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Who Qualifies as a Veteran?

Who qualifies to be called a veteran? The official site for the United States Census says approximately 19 million U.S. men and women have served on active duty. Are all of these people veterans? And just as importantly, why are so many people asking who counts or does not count as a vet?

An American Mass Shooting and the Question of Veteran Status

To understand why “Who counts as a veteran” is asked so frequently, we have to look at multiple factors. One is the fact that not all who enlist or accept an officer commission to serve make it through their initial training phase.

Some finish Basic Training but wash out during advanced training or technical school.

Others may make it all the way to their first assignment only to be administratively separated before their first tour of duty is complete. Who among these are considered veterans? Any?

Related: Active Duty Benefits Guide

Another factor to consider is related to breaking news headlines. In 2023, a mass shooter incident brought the arrest of an alleged gunman named Mauricio Garcia, who had spent three months in Army boot camp before being separated due to what news outlets describe as a “mental health issue.”

Did this person spend enough time in uniform to qualify as a veteran? The Pentagon Press Secretary was quoted in an ArmyTimes.com article stating that the individual does NOT qualify as a vet. But why or why not?

In the simplest terms, the alleged shooter did not serve long enough on active duty (he was still in basic training) to qualify as a veteran.

Related: Military Benefits During Basic Training

How the Department of Veterans Affairs Defines a Veteran

According to VA.gov, veteran status refers to, “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.”  that is part of the criteria for qualifying for VA healthcare benefits (see below.) 24 months of active duty service are typically required for active duty troops with other criteria for Guard and Reserve members as we’ll examine below.

But all of this is not the same criteria for other VA programs like the GI Bill, which requires only 90 days of active service for those who sign up today. Who counts as a veteran? It may depend on which program you need.

Other Agencies

The VA isn’t the only government agency that defines what legally counts toward veteran status.

State-level education benefits for veterans or survivor benefit programs may list a specific time-served requirement or may only require that the service member not have a punitive discharge on their military records to qualify.

Related: Where to Find State Benefits for Disabled Veterans

VA Minimum Duty Requirements

To qualify as a veteran for the purpose of being approved for VA benefits, the following requirements may apply:

  • No minimum time-in-service requirement exists for those who joined before September 8, 1980.
  • Veterans who enlisted after Sept. 7, 1980, or who entered active duty after Oct. 16, 1981, must have served 24 continuous months or the full period for which they were called to active duty.
  • VA.gov advises that the minimum duty requirement “may not apply to Veterans discharged for hardship, early out or a disability incurred or aggravated in the line of duty.”
  • Those discharged before the 24-month requirement but separated due to a medical issue, hardship, or “early out” may still qualify as veterans, depending on circumstances.

These requirements are for establishing eligibility for VA health benefits. They are not necessarily the criteria used to approve applications for other VA benefits like the GI Bill, which requires you to serve 90 days or more if you joined in the current service era.

Members of the Guard and Reserve may qualify as veterans if:

  • The service member was on federal active duty for at least 180 days;
  • The service member did not receive a punitive discharge, OR;
  • They served 20 years or more with no punitive discharge

What Qualifies as Active Duty?

The DoD defines active duty service as follows:

“Full-time duty in the active service of a Uniformed Service, including full-time training duty, annual training duty, full-time National Guard duty, and attendance, while in the active service, at a school designated as a Military Service school by law or by the Secretary concerned.”

Who Qualifies as a Veteran?

As we can see from the information above, there is no one-size-fits-all description of a veteran, at least not for the purpose of determining who qualifies for federal healthcare benefits, GI Bill benefits, or even federal student financial aid. The nature of the benefits program you are applying to, the date you joined, and even the nature of your military service may all affect what it takes to be called a veteran.

When it comes to identifying a person in the news as a veteran, the term is used more loosely than it is in the context of applying for VA benefits.

People may inaccurately refer to someone as a veteran when they did not complete the full 24 months of active duty or meet the other above criteria to qualify in the eyes of the VA or a given benefits program. In such cases, “veteran” is used less accurately, a type of cultural shorthand for someone who tried to enter the military, regardless of the outcome.

Related: Do You Need Help Filing a VA Disability Claim?

Also related: VA Extends Pandemic Prescription Drug Rules

About the author

Editor-in-Chief | + posts

Editor-in-Chief Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.