For many first-time activated reservists in the war on terrorism, there is a silver lining behind the cloud of a long, disruptive and often dangerous mobilization. The call-up will ensure their status as “veterans” and their eligibility for a full range of benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A fact still not well known among reservists and National Guard personnel is that those who first entered service after Sept. 7, 1980, which includes many of 294,000 members mobilized since 9/11, face a higher threshold than previous generations to qualify for VA health-care benefits.
The impact of this change is only now becoming clear to some Selected Reservists and National Guardsmen completing careers that followed a once-traditional path. That is, they did their initial training, attended monthly drills and spent enough time on active-duty-for-training to earn 20 “good” years of Reserve service. Now they can retire and, at age 60, will begin receiving a Reserve retirement check.
But as they investigate VA benefits, some Reserve retirees are surprised to learn they are not “veterans.” Others discover they have only limited veteran status, by virtue of minimal active service, but are ineligible for a full range of VA benefits.
To gain full veteran status, including eligibility for VA health care, reservists who entered the military after Sept. 7, 1980, must serve 24 continuous months of active service, or be called to active duty under a federal mobilization order, like the one President Bush signed after 9/11.
William West, a benefits expert at the VA, said that minimum active-duty requirements impact eligibility for VA benefits including guaranteed home loans and education benefits. But today, thanks to easing by Congress, the 24-month rule only impacts VA health care.
And thanks to the massive call-up over the past two years, the biggest since World War II, many Reserve and National Guard members are earning full veteran status through their mobilization, thus avoiding benefit disappointments that have touched some retiring colleagues.
In 2000, the VA adopted a broader definition of "veteran" for data collection to try to get a more precise picture of the overall veteran population. This broader definition included 1.1 million separated reservists who failed to meet the 24-month rule on VA health care eligibility. They constituted only 4.4 percent of 25.5 million veteran population overall but a large percentage of younger veterans.
For example, as of Sept. 30, 2000, no measurable percentage of veterans older than 55 was affected by the 24-month rule. Most entered service before the 1980 date. Among 3.2 million veterans age 50 to 54, only a tenth of one percent were ineligible for VA health care because they had less than two years of continuous active service. The VA calls this group the “L2s.”
The number and proportion of L2s rose sharply as ages fell. Among 754,000 veterans age 25 to 29, more than 31 percent had less than the required two years of continuous active service. Among 264,000 veterans ages 20 to 24, more than half, 51 percent, were L2s.
If these veterans never serve 24 straight months on active duty, or if they aren’t mobilized by federal authorities, VA health care won’t be an option. In that light, the massive call-up over the last two years would appear to be reserving that trend, ensuring that many more reserve and National Guard members earn full veteran status.
The call-up affects other VA benefits. For example, it accelerates a reservists’ eligibility for VA-guaranteed home loans. Typically, the home loan benefit is available to reservists only after they serve six years in the Selected Reserve or National Guard; they also need an honorable discharge. Members called to active duty don’t have to complete the six years of drill to gain VA home loan eligibility.
A call-up also affects eligibility for 1) VA disability pensions, an important benefit for veterans who fall on hard times, 2) a death pension for low income widows and dependents, and 3) education benefits for spouses and children of veterans with permanent disability ratings of 100 percent.
Not all mobilizations affect VA benefits. To do that it must be “federal,” that is, ordered by the president. If a state governor calls up the National Guard, to fight a fire or protect an airport, it does not impact veteran status.
The rule of thumb for VA benefits of Selected Reservists and National Guard members serving on active duty is that they can earn the same benefits as other veterans, if they meet the same length-of-service requirements.
Reservists who haven’t served on active duty receive fewer benefits but they aren’t shut out by any measure. For example, they do get medical care for service-connected disabilities, VA compensation for injuries that occur while on active or inactive duty for training and Montgomery GI Bill for Selected Reserves.
Readers can find a robust list of VA benefit fact sheets on line at: www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/Milsvc/benfacts.htm.
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