By Tom Philpott
Lt. Cmdr. Jack Townsend, a Navy Reserve retiree in Richmond, Va., first became aware a decade ago that he wasn’t considered a military “veteran” under federal law. It’s been bothering him ever since.
Townsend was applying for a job when asked for a copy of his DD Form 214, “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty,” to prove veteran status. Townsend, who had earned his reserve commission through the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, didn’t have a discharge form because he never had served under active duty orders.
He did have his Navy Reserve retirement letter to verify 24 years of service. But employers are schooled to ask for the discharge form, proof from a job seeker of veteran status for completing a period of active duty service.
“It put me in a bad light,” Townsend said.
Roger Miller, 60, of Denver, Colo., who retired from the Navy Reserve at the same rank, also after 24 years, spent six of his years as an Air Force Reserve enlistee, loading cargo on aircraft.
“I knew that to be classified a veteran you had to have 180 days of continuous active duty, not including basic training or tech school. I finished up tech school at 179 days,” Miller said, just as the Air Force intended.
Non-veteran status didn’t sting Miller until years later when he applied for federal civilian positions in television and mass communications that fit his experience. He couldn’t, however, claim veterans’ preference points and he lost those jobs to former service members with active duty time.
“People ask me, ‘Are you a veteran?’ I say well, yeah, I served 24 years in the Reserve so I consider myself a veteran — even though the government doesn’t.’ That’s my answer to them,” Miller said.
Townsend called it illogical that the law denies Reserve retirees veteran status but they can draw military retirement at age 60, get military health care, shop on base and the Department of Veterans Affairs even finds them eligible for certain benefits, including VA guaranteed home loans.
“The only thing I’m lacking,” said Townsend, “is the paperwork.”
After years of complaints by reserve component retirees, a change to their veteran status may be near.
The Military Coalition, an umbrella organization for 34 military associations and veterans groups, is restarting a lobbying campaign for the new Congress and will push for passage of a bill to alter the definition of “veteran” for more than 200,000 Reserve and National Guard retirees.
The Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act will be re-introduced this month in the House by Reps. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Jon Runyan, R-N.J., of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Co-sponsors in the Senate will be Republican John Boozman and Democrat Mark Pryor, both from Arkansas, at least on this issue.
The House has passed this legislation twice. It died each time in the Senate on opposition from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member on the veterans affairs committee. Burr’s staff could not be reached to comment.
But advocates say the senator is worried that extending veterans status to reserve component retirees would open the door to more benefits. Proponents say the bill specifically states that those to be honored as veterans in the bill “shall not be entitled to any benefit by reason” of it.
So there is no “nose under the tent” benefit issue that should worry Burr, say coalition representatives leading the fight for the bill. These “veterans,” for example, would still not enjoy preference points in competing for federal jobs.
The Congressional Budget Office is persuaded, scoring the bill as “cost neutral.” Yet the coalition is working with sponsors to add more phrasing that would allay any remaining concerns Burr might have.
“To call yourself a veteran is one of the highest honors you can have after you leave the military. It’s an acknowledgement of one’s service,” said Anthony Wallis, with the Association of the United States Navy.
Most of the retirees targeted by the bill served in an era when it was commonplace to complete Reserve and Guard careers without active service. That’s almost unfathomable today given Guard and Reserve operations since 9/11.
“The population we are fighting for in this legislation is diminishing over time,” said Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations for Military Officers Association of America. “These are mostly Cold War-era folks, people who served in Reserve and Guard units but before first Gulf War, and were never called up during their careers.”
But Norton noted there still are reserve component careerists serving today, including National Guard technicians, who prepare others for call up but are not mobilized themselves for overseas contingencies or national emergencies. So these members, too, would be honored as veterans if they reach Guard or Reserve retirement for serving at least 20 years.
Another reason Burr should not fear a benefit expansion, Norton said, is that every benefit provided to veterans is governed by its own restrictive language specifying who is eligible. None simply goes to “any veteran.”
The bill being drafted would only extend veteran status to reserve component retirees, not to many more thousands of Reserve and Guard personnel who left before earning retirement.
Some members of the coalition may see the issue differently, Norton said, but at MOAA “our feeling is that this honor really should be reserved for those who have completed a full career.”
Miller does feel differently. He thinks any length of honorable service should suffice, “whether six years in the Reserve or 24 years.”
“I would still like to be recognized as a veteran, officially by the government, because I did serve 24 years,” Miller added. “And if you have talked to other Reservists you know that it wasn’t just that one weekend a month you did your duty.”
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