Definition Of A War VeteranUpdated: March 23, 2021
There are many definitions for terms such as “veteran” and “war veteran.” Some definitions are more important than others, especially if you need to know what the legal definition of such terms are where veteran benefits are concerned.
That’s right – there are specific definitions and requirements to be considered a veteran or a war veteran when claiming benefits, and these definitions are NOT standardized.
What Is A Veteran?
In general, a military veteran is someone who has completed basic training and served in uniform outside the initial training environment. Those who enter basic training but do not complete it and go home are not considered veterans, do not qualify for veteran benefits, etc.
Keep in mind that this is the general definition of a veteran (not a war veteran) and that this definition has nothing to do with VA rules for qualifying for VA benefits. That said, VA benefits are generally not available to those who did not complete basic training.
The requirement to be considered a veteran or a wartime veteran for a state benefit may not be the same as those for federal benefits.
An excellent example of this can be found on the official site for the town of Sudbury, MA which has a section for veterans. This section explains both the state and federal definitions of “veteran” which include a two-sentence explanation of the federal version:
“…under Federal Law a VETERAN is any person, who served honorably on active duty in the armed forces of the United States. (Discharges marked GENERAL AND UNDER HONORABLE CONDITIONS also qualify.)”
But that is not the final word on the definition of a veteran. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a veteran is someone who:
- served in the active military, naval or air service, and
- was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.
And according to Title 38 of the United States Code, “The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.”
The Sudbury, MA definition is not technically inaccurate, it may seem a bit unintentionally confusing as there are types of military discharges (Medical, Administrative, etc.) that may be categorized as Honorable or even General. It is easy to miss that an Honorable Discharge classification can be confused with the reason for the discharge (medical separation, convenience of the government, lack of retainability, etc.) and this creates confusion for some.
Some veteran benefits are offered to all vets unless a Dishonorable Discharge is on the service record. Others require discharges not characterized as punitive (Bad Conduct, Other Than Honorable, Dishonorable), while still other benefits require an Honorable Discharge. This is not standardized, and will vary greatly depending on whether you are applying for state or federal benefits.
How States May Interpret “Veteran”
We started this section discussing the official site of the town of Sudbury, MA and that site’s interpretation of the Federal definition of a military veteran. But what about the State of Massachusetts definition? The Federal version contained two sentences. But the state’s definition (for the purposes of receiving state veteran benefits) is more than a full paragraph, including:
- A requirement of 180 days of regular active duty service and a last discharge or release under honorable conditions
- No wartime service required
- Veterans may also serve 90 days of active duty service, one (1) day of which is during “wartime”, and a last discharge or release under honorable conditions
- “The one-day need not have actually been served in a war zone”
And that doesn’t include the state’s requirements for Guard and Reserve members. As you can see, states may have a more strict definition of what qualifies someone for state veteran benefits.
What You Need To Know About State Veteran Benefits
There may be specific service requirements for certain state veteran benefits (especially property tax exemptions, education benefits, and state income tax breaks) which may vary depending on the state, the benefit, and current legislation.
For example, some states offer education benefits to surviving spouses and dependent children of deceased service members. But these programs often specify a period of wartime service, often Post-9/11 military service. Others may provide benefits for those who earned expeditionary medals or campaign medals for service in the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, etc.
In such cases, the definition of veteran, or even “wartime veteran” may not be as important as the location and/or duration of service in a war zone or in support of operations in the wake of 9/11.
The Definition Of A War Veteran
This can be a confusing issue since there is a distinction between serving during a period of war or other conflict, and veterans who are considered combat veterans.
Wartime service, in general, means any type of active military duty that is not considered training that occurs during the period of conflict. Veterans who never saw combat in the Post 9/11 era are still considered to have served during the Gulf War/Post 9/11 era. But those who were not deployed to combat zones may not qualify as combat veterans during the same period of service.
VA compensation rules for veterans has in the past included the following guidelines for those who performed wartime service (not necessarily combat):
“Wartime service for pension is established if a Veteran served:
- at least 90 days of active duty during a period of war
- at least 90 consecutive days of active duty and such period began or ended during a period of war
- a total of 90 or more days of active duty during one or more wartime periods, or
- any amount of time during a period of war and was discharged for a disability incurred or aggravated in service, or had a Service Connected disability at the time of discharge that would have justified a discharge for disability.
A combat veteran is generally one who has a military record indicating they received Hostile Fire Pay, or were deployed to and served in a combat zone. There may be other indicators required by certain programs (expeditionary medals, campaign medals, etc.) that need to be provided or affirmed for combat veterans to claim certain VA or non-VA benefits related to combat status.
There are important reasons for the combat veteran designation. Consider what the Department of Veterans Affairs has published on it’s official site regarding the combat designator – did you know that in 2008, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 extended the period of eligibility for health care for Veterans who served in a theater of combat operations after Nov. 11, 1998?
That law gave combat veterans who served after Nov. 11, 1988 the ability to sign up for VA healthcare services for five years following discharge.
According to the VA “Combat Veterans, while not required to disclose their income information, may do so to determine their eligibility for a higher priority status, beneficiary travel benefits, and exemption of copays for care unrelated to their military service.”
If you are not sure how your military records reflect the nature of your service or what your record currently contains, it’s best to review those records as soon as possible in case you need to have corrections made or have your service record as it currently exists reviewed for accuracy and related issues. Veterans who need assistance in this area should contact the VA for further assistance. Currently serving Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve members who need help understanding or accessing their military records should contact their unit orderly room, customer service office, Command Sergeant Major, Senior Chief, or other officials who can advise you on how to proceed.
VA-Designated Wartime Service Eras
For the purposes of claiming VA wartime veteran benefits, the following eras apply. Those who have a record of military service in the following eras may be eligible for certain benefits and/or consideration not available to those who served during peacetime.
The Department of Veterans Affairs official site says of the list below, “Under current law, VA recognizes the following wartime periods to determine eligibility for VA Pension benefits.”
- Mexican Border Period (May 9, 1916 – April 5, 1917 for Veterans who served in Mexico, on its borders, or adjacent waters)
- World War I (April 6, 1917 – Nov. 11, 1918)
- World War II (Dec. 7, 1941 – Dec. 31, 1946)
- Korean conflict (June 27, 1950 – Jan. 31, 1955)
- Vietnam era (Feb. 28, 1961 – May 7, 1975 for Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period; otherwise Aug. 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975)
- Gulf War (Aug. 2, 1990 – through a future date to be set by law or Presidential Proclamation)
Many state and local veteran benefit programs recognize these wartime service eras or have lists of eras very similar to the one published by the Department of Veterans Affairs. You will need to check with each state or local veteran benefits program to see how each program deals with eligibility requirements based on service, wartime service, and combat service.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News