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What is a Veteran? The Legal Definition

What is a Veteran

What is a Veteran? Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines a veteran as “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.” This definition explains that any individual that completed a service for any branch of armed forces classifies as a veteran as long as they were not dishonorably discharged. However, with regard to applicable benefits, other considerations are important and will be covered in later sections.

Understanding the Difference Between Types of Military Service

There are a larger variety of services an individual can be a part of than is generally believed. The following are descriptions of each to help you steer your way through:


Active-duty service is simply full time. Active-duty members are available for duty 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, with the exclusion of leave (vacation) or pass (authorized time off). Active-duty members fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Defense and can serve in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.


If an individual served active-duty service, it is credible toward length-of-service requirements when qualifying for veterans benefits.


Performing duties one weekend per month, plus two weeks of training per year, members of the Reserves and National Guard are considered part-time, though since the Gulf War in 1990, they’ve spent exponentially more time called to full-time active duties. In fact, National Guards and Reserves generally spend two years of their six-year enlistment performing full-time active duty.


The objective of the Reserves is to deliver supplementary support to active-duty forces, when obligated. All of the different military services have a Reserve branch under the patronage of the Department of Defense: Army Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, and Coast Guard Reserve.

Though it doesn’t count as active-duty time for most veteran’s benefits, when an individual joins the Reserves, they attend basic training and military job school full time. After completion of basic training and military job school, those considered Reserves resume civilian life, except for training called inactive duty training (IDT) which takes place one weekend per month.

Reserves, however, do complete 14 days of full-time training once a year. The training is categorized as active duty for training (ADT). Neither IDT nor ADT counts toward service requirements for veteran’s benefits.

The president and secretary of defense can request those in the Reserves to active duty at any time in order to increase efforts on certain military projects. Approximately 65,000 Reserves are performing active duty in support of military contingency operations at any given moment.

This type of active duty counts toward veterans benefits.

National Guard

The foremost difference between the National Guard and the Reserves is that the federal government is in charge of the Reserves, while the National Guard units predominately belong to individual states.

There are two National Guard types: the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard. National Guard members attend basic training and military job school full time under ADT (active duty for training), similar to the Reserves.

They resume daily civilian life but train one weekend per month (IDT) in addition to 15 full-time training days per year. This type of IDT/ADT time doesn’t count toward veteran’s benefits.

State governors can call National Guard members to active duty if a state emergency arises. Such emergencies include relief or protection of property and people outside the authority of local law enforcement. This form of state duty is known officially as “Title 38 Call-up” and doesn’t count toward veteran’s benefits either.

Like the Reserves, the president and secretary of defense can call upon the National Guard in provision of military contingency operations, known as “Title 10 Call-ups” or federal duty. This type of duty counts toward service requirements for veteran’s benefits.

In the span of a month, an estimated 40,000 members of the Air and Army National Guard are performing federal duty overseas.

Active Guard/Reserves

A program called the Active Guard/Reserves (AGR) includes members of the Reserves and National Guard that take part in full-time active duty. To make sure that National Guard and Reserve units are ready to mobilize at all times, AGR members provide daily operational support.

For veteran’s benefit service requirements, AGR duty is the similar to full-time active-duty service.

Individual Ready Reserve

A military service contract spans a minimum of eight years total and the time that isn’t spent on active duty or in the Guard/Reserves must be spent in inactive reserves, known as the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR).

Generally, after serving four years, a member is transferred to the IRR for their remaining four years. IRR members don’t take part in weekend drills or annual training, but unfortunately, they don’t get paid either.IRR members can be recalled into active duty when necessary, in order to support military projects.

During IRR status, the time spent inactive doesn’t count toward veteran’s benefits unless the member is recalled into active duty.

Roughly 15,000 IRR members have been recalled into active duty, largely for the Army and Marine Corps, every year since 2004.


  1. why local veteran party of local block clubs in Michigan other states now and the future

  2. Most of the time when you separate from svcriee you have to turn in your ID, will you also accept DD214 s or other proof of svcriee? Thanks, I think this is great you guys are doing this!

  3. I served in the PA Army National Guard and the USAR from 1974 to 1991 and discharged with 2 honorable discharges. I put in 186 days of Basic and AIT. I served two Infantry units, two Field Artillery units, one field Combat Support Hospital and one Military Intelligence unit. Minimum of 13+ years of service. I also have a Distinguished Service Award from the United Veterans’ Council and Veterans’ Advisory Commission of Philadelphia. I have also represented the frigate USS UNITED STATES, First Ship of the United States Navy since Sept 1978. According to the above because I was not active I am not entitled to benefits for all that I have done. Is this true? I am requesting verification of benefits. I was not entitled to a DD214.

  4. can u tell me what part of my disability and compensation. . am 100%. my rent is based on income and my management company says that my D&C

    is income. would appreciate a explanation. thank you

  5. what part if, if any, of my disability and compensation is income. Iam rated at 100%

    • Veterans Authority

      Veterans’ benefits are also excluded from Federal taxable income. The following amounts paid to Veterans or their Families are not taxable:

      Education, training, and subsistence allowances.
      Disability compensation and pension payments for disabilities paid either to Veterans or their Families.
      Grants for homes designed for wheelchair living.
      Grants for motor vehicles for Veterans who lose their sight or use of their limbs.
      Veterans’ insurance proceeds and dividends paid either to Veterans or their beneficiaries, including the proceeds of a Veteran’s endowment policy paid before death.
      Interest on insurance dividends left on deposit with the VA.
      Benefits under a dependent-care assistance program.
      The death gratuity paid to a survivor of a member of the Armed Forces who died after September 10, 2001.
      Payments made under the compensated work therapy program.
      Any bonus payment by a state or political subdivision because of service in a combat zone.

  6. fred wagner millhouse

    Army national Guard why no health benefits I served from 1970 to 1976

    • Veterans Authority

      Basic Eligibility
      If you served in the active military service and were separated under any condition other than dishonorable, you may qualify for VA health care benefits. Current and former members of the Reserves or National Guard who were called to active duty by a federal order and completed the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty may be eligible for VA health benefits as well.

      Reserves or National Guard members with active duty for training purposes only do not meet the basic eligibility requirement.

      Check here for more information: http://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/apply/veterans.asp

      • You are eligible for disability benefits if your disability event occurred while on duty and there was a Line of Duty Report issued with that event. National Guard.

  7. Served in USAF. May 1981 – Sep 1982. Discharged general under Honorable with PPD – later formally diagnosed with Autism/Aspergers. Issue is I was in just short of 180 days. 172 days to be exact. According to what I was told on separation was that I was entitled to nothing, to get nothing and could never get it amended. I am thoroughly embarrassed and break down any time I try to go to find out if I a even entitled to a flag on my coffin.

    Because it was short of 180 days, I am not technically a veteran correct? I am going back to school and don’t want to lie on my forms. I also don’t wish to say that I am if I am not – which is why I rarely talk about that part of my life.

    • You are a veteran if you were discharged honorably. VA benefit eligibility has more requirements so just because you may not qualify for VA benefits, you are entitled to military honors regarding funeral and certainly check the veteran box unless it specifically calls out combat veteran.

  8. “Full-time

    Active-duty service is simply full time. Active-duty members are available for duty 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, with the exclusion of leave (vacation) or pass (authorized time off). Active-duty members fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Defense and can serve in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.”

    Doesn’t the U.S. Coast Guard work for the Department of Homeland Security unless in time of war???

    • hi i want to take this min to say thank u veterans for serving the country u mean a lot to me and other people. Thanks u so much


  9. Just to be clear. I served in the Army National Guard. Went through Basic Training, AIT did my 6 years going to drill once a month and 2 weeks a year in the summer and then 2 years inactive and was discharged after completion of service. Am I a Veteran?

    • Veterans Authority

      For the purposes of VA health benefits and services, a person who served in the active military service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable is a Veteran.

  10. I was member of the National Guard Army Reserve for eight and half years and discharged a SSG E -6.A member Aug 5 1952 discharged Mar 6 1961 can i say i am a veteran.
    Thanks very much Richard Merrick

  11. Before I ask a question I would like to thank all those who have served and who are serving our country May the lord bless you and your families,, I have had this question on my mind for years now, and when I have asked it in the past I get so many different answers I don’t what to think…. Back in Early Nov 1976 I enlisted in the USMC during Boot camp training I developed a hernia. They sent me to a doctor that could hardly speech English and it scared the crap out of me haha… They wanted to operate etc… I was really spooked about this being away from home and no speak thee English doctor.. so I decided to ask if I could have my own personal doctor take care of this.. they said yes but we have to discharge you.. I said well OK.. ( one of the biggest mistake of my life I regret it till this day 40 years later, I even have dreams re-enlisting to this day wish I could.) I was young immature at the time. So I was giving an Honorable discharge, DD 256 certificate, DD 214 showing NET Active service, total active service and total service for pay. So here is my question… Mind you back in 1976 things were a little bit different then they are today, I was wondering if I qualify for VA BENEFITS like health care. with this Obama care coverage its killing my wallet, and I was wonder if I would qualify… I was reading all the VA rules and according to this rule I will post here ….. QUOTE: (Length of Service Prior to September 8, 1980, there was no minimum length of service necessary to be considered a veteran for most VA benefits. However, for an individual who enlisted after September 8, 1980, there are now certain minimum length of service requirements. The general requirement is either 24 months of continuous active duty or the “full period” for which the service member was called or ordered to active duty.14) END QUOTE: With this being said I’m just wondering if my service in boot camp was ACTIVE DUTY or ACTIVE DUTY IN TRAINING, because it only states ACTIVE duty on my DD 214 plus the honorable discharge along with it… would they give me an honorable discharge with a DD214 if it was considered (active duty for training)? or wouldn’t they stay it was ACTIVE DUTY FOR TRAINING ON THE DD 214? I appreciate those who took the time to read my lengthy question. Im not trying to promote myself as a seasoned veteran so please this question is not about me being a veteran but only being able to get VA health care if I qualify. So my understanding is if your in the service full time 24/7 your active duty starts from day one, but if your reservist your not considered full time your considered ACTIVE DUTY FOR TRAINING is this correct? . Thanks and God be with all of you daily.

  12. My father was in the National Guard for 8 years around 1956 to 1964. His he considered a veteran?

    • National Guard and Reserve
      Two particular elements of the criteria to be a veteran—“active duty” and “length of service”— are often difficult for members of the National Guard and the reserve components to meet. As a result, these servicemembers, having not met the statutory threshold criteria for “veteran,” are often not eligible for VA benefits. In many cases, members of the Guard and the reserves may not have fulfilled the “active duty” requirement. Members of the Guard and reserves who have never been activated for federal active duty military service, and consequently have not served on regular federal active duty, do not meet the active duty requirement for the definition of a veteran for VA benefits. For other National Guard and reserve members, the two requirements may be met at the same time. An example of this situation would be a Guard or reserve member who was activated for federal military service and served in the Persian Gulf for 12 months. At the end of the activation period, the servicemember would be considered to have served on active duty for that period of

  13. A friend who served 18 years in the Army Reserve and later in the IRR, asked if he was considered to be a veteran. He simply wants to know if, for his service, none of which was on active duty, qualified him to be called a veteran.

    I told him that my personal opinion is that he is a veteran, even though he never served on Active, he did enlist and swore an oath to our country. This oath made him subject to being called to serve, and die if necessary, to protect and defend our Nation. That’s why I feel that he is entitled to be called a veteran, even with veteran benefits.

    I have looked several places online but I haven’t found any sites that speak specifically to this question. They talk about Active Duty, National Guard and Army Reserve Service, but don’t speak to whether a person who was a member of the National Guard or Army Reserve never serving on Active Duty is considered a veteran or not.

    Any information that you could provide that I might pass on to my friend would be sincerely appreciated.

    Thank you.

  14. My question is the same as others that do not seem to have been answered. I served a total of 12 years, in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves, as determined by available bases when moving to different states. I am not looking for VA benefits, but simply need to know if I am considered a Veteran, or not. Never activated by state or fed. gov’t, but did “weekend warrior” and two-weeks in the summers, as required. During funerals, Veterans can salute the flag and the processions while civilians put their hand on their heart. I need to know which I am entitled to. Plus, I don’t want to dishonor actual Veterans by calling myself one if I am not.

    • Here is the definition of a US Veteran:

      Under federal law, a veteran is any person who served honorably on active duty in the armed forces of the United States. Discharges marked “general and under honorable conditions” also qualify.

  15. I know I don’t qualify for veteran benefits but wanted to confirm if I am still considered a veteran.
    I served in the South Dakota National Guard and was honorably discharged. I did Basic and AIT training and was in for only 2-3 years total. I was never sent anywhere so I’m not sure if I’m considered a veteran or not.

    • Here is the definition of a US Veteran:

      Under federal law, a veteran is any person who served honorably on active duty in the armed forces of the United States. Discharges marked “general and under honorable conditions” also qualify.

  16. My question is for anyone… If someone does not finish boot camp and is discharged due mental distress.. Is that person still considered a Veteran?

    • Here is the definition of a US Veteran:

      Under federal law, a veteran is any person who served honorably on active duty in the armed forces of the United States. Discharges marked “general and under honorable conditions” also qualify.

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