Veterans' Rights


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Veterans' Rights

Legal rights and benefits extended to those who served on active duty in and have been honorably discharged from one of the U.S. Armed Services.

According to data from the 2000 U.S. census, about 26.4 million civilians, or 12.7 percent of the civilian population, consisted of veterans of the armed forces. This number includes those who served on active duty for the duration of their military careers and those who served for only a short time on active duty, such as individuals who were called to serve in the Gulf War in 1991. Given that such a significant percentage of the population consists of veterans, the United States has extended a number of rights to and provides benefits for these servicemen.

The federal agency primarily responsible for administering the various programs for veterans is the Veterans Affairs Department (VA). A veteran's eligibility for the benefits administered by the VA depends upon a number of factors, such as whether the veteran served during wartime. A veteran must have received an honorable or general discharge in order to qualify for benefits, as a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge ordinarily precludes extension of benefits. However, veterans who are incarcerated or on Parole may still be eligible for some VA benefits.

Health Care

Veterans are generally required to enroll with the VA in order to be eligible for health care benefits. Some veterans are exempted from the enrollment requirement if they fall within certain categories, such as those who have a disability of 50 percent or more caused by service of duty and those who seek care only for a disability suffered as a result of service. Enrollment of other veterans depends upon the appropriations granted to the VA by Congress. The VA has established a priority list of those who apply to be enrolled in the health care benefits program. Priorities depend largely upon the severity of the disability and the financial need of the veteran. In order to determine whether a veteran is eligible for benefits due to financial need, the VA calculates the annual income and net worth of the veteran, and then compares this amount with the "means test," a financial threshold calculated on an annual basis. If the veteran's income and net worth fall below the means test, then the veteran may be eligible for health care benefits.

A wide range of health care benefits are available for qualified veterans, including nursing home care, domiciliary care, outpatient pharmacy services, outpatient dental treatment, alcohol and drug-dependence treatment, and funding to make home improvements necessary to accommodate a veteran's disability. Veterans who are seriously injured in the line of combat and who have suffered a major disability are generally eligible for a variety of additional benefits. On the other hand, veterans with disabilities that are not service-connected and veterans whose income and net worth are above the means test qualify for fewer programs and may be required to participate in a co-payment plan in order to qualify for VA assistance.

Disability Compensation

Veterans who become disabled as a result of injury or disease incurred as a result of active military service may qualify for disability compensation. The amount of this monthly compensation depends upon the severity of the disability and the number of dependents of the veteran. The VA has also adopted rules for disability compensation that apply to veterans who have suffered through certain debilitating circumstances, such as those who have been prisoners of war for more than 30 days; those who were exposed to agent orange, herbicides, or radiation; and those who suffered chronic disabilities as a result of the Gulf War. Veterans who receive disability compensation receive their checks once per month.

The VA also provides vocational rehabilitation that allows qualifying disabled veterans to prepare for, locate, and maintain employment. In order to qualify for this plan, the disability must have been service-related, and the veteran must not have been dishonorably discharged. Services vary depending on the specific needs of the veteran.

Pensions

The government may provide monetary support for veterans who became permanently and totally disabled and who have low incomes. In order to qualify, the veteran must have served at least 90 days in active military service and must have an income level lower than the standard set forth by the VA. Some veterans are automatically excluded from eligibility, such as those who have been dishonorably discharged from military service and those who suffered disabilities as a result of their own willful misconduct.

Education and Vocational Training

Congress established a rather complex system to provide educational assistance to veterans. The Veterans' Educational Assistance Act of 1984 (Pub. L. No. 98-525, 98 Stat. 2553), better known as the Montgomery GI Bill, was enacted to provide a program that allows veterans to adjust to civilian life. Qualifying veterans generally fall within one of several categories, which are based primarily on the time period in which the veteran served in the armed forces. Veterans become ineligible for education assistance once ten years has passed from the time of discharge or release from active duty.

A wide array of training possibilities are available for veterans who qualify for educational assistance. The types of training include: (1) college or university courses that lead to an associate, a bachelor, or a graduate degree; (2) courses that lead to a diploma or certificate from a business, technical, or vocational school; (3) an apprenticeship or other on-the-job training program; (4) certain correspondence courses; (5) flight training under some circumstances; (6) state-approved certification programs for teachers; (7) courses deemed necessary for a veteran to gain admission to a college or graduate school; and (8) approved licensing and certification tests. Veterans may also qualify for a VA work study program.

Veterans who served in the reserve elements of the armed services may be eligible for educational assistance. In order to qualify, the reserve veteran must have agreed to a six-year obligation to serve in the Selected Reserve, in addition to other requirements. The rate of benefits is considerably less for reserve members than for veterans who served in active service.

Home Loan Guarantees

The VA guarantees certain home loans for veterans, as well as individuals in active service, reservists, and surviving spouses. Under this program, the VA agrees to guarantee part of the total loan, which allows the veteran to obtain a mortgage at a competitive interest rate, sometimes without a down payment. A veteran is allowed to purchase a new home or condominium, or purchase a manufactured home or a manufactured home lot. Home loans may also be used to repair or improve an existing home, refinance an existing home loan, or make certain weatherization or energy-efficiency improvements. In order to qualify, the veteran must have a good credit rating, must make a sufficient income to pay mortgage payments, and agree to reside on the property. Other qualifications apply as well.

Additional Benefits

Veterans may be entitled to a number of additional benefits offered by the VA, including life insurance, burial services, and survivor benefits. Veterans are requested to contact a local office of the VA to determine their potential eligibility. A variety of benefits are also provided by agencies other than the VA, including the Defense Department, the Agriculture Department, the Small Business Administration, and the Housing and Urban Development Department.

Appeals

A veteran or another claimant is entitled to file an appeal of a decision made by a regional office or medical center of the VA. Appeals may be filed for denials of a variety of benefits, including health care benefits, disability compensation, pensions, and educational benefits. A veteran who wishes to file an appeal must do so within one year of the VA's decision. The first body to hear an appeal is the Board of Veterans' Appeals, which is located in Washington, D.C. If the board refuses to grant benefits to the veteran, he or she may file an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The appeals court does not conduct a new trial, but rather reviews the record of the Board of Veterans' Appeals. A decision of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims may be reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and possibly by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Further readings

Armstrong, R. E., and Terry P. Rizzuti. 2001. Veteran's Benefits: A Guide to State Programs. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Department of Veterans Affairs. 2003. Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents. Washington, D.C.: Office of Public Affairs.

Stichman, Barton F., Ronald B. Abrams, and David F. Addlestone, eds. 1999. Veterans Benefits Manual. Charlottesville, Va.: Lexis Law Publishing.

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