a good time talking to friends. This time one of the most popular topics was what it takes to live well in this tough economy. Several of the guys said they were relying on the Veterans Affairs health care benefits. That struck me as an idea that lots of people could incorporate into their retirement planning.

Many vets find it much cheaper to rely on VA health care instead of Medicare. Veterans enrolled in the VA medical benefits package and not enrolled in Medicare avoid Medicare premiums, deductibles and co-insurance.

Some vets find it best to combine parts of Medicare — for instance, Part A for which there is no additional charge — with VA care, opting out of Medicare Parts B and D.

The VA also provides extensive nursing home and home-based care for both veterans and, in some cases, spouses. The most popular program is known as Aid and Attendance.

Almost anyone who served honorably in the U.S. military is eligible for VA benefits, though income limits may apply.

It doesn’t cost anything for a veteran to apply for benefits. You do need a high tolerance for paperwork. But if you were once in the military, you probably already know all about that. Before you initiate the process, make sure you have a copy of your military discharge papers. There are County Veterans Service Offices in most large counties. That’s a good place to start because they’ll help you navigate the paperwork.

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