When applying for compensation benefits from the VA, there are several things you are looking for. You are trying to get service-connected, with the right disability rating, and an accurate effective date, while making sure you receive every benefit to which you may be entitled. But before applying, you need to start by making sure that you are eligible for benefits. It may help to think about VA decision-making as a two-step process. First they determine whether you have established basic eligibility for a benefit, and second they determine whether you have established entitlement to the particular benefit being sought.
There are several different types of benefits administered by the VA that each have their own set of requirements, but share common factors of eligibility, starting with what it means to be a veteran. Getting service connected has its own list of requirements to meet, but also starts with being a veteran, and then includes having a disability, and a nexus between the disability and service. Some benefits may consider other principles such as length of military service and whether service was during a time of war. But for service-connected benefits, you only have to worry about whether you had military service, whether that service was active, and the circumstances of discharge.
Let’s begin with the first step of what it means to be a veteran. While anyone can apply for VA benefits, not everyone is eligible to receive those benefits. Only veterans or the dependent or survivor of a veteran qualifies to receive benefits. Determining whether or not you are a veteran would seem pretty straightforward, but of course the VA has certain criteria for defining what it means to be a veteran. For the purpose of qualifying for disability benefits, 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.” This definition gives three criteria for veterans: 1) military service that is 2) active and 3) discharge that is not dishonorable.
Let’s look at the first part of this definition, known as military service. Military, naval, or air service includes the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as well as service as a member of the Reserve of one of these branches, or as a member of the Air or Army National Guard. Cadets of certain academies also have military service, as well as attendance at one of the preparatory schools for the Military, Air Force, or Naval Academies. There are is also service in organizations that counts as military service, such as commissioned officers in the Public Health Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or Environmental Science Services Administration on full time duty. Even service by certain civilians whose work supported military operations during periods of armed conflict can count as military service.
Therefore, if you fall into any of these categories, the next step is to determine whether your service was “active”. Active service is full-time duty in any of these branches. However, for Reservists and National Guard members to be eligible for VA benefits, they must have been activated for federal purposes. Federal service includes periods during which a National Guard member is ordered into federal service by the President or to perform specified training exercises. Members of the National Guard who are ordered into the active service of a state are not eligible for VA benefits related to that service, such as for example if a National Guard member is activated by a governor into the service of a state, it does not qualify as active duty for VA purposes. There are other circumstances, however, where members of the Reserve or National Guard are still eligible as a veteran, such as active duty for training. But a period of active duty for training is considered active service if they were disabled or died from a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty during that period of active duty for training. There are also circumstances in which a person qualifies as a veteran during “inactive duty for training”, if they were disabled or died from an injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty (just like active duty for training) or from an acute myocardial infarction, cardiac arrest, or a cerebrovascular accident that occurred during training.
The VA even considers some individuals and groups related to organizations other than the conventional Armed Forces to have active service, with types and dates listed out. Some examples are civilians whose work supported military operations during World War II, such as Women’s Air Forces Service Pilots, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, Wake Island Defenders from Guam, and the Secret Intelligence Element of the Office of Strategic Services.
If you meet these qualifications, the next step is to determine your character of discharge to qualify for compensation benefits.