Who is a Veteran?

Those of us who have served in the military have a good, if general, understanding of what it takes to be classified as a veteran.  Civilians, however, don’t always know or understand what veteran status requires.  Are Reservists veterans?  What about the National Guard?  Heck, I’ve met people who think someone who took ROTC in college is a veteran.  So, let’s discuss the issue.  What is the definition of a veteran, and what types of veterans are there? 

The Legal Definition of Veteran

Under Title 38 of the U.S. Code a veteran is defined as a “person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.”   When the VA evaluates a person’s veteran status, it examines his or her service record to make its determination.  The VA considers multiple factors like: the length of active service, the time-period when that service occurred, and the character or type of service.  It also reviews the circumstances and the type of discharge.  The individual must have “active military, naval or air service” to be considered a veteran for most government purposes.  Active service means full-time service in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard.  Full time service means those on active duty are available to report for duty 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

The statutory definition of veteran also includes commissioned officers of the Public Health Service (PHS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).   Both the PHS and the NOAA are included in the seven Federal uniformed services. Both services were identified in the post 9/11 GI Bill legislation which granted those who served as commissioned officers in the two agencies veteran status. PHS and NOAA officers must have served at least 90 days on active duty after September 10, 2001 to qualify as veterans under the statute.      

For people who enlisted or were drafted into the armed services prior to September 8, 1980, there is no minimum length of service required to be considered a veteran for most VA benefits.  However, for those who enlisted after September 8, 1980, a minimum service requirement exists.  Unless the veteran has a service connected disability, he or she must have served a minimum of 24 months of active duty.  

What is an “Other than Dishonorable” Discharge?

The answer is not quite as simple as it sounds.  There are currently 5 types of discharges issued by the various armed services.  They are:

  • Honorable discharge (HD)
  • Discharge under honorable conditions (UHC) or general discharge (GD)
  • Discharge under other than honorable conditions (UOTHC) or undesirable discharge (UD)
  • Bad conduct discharge (BCD)
  • Dishonorable discharge (DD)

The problem is that the current discharge types do not mesh with the statutory definition of veteran.  Are bad conduct discharges or undesirable discharges considered “other than dishonorable?”  The answer to that question can vary from one case to the next, depending on the circumstances. For example: during the 1950’s and 1960’s, gay men would receive an undesirable discharge if the soldier’s sexuality was discovered. Today, we would consider that unfair. A number of older, gay men have petitioned the VA to change their discharge status to enable them to be considered veterans.  Changing times and changing definitions means the VA must conduct a case by case determination to decide if a discharge is “under conditions other than dishonorable.”

Where do the Reserves and National Guard Fit into the Picture?

All the different military services have reserve branches.  The Reserves have military training and do an annual 14-day training period to hone their skills.  However, Reserve meetings, weekend duty, and trainings do not count toward veteran status.  A former Reservist is not a veteran unless called to active duty. The Reserves can be called to active duty by the President or the Secretary of Defense.  When the U.S. became involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our all-volunteer army was strained to the max.  Reserves were called up to supplement our military troops.  Approximately, 65,000 Reserve troops are on active duty at any given moment, supporting military operations around the world.  

While Reserve service does not qualify one for veteran status, being called to active duty changes the picture.    When Reserves are on active duty, that service counts toward the time periods required for veteran status.  

While the Federal government oversees the Reserves, the National Guard belongs to the state.  State Governors have the power to call up the National Guard for active duty in time of emergency.  Governors often use the National Guard during natural disasters like hurricanes and floods to protect citizens and property.  The President and Secretary of Defense also have the power to call up the National Guard for “Title 10 call-ups.”   Title 10 call-ups occur when the Guard is mobilized by the Federal government to supplement U.S. troops.  Like the Reserves, Guard members who are called to Federal active duty may qualify for veteran status.

National Guard and Reserves who are called to active duty and who serve for the entire period for which they were called will have veteran status and be eligible for VA benefits.  National Guard and Reservists who are never called to active duty are not considered veterans.

Combat Veterans and War Veterans.

Every service member who meets the active duty requirement is a veteran, but combat veterans and war veterans are entitled to additional VA benefits other veterans do not receive.  A combat veteran is one who experienced “any level of hostility for any duration resulting from offensive, defensive, or friendly fire military action involving a real or perceived enemy in any pre or post-designated theater of combat operations.”   This definition comes from a Federal statute and is found at 38 U.S.C. 101.  

A war veteran is one who served on foreign soil in an area where combat is occurring and who served in support of combat troops.  This would include mechanics, doctors, nurses and clerical staff who may find themselves in harm’s way during deployment.  I am a Vietnam era veteran.  That means I served in the military during the Vietnam War, but I was never in a combat theater.  Peacetime veterans comprise still another category.  Of course, those are troops who served during peacetime and had no real risk of being sent to a combat area.

Regardless of the date or category of service, all veterans deserve the respect and support of their country.  Some of us entered the military voluntarily.  Others did not choose military service.  They were drafted.  Yet, we all did our jobs and served our country.  Many were injured in combat and had their lives changed forever.  All veterans deserve our support, disabled veterans most of all.






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