Politics and Politicians Controls Veterans Affairs

Unfortunately, politics will always come into play in issues of veterans’ benefits and not always to the benefit of those that have worn the uniform of a soldier, marine, airman, sailor and coast guardsman. As much as the Veterans Administration (VA) has been receiving bad press, and yes, some of it is the result of self-inflicted wounds, a lot of the credit for the difficulties can be credited to our own Congress and Executive Branch. The VA is bound by congressional legal mandates that are quite convoluted and perplexing, to say the least. One of the greatest hurdles these legal mandates have created is who actually qualifies as a veteran for benefits purposes. Hopefully, this article will help to decipher most of the requirements of veteran status.

Marine Vietnam veteran embraces Staff Sgt. Tim ChambersCredit: Cpl. Scott Schmidt

Veteran Definition Unofficial

"Whether active duty, retired, national guard, or reserve - is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to The 'United States of America', for an amount of 'up to and including my life.” 

So who is a military veteran?

This question and answer can be the source of consternation and aggravation for current and past service-members. Sometimes the reason for asking has less to do with benefits than it does with validation, prestige, and simply being recognized for a person's commitment to serving the nation and the personal sacrifices of military service. Unfortunately, whenever bureaucracy can come into play, the "Why are we asking?" makes all the difference as to the determining the correct answer.

Definition for the sake of Law

The legal definition relates to rights and benefits according to federal law and affects the Veterans Administration’s (VA) ability to provide support to former and current military members. Additionally, various veteran groups and each State often have their own definitions for membership and benefits that may differ from the federal government and the VA. Therefore, to determine whether you are or are not "officially" a veteran has everything thing to do with your intent; is it for official recognition, membership to a veterans' organization, medical benefits, or other benefits. The legal definition as established in 38 United States Code (U.S.C.) says that "a veteran is defined as a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released there from under conditions other than dishonorable," as per 38 U.S.C § 101(2); 38 C.F.R. § 3.1(d). This definition, however, as they say, is not the end of the story.

Army 2nd Lt. Brandy Mason at the III Corps Headquarters at Fort Hood, TexasCredit: Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy

Politics and Veteran Status

Politics makes the definition of a veteran a moving target for the VA’s ability to administer related benefits. This basically means that through acts of Congress for special interests towards providing benefits to one group and excluding another, may result in a modification or interpretation of the legal definition of a veteran. These modifications will often take the form of a change, deletion, or addition of text within the chapters and subsections of 38 U.S.C., Title 5 U.S.C., Title 10 U.S.C., Title 32 U.S.C. and other related policies governing federal and VA regulations. This is not a bad thing; in fact, if it wasn't for these political efforts to expand the "federal" definition of a veteran, Guard/Reservists that serve on active duty every day, and especially those inactive duty service-members that are activated for short periods of time (less than 180 days), deployed to war zones, or to support the war effort would not receive credit for their service as veterans. These efforts to expand the definition include crediting 20-year retired National Guard (“NG” is inclusive of Army National Guard and Air National Guard) and Reservists (Res) as veterans was proposed in 2011 and again in 2013 as the Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act of 2013; unfortunately, it is still unlikely to pass without a lot of help.[1][2]

In the end, regardless of the legal mumbo-jumbo wording in the federal laws as to veteran status and benefits, the VA's interpretation of the regulatory requirements and standards along with budgetary restraints establishes the practical use of the definition and determines what veterans' benefits will be received. The VA has latitude in the application of the definition in determining a discharged or released service-members status as a veteran and their benefits eligibility. These benefits may include health care, education, job training, life insurance programs, each having its own requirements. Various Bills and VA requirements for benefits have already been passed that modify the definition based on specific veteran benefits such as education for all NG/Res with six years of satisfactory service. In part 2 of this series, we will the AGR issue a little more.[1][2]

Length of Service

Prior to September 8, 1980, there was no minimum length of service requirement necessary to be considered a veteran for most VA benefits; however, for an individual who enlisted after September 8, 1980, there are now certain minimum lengths of service requirements. The general requirement is either 24 months of continuous active duty or the "full period" for which the service-member was called or ordered to active duty. Several exceptions exist to this general rule: for example, service-connected disability compensation benefits are exempt from the minimum active duty requirements; thus, a veteran with a disease or injury incurred during active service should almost always be able to receive service-connected compensation for his or her condition or disability. Other exceptions to the minimum service requirements include claims for VA life insurance benefits, hardship discharges, and persons retired or separated from service because of a service-related disability. If the former service-member does not fall within the 24 months of active duty or the "full period" of active duty, or within one of the statutory exceptions, then the veteran has not completed a minimum period of active duty and is "not eligible for any benefit … administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs based on that period of active service" (see Title 38, U.S.C. 5303).

Condition of Discharge or Separation

As already stated, the legal definition requires that the individual be discharged or released from military service "under conditions other than dishonorable." Although 38 U.S.C. § 101(2); 38 C.F.R. § 3.12(a) lists five types of discharges, in most cases the VA will group them under two categories: conditions other than dishonorable or dishonorable to qualify or disqualify a claimant as a veteran. In the case of Bad Conduct Discharge, the VA will make a veteran status determination on case-by-case basis.

Types of Service

Three types effected by the veteran definition: Regular Active Duty Service: 38 U.S.C. and most of the VA regulations simple refer to this as "active service"; Title 10 U.S.C. Reserve Component active duty; and Title 32 U.S.C. otherwise known as Full-time NG Duty (active duty - federally funded - for the purpose of providing full-time support to the Army NG of the United States and the Air NG of the United States). Other laws affected by the legal definition are Title 5 U.S.C., Title 9 U.S.C., and Title 14 U.S.C.

  • Reminder: For AGRs see more specifics in Part 2 of 3 of this article series on Who Qualifies as a Veteran.[1]
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteranCredit: Created: 1982; Commons upload by Magnus Manske

Wartime Service

Active duty service performed during these periods in part or whole may be designated as "wartime" service by the VA: World War II-December 7, 1941 through July 25, 1947; Korean Conflict-June 27, 1950 through January 31, 1955; Vietnam Era- February 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975; Persian Gulf War-August 2, 1990 through Iraq War/Afghanistan War 2001 -TBD; Iraq War - Date-Date; Afghanistan War – Dates TBD – TBD are dates yet to be established by the President. I’ve intentionally left out periods be before WWII since they affect very few current veterans.

Veteran Status under Special Circumstances

38 U.S.C. subsections include special considerations allowing any service-member to be credited as a veteran. If the service-member was wounded in wartime and cannot complete the full duration of service he or she is automatically counted as a veteran even if only one day of duty is served; or an active or reserve component member performing any period of active duty for training during which a person is disabled or dies from a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty; or any period of inactive duty training (NG or Res) during which a person is disabled or dies from an injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty, or is disabled or dies from a covered disease (myocardial infarction, cardiac arrest, or cerebrovascular accident) that occurred during such training: for example, in the case of NG and Res, to include Title 32 AGR, if significantly injured during a period of active duty or inactive duty warranting long term medical care, such as a severed limb or limb that has lost some or all mobility (as determined by a Veterans Administration medical evaluation) the Reserve Component member will receive credit as a veteran.[2]

Veterans Administration Categorization of Veterans Service

For VA purposes, all military service is classified as either wartime or peacetime service. Whether a veteran has served during a time of war rarely affects a service-members potential VA benefits. Benefits are based on the needs of the veteran, such as a disabled veteran from non-combat injury versus a combat veteran with no injuries; however, the VA does have mental health and physical therapy programs or registries designed for combat veterans of wartime eras such as: Vietnam vets, Persian Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. To be considered to have "served during wartime" by the VA, a veteran does not have to have served in actual combat; they only need to have served during the specified period of war. Since the events of 9/11, it has been made clear to everyone that the fighting and dying are not just events between the infantry soldier and the enemy. As we've seen throughout the world and especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, everyone in the area of operation, regardless of their job, is a target of opportunity for the enemy.

If the desire for VA benefits is the reason you want to validate your veteran status, whether you were regular active duty, Title 10 or 32, or traditional inactive duty guardsman or reservist, you will need to go through the VA's benefits filing process. As each service-member's military service may be different, and therefore may fit within different categories or exceptions. Eligibility is usually determined by the VA on a case-by-case basis after reviewing the individual service-member's military service records.

Veterans Benefits:  For specific benefits and eligibility see the VA website. 

Next: Part 2 of 3: AGRs as veterans.[1]

In Part 3 of 3: Reservist as veterans; along with a bottom-line summary of the three part series.[2]

U.S. Army Veteran Decal
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