Who is Eligible for Veterans Disability Compensation?

In order to receive veterans benefits either for a veteran or survivor, eligibility rules require that the applicant or the deceased spouse of a survivor or parent of a dependent child has to meet the definition of a veteran.

The definition of a veteran is contained in Title 38 US Code Chapter 101. (2)

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.

This is a rather narrow definition. There are numerous groups of people who have offered service to the country who are considered veterans for benefit purposes. National Guard and reserve members can qualify as veterans if they were called up under title 10 of the US Code by the president of the United States for active duty service. Since the Gulf War in 1990, 64% of all 1.2 million National Guard and reserve troops have been called up – some more than once. These individuals are generally considered veterans for benefits purposes.

To be eligible for veterans benefits, members of the guard or reserves have to have completed their active duty obligation or have completed at least 24 months on active duty – whichever comes first. National Guard or reserve members who have not been called up to active duty are generally not eligible for veterans benefits. But there is an exception. If one of these individuals were injured or contracted certain diseases while engaged in basic training for inclusion in the guard or reserve, they could be eligible for disability compensation or dependency and indemnity compensation – DIC – caused by the illnesses or injuries. This is an exception where they don't have to be classified as veterans in order to get benefits.

This training for guard and reserves is called active duty for training or inactive duty for training and we will discuss it further on.

Other Groups Who Are Considered Veterans for VA Benefits

It is surprising to many people that large numbers of non-US citizens have served honorably in the active military. As long as these servicemembers did not request discharge during a period of war and received a discharge other than dishonorable, they are eligible for veterans benefits.

Since the all-volunteer service was started and the draft was dropped in 1973, aliens have been sought out to fill gaps in recruiting quotas. Mostly these are people who carry green cards and have been living in the United States for some time. By joining the service, they are given the opportunity to become naturalized citizens.

Besides members of the active military which includes the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force and the Coast Guard – there are 2 other uniformed services in the United States. 7 uniformed services in all. These other 2 are the commissioned officer corps of the public health service and the commissioned officer corps of the national oceanic and atmospheric administration or NOAA. These people are also considered veterans for VA benefits.

Finally, there is a whole list of other categories of individuals in Title 38 CFR Part 3 who are considered veterans due to having participated in war even though not members of the military or due to training or other military related service.

Active Duty, Active Duty for Training and in Active Duty for Training

For purposes of qualifying for disability compensation or DIC, active duty can also include a special duty service called active duty for training and inactive duty for training. These two terms define a special category of duty which generally applies to reserve and guard components but it might also apply to the basic training undergone by ROTC cadets and cadets of US preparatory academies – not military academies. The basic training that all reserve and guard units go through when they first join is considered active duty for purposes of veterans disability compensation benefits or DIC.

Inactive duty for training is generally the type of training reserve or guard members perform on weekends or the extended personal training done to learn special skills or to upgrade to another rank. Extended full-time training for reserve and guard units – which lasts weeks or months – and to maintain readiness, is considered active duty for training and also allows for compensation or DIC.

Be aware that disability compensation and DIC are the only benefits available from active duty for training or inactive duty for training.

In the Line of Duty and Willful Misconduct

In order to be eligible for a claim related to death or disability, the veteran had to have been in the line of duty when that injury or illness or death or occurred. It is important to understand that a veteran may make a valid claim when he or she was in the line of duty even though a different injury or illness may preclude a claim related to when the veteran was not in the line of duty. A military person who is on leave and who experiences an injury or illness while on leave is considered to be in the line of duty.

Not being in the line of duty includes actions such as willful misconduct, desertion, absent without leave, illness or injury in service caused by drug or alcohol or tobacco use after 1990 as well as injury or illness incurred while confined under a sentence of court-martial or being confined in a civilian jail for a committed felony while in the service. Absent without leave also requires careful scrutiny under a claim as the motives relating to AWOL must be examined and determination could be made that being absent without leave would still result in a valid claim. Specific rules in 38 CFR 3.301 cover the various contingencies associated with in the line of duty.

One of the most common challenges for claims Adjudicators are injuries or death incurred while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Under certain circumstances, injuries from the use of alcohol or drugs constitute willful misconduct but only to the extent that judgment and abilities were impaired.

Prior to October 31, 1990 diseases caused by extended use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco while in the service could be covered as service-connected. After this date, conditions caused or aggravated by these usages while in service are considered willful misconduct and are not covered. Contracting a sexually transmitted disease such as venereal disease is not considered willful misconduct. The question of whether suicide with or without mental illness is willful misconduct is covered in 38 CFR 3.302.

Recreational use of alcohol or drugs in the service is not considered willful misconduct. However, alcohol abuse or drug abuse as defined by VA in 38 CFR 3.301 is willful misconduct and could result in a discharge from service. Such a discharge will often be justified by mentioning willful and persistent misconduct on the discharge form. A discharge that includes willful misconduct will bar a veteran from receiving pension benefits and vocational rehabilitation benefits.

Character of the Discharge

The requirement that a discharge from service must be other than dishonorable in order to qualify for VA benefits seems rather simple on the surface. In reality, there are a variety of different discharges that are characterized between an Honorable discharge and a discharge that uses the word dishonorable. In some cases, VA will consider these other than Honorable discharges as dishonorable even though the word dishonorable is not used. In other cases these discharges are considered as Honorable. As a general rule, discharges that are classified as "General Discharges" are considered as Honorable.

Some discharges are characterized as other than Honorable with the reason for separation based on a pattern of behavior that constitutes a significant departure from conduct expected of members of military services. Such discharges may be based on absent without leave, drug use, the use of force or violence to produce serious bodily injury or death, abuse of a special position of trust, disregard by a superior of customary superior subordinate relationships, acts or omissions that endanger the security of the United States or the health and welfare of other members of the military services and deliberate acts or omissions that seriously endanger the health and safety of other persons. Depending on the facts of the history of such behavior, VA can choose whether to classify such a discharge as other than dishonorable or dishonorable.

Discharges classified as dishonorable are not that common and are typically the result of a general court-martial for enlisted servicemen. General court-martials are not given to officers, but if their conduct was egregious enough, they will be forced to resign for the good of the service and this is considered a dishonorable discharge. See Title 38 CFR 3.12 for more information on discharges.


Please refer to the table of contents in the top right column of this page for more topics on VA Disability Compensation.