By Donna Reuss
Alexandria, VA – We all know what a veteran is, right? Or do we? I am a veteran and write a veterans column so you’d think I’d know. But when I looked up “veteran” online, I found it’s not so easy to define who can be a veteran, not to mention being considered a veteran and eligible for veterans benefits. So, let’s make sure we are all on the same page when we use the term “veteran.”
United States Code (USC), Title 38, Part 1, Chapter 1, § 101, defines a veteran as “a person who served in the active military, naval, air, or space service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” That seems simple enough. But since the definition states “active” service, does that mean only those who served on active duty can be veterans? What about Reservists and National Guard members? Turns out, it depends.
First, my focus is members of the “Armed Forces” only, which Title 38 defines as “the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard, including the reserve components thereof.” (There also are provisions for officers of the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association under specific circumstances.) “Reserve component” means Reserves of the military services listed above, and the Army and Air National Guards of the United States. (Note: as of this writing, Space Force does not yet have a Reserve.) Finally, Title 38 defines “active duty” to mean “(A) full-time duty in the Armed Forces, other than active duty for training.”
There are four types of veterans:
- Federally protected veterans: those disabled, recently separated (three years from date of discharge), who served in wartime or during an acknowledged campaign, or who earned an Armed Forces Service Medal. The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended, protects these veterans from employment discrimination.
- Retired veterans: those who served at least 20 years or were medically retired
- Combat veterans: individuals in a war zone who were engaged by the enemy
- War veterans: individuals deployed to a war zone but not engaged by the enemy
An individual can fit the definition of one or more category for purposes of designation as a veteran, but the associated benefits vary among and within each type.
When the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) evaluates an applicant’s veteran status and benefits eligibility, it considers a number of factors. Not only must the individual – living or deceased – meet the definition of a veteran, but also specified requirements for, and period of, active duty service; and have a discharge other than dishonorable. And any service-connected disabilities cannot be a result of willful misconduct. Clearly, this a situation-dependent, case-by-case process.
Back to that question about Reservists and National Guard members.
Traditionally, to be considered a veteran a Reserve or Guard component member must have served on active duty either prior to their Reserve or Guard service, or have been mobilized and served on active duty as a Guard or Reserve member, such as those activated and deployed during the Global War on Terrorism. Active duty for training or inactive duty for training under USC Title 10 for Reserves, USC Title 32 for the National Guard, typically does not satisfy the active service requirement for establishing veteran status.
However, the rest of the Title 38 definition of “active duty” is “(B) any period of active duty for training during which the individual concerned was disabled or died from a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty; and (C) any period of inactive duty training during which the individual concerned was disabled or died from an injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty; or from an acute myocardial infarction, a cardiac arrest, or a cerebrovascular accident occurring during such training.” Thus, Reservists and Guard members in these situations can meet the definition of “veteran.” Again, the VA would need to evaluate against its other criteria to determine any benefits.
Finally, Public Law 114-315, passed by Congress in 2016, granted “honorary” veteran status to Reservists and National Guard members eligible for reserve component retirement benefits with 20 or more years of service but no active duty. The law does not grant access to VA or additional retirement benefits but gives these individuals the ability to be honored officially as veterans for their service to this country.
Designation as a veteran or eligibility for veteran benefits can be complicated. In blogs on these topics, there seem to be as many questions as there are individual service members.
For questions about veteran status or benefits, you can contact the VA directly, the veteran services listed below, or work through a Veteran Service Officer (VSO) who can help you navigate the process. American Legion Post 24 VSOs host quarterly veteran claims clinics at the Post home at 400 Cameron St in Old Town.
If you are a veteran, veteran’s family member, or know a veteran who needs help, go to Virginia Board Veterans Services at www.dvs.virginia.gov/dvs; dss.virginia.gov/community/211.cgi; contact American Legion Post 24 Veteran Service Officer at [email protected]; or check out the Resources List on the Post 24 website: valegionpost24.com. For crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, dial 988 and Press 1, or text 838255, for the Veterans Crisis Line.