For Matt Colvin, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, had a profound impact on his view of himself, his country and his career. He joined the Air Force that afternoon.
"That just really set me on a course for a quick indoctrination of the military. I had already known that's where I had wanted to go, but it just solidified my path," he said.
Colvin rose to the rank of staff sergeant during his six years of military service. After returning to civilian life, like many veterans, he went to college.
"Without the GI Bill, I never would have been able to take advantage of college because I would have had to take out the loans," Colvin said. "I'd be in the same predicament as many other people with looming debt."
While many service members and their families know the GI Bill will help pay for college, there are a host of other benefits that may not be on their radar.
"Many of them, when they leave service, they're not even aware that they should go to the VA and get themselves registered so they can figure out what their benefits are," said Mechel Lashawn Glass, who served in the Army for four years and is co-author of "The Veteran's Money Book." "That's really sad and that's what a lot of veterans go through, they're only aware of one or two benefits."
Glass, now a vice president at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Atlanta, educates service members and veterans about benefits that can protect their financial future. Some of the benefits that she says many of them may not be aware of include more favorable terms on home loans with no down payment, no private mortgage insurance premiums and limits on closing costs. There are also many programs to assist veterans with job training, small business loans and franchise opportunities.
Veterans can find out which benefits they are qualified to receive at Military.com, the government's Veterans' Affairs department and can also get help from nonprofit organizations.
—By CNBC's Sharon Epperson