Report: Inclusive Definition of "Veteran"

Report: Inclusive Definition of "Veteran"

Advocates have proposed that NYC define “veteran” as any person who has served in the military and received a DD214, regardless of status or circumstance of discharge, in order to make services available to those who may have been adversely discharged as a result of unrecognized and/or untreated physical or mental conditions related to their military service. This initiative met with the strongest disapproval, with 14.25% of survey respondents indicating that they oppose it. Nevertheless, a strong majority of 67.39% of respondents indicated that they view this as either essential or very important.

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Current NYC Definition of Veteran. The New York City Charter currently defines a veteran as follows:

The term "veteran" means a person who has served in the active military service of the United States and who has been released from such service otherwise than by dishonorable discharge. [1]

Federal Definition of Veteran. For the purposes of a national census, the federal government defines a veteran as:

Men and women who have served (even for a short time), but are not currently serving, on active duty in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or the Coast Guard, or who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. People who served in the National Guard or Reserves are classified as veterans only if they were ever called or ordered to active duty, not counting the 4-6 months for initial training or yearly summer camps.[2]

Discharge Status. When a service member is discharged from active duty, he or she receives a DD Form 214 (“DD214”) as a record of service that documents the service member’s character of the separation from service.[3] Honorable service is the most common character of separation or discharge status, and is required for eligibility for most VA benefits and services. If a service member is deemed not to meet conditions required for an honorable discharge, the discharge may indicate general (under honorable conditions), other than honorable, bad conduct, or dishonorable conditions. Discharge status affects eligibility for VA benefits and services, civilian employment opportunities, and other opportunities requiring a background check. Dishonorable or bad conduct discharges, also known as “bad paper,” can have consequences similar to a civilian criminal record.[4]

Eligibility for VA Benefits and Services. For the purposes of VA benefits and services, the VA uses discharge status and its own character of discharge determination as the primary means of determining eligibility. For VA health care, a veteran must have a minimum of an administrative discharge. Even then, veterans with Other Than Honorable discharges are subject to a VA determination for eligibility for health care and benefits.[5] Veterans with Bad Conduct discharges are barred from receiving medical benefits but may receive service-connected disability benefits if they were discharged by a special court-martial. To qualify for other benefits, such as G.I. Bill educational benefits, an honorable discharge is required.[6]

Eligibility for NY State Benefits and Services. For the purposes of benefits such as the inclusion of veteran status on NY State driver’s license and ID cards, an individual must have served on active duty and received an honorable discharge. The veterans property tax exemption additionally requires service during designated periods or conflicts,[7] and the pension credit program requires service during specific conflicts and geographical areas.[8] The veterans tuition award is specific to veterans who served in specific wartime campaigns.[9] Social service programs, such as services offered to assist incarcerated veterans with reentering society, require only a DD 214.[10]

Eligibility Requirements vs. Definition of Veteran. Different federal and NY State benefits and services are accessible to veterans based on specific eligibility requirements that include discharge status, time in service, era of service, and geographic location of service—any of which may vary from program to program. The definition of veteran—which varies between NYC and the federal census—is dependent on whether a veteran served on active duty, how long they served on active duty, and discharge status. Individuals who served full terms in the National Guard or reserve forces without being called to active duty may be excluded from this definition, despite otherwise meeting all federal requirements for satisfactory terms of training and service. VSOs may also define veterans based on era of service, combat service, and/or discharge status.

Reasons for “Bad Paper” Discharges. In past eras, service members received adverse discharges for conduct related to undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, for homosexuality, and other conduct related to conditions that would otherwise be understood or treated differently today. Even as policies have been updated, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,”[11] it has remained the responsibility of each veteran to petition the appropriate discharge review board with the often extensive documentation and legal preparations needed to successfully upgrade an adverse discharge.[12] With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there are at least 100,000 veterans nationwide who are eligible for a correction of their discharge papers.[13] It should also be noted here that assistance for veterans seeking a discharge upgrade is available from organizations such as the Urban Justice Center’s Veteran Advocacy Project.[14]

Recent Controversy Over “Bad Paper” Discharges. Even with modern knowledge of trauma, there are many veterans whose mental health has been ignored during their separation process. Many veterans have been inappropriately labeled with personality disorders instead of Post-Traumatic Stress. More than 32,000 of these veterans have been discharged since 2001. The Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) estimates that by doing so, the federal government has denied these veterans medical care valued at approximately $4.5 billion and disability compensation valued at approximately $8 billion.[15] Other veterans have returned from deployments and engaged in misconduct that resulted from PTSD or TBI. Last fall, Secretary Hagel issued a directive to discharge review boards to give more lenient consideration for veterans discharged for conduct related to PTSD or TBI to have bad discharges upgraded,[16] but the discharge upgrade process remains arduous and difficult without legal representation. The stigma of a bad discharge brands them for life and keeps them from accessing the vital health services they need to move forward.

Testimony on “Bad Paper” Discharge Status.  The following testimony was delivered at a February City Council hearing on consideration of discharge status as related to tracking veterans receiving services from NYC agencies:

  • All men and women who answered the call of service to our nation should first be assumed to be veterans—and then eligibility for services should be determined thereafter.
  • Including data on City services offered to veterans not having an honorable discharge would offer critical data on veterans who have been under-served or otherwise left behind by the system.
  • The process for upgrading the character of a discharge can be long and problematic, and while discharge status is key to eligibility for VA benefits, discharge status should not be a determining factor for tracking of services provided to veterans by NYC agencies.

Respondent Comments. Comments were offered by respondents on this subject:

  • Regarding "Bad Paper" Vets who are service connected must have access to medical treatment. Also, NOT ALL Bad Paper Vets should receive the same benefits and privileges.
  • I feel that the last question pertaining to the definition of "veteran" should be edited. I do not feel that it should mean any person who has served in the military and received a DD214. The term "veteran" means anyone who has served for 90+ consecutive days. It should stay that way. On the basis of type of discharge, I believe any veteran should be authorized to utilize the VA healthcare system, and be able to utilize the GI bill.
  • For veterans with an other-than-honorable discharge seeking eligibility for city services, there should be an impartial, individual review process with right of appeal, but no blanket eligibility.
  • Anyone without an honorable discharge should be put in a different classification.
  • I am interested most in identifying and helping veterans who saw combat and deployment, but were unable to attain an honorable discharge. I don't want to reward "bad" soldiers, but believe there are many who had trouble completing their term of service honorably but who still made important contributions and sacrifices that should be acknowledged by making them eligible for some benefits.
  • A Veteran is one who has served in a designated combat zone. Any service member who never served in a combat zone - like being on the bench and not on the playing field - is NOT a combat Veteran
  • I ANSWERED THIS SURVEY BECAUSE WE AS VETERANS SHOULD TAKE CARE WHEN WE ARE IN NEED. I OBJECT TO THE CALLING OF A VETERAN OTHER THAN HONORABLE. WE DON'T WANT DISCHARGED VETS THAT ARE BELOW HONORABLE RECEIVING ANY OF THE SERVICES AQUAINTED TO OUR VETS. THEY CAN GET HELP ELSE WHERE. MY BROTHER AND SON ARE DISHONORABLE VETS SO I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. I ON THE OTHER HAND AM AN HONORABLY DISCHARGED DISABLED VETERAN OF THE VIET NAM WAR WHO SERVED DURING THAT WAR STATESIDE TAKING CARE OF 25,000 FILES OF PAY, MEDICAL AND RECORD RECORDS IN PERSONNEL, SAN DIEGO, CA. I’M PROUD OF MY BROTHER AND SISTER VETERANS DISABLED UNDER HONORABLE TO THE END. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!!!!! I DON'T HAVE MY PENSION AND PURPLE HEART IN MY RECORDS. IT'S BEEN 50 YEARS.

Recommendations. In order to ensure that no individual who served in the military and who may still suffer from conditions related to their military service is left without recognition or assistance, and because city services provide a social safety net for the men and women who would otherwise have no place to turn, NYC government should expand identification of veterans for the purposes of tracking city services delivered to these individuals. 

  1. Upon intake of individuals for social services, NYC government agencies should inquire whether the individual has ever served in the military. For the purposes of identifying and tracking veterans receiving social services and enabling access to veteran-targeted programs related to health care, mental health, behavioral health, and homelessness, city agencies should identify all individuals who have served in the active or reserve components of the military as veterans, regardless of length of service or discharge status.[17]
  2. MOVA should work to connect all individuals who have served in the active or reserve components of the military, regardless of length of service or discharge status, with any federal, state, city, and nonprofit services for which they qualify in order to ensure all individuals identified as veterans receive the help they need.
  3. For the purposes of other benefits and services, NYC government should define veteran as any individual who has served in the military and received a discharge that is other than dishonorable. Eligibility for certain benefits and services designed to recognize and honor veterans, however, should continue to be determined based on criteria relevant to the specific benefit or service, to include discharge status, time in service, combat service, or other criteria that parallels federal and state eligibility requirements and aligns with the current NYC definition of veteran.

 


[17] See pages 40-42 of this report for information and recommendations on tracking veterans receiving city services.

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