Most people assume anyone who has served in the military a veteran, but there is actually an official definition of the status of veteran. In order to meet the requirement for many of the benefits available to veterans, you’ll need to meet these qualifications.

When are you considered a veteran of the military?

According to Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations, a veteran is a “person who served in the active military, naval or air service, and who was discharged or released under conditions other than honorable.”

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Essentially, anyone who completed service for any brand of the military is a veteran, provided they were not discharged under dishonorable conditions.

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Despite this broad definition of a veteran, there are circumstances under which someone who is a legally defined vet might not qualify for benefits.

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For starters, there are different ways to “complete military service.” You might have been a full-time active duty service member who is available for duty round-the-clock 24 hours a day seven days a week, minus times you were on leave or pass. Full-time active duty service members are under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Defense and it doesn’t matter if you serve in the Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force or Coast Guard.

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It’s also possible to be a member of the military part-time. In most cases, this requires performing service duties once a month for a weekend, as well as two weeks of training. This type of part-time service is usually referred to as National Guard or Guard or being a member of the Reserves. Despite their part-time status, members of the National Guard and Reserves can be called into active duty under certain circumstances and since the Gulf War, these part-timers have spent more time on active duty. Many have spent two years of their six-year enlistment in full-time active service.

What’s the Purpose of Part-time Military Service?

Reservists are in place to support active duty forces. All of the branches of the military have a Reserve branch that is under the US Department of Defense. This time, as well as the full-time training time completed each year, doesn’t count as active duty time that can be accumulated for veteran’s benefits, despite Reserve members completing basic training and military job school.

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If Reservists are called into active duty at the discretion of the president or secretary of defense that time will count toward gaining military benefits.

National Guard members are also considered part-time military members. The difference between Reservists and National Guard members is that the federal government oversees the Reserves while each individual state has its own National Guard—both Army National Guard and Air National Guard. Governors have the authority to call National Guard members on active duty and usually do so during emergencies that might be related to chaos or safety concerns, or natural emergencies.

Just like Reservists, a good portion of the time dedicated to service in the National Guard does not count toward qualifying for veterans benefits, including the time spent in service when called up for state-related emergencies. However, if National Guard members are called into action by the president or secretary of state—known as federal duty—those hours do count toward the requirements for veteran’s benefits.

Those who are Active Guard or Active Reservists do earn credit toward veteran’s benefits. Active Guard/Reserves are members of the Reserves or National Guard who are on duty full-time and tasked with ensuring part-time units are able to mobilize at any time if needed. They are performing service duties full-time and they accrue service hours in much the same way as full-time active duty service members.

Even after a full-time service member has served his or her initial stint in the military, there are still obligations. For instance, military service contracts typically span a time length of more than four years—the amount of time most people serve active duty.

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Once active duty obligations are complete, the service member is part of inactive reserves. This means they are not active full-time service members but can be called up into action. This tool is used because, in the event of an emergency that requires more than the support of active duty service members and National Guard and Reservists, people who are “fresh out of” the military are considered capable and most ready to perform military duties.

Time spent on inactivity duty does not count toward veteran’s benefits unless a service member is activated during this time.

Benefits Available to Those Who are Not Veterans

There are certain circumstances under which a person who never served in the military might be eligible for some veterans’ benefits. For instance, the spouse or child of a veteran who died during active service receives a number of the benefits that would’ve been available to the service member, had he or she survived.

Why It’s Important to Define Veteran Status

In addition to appropriately honoring veterans for their service, it’s important to define when a service member is considered a veteran because of the benefits available. Veterans are entitled to a number of benefits, including those related to education, housing, and healthcare. There is also financial assistance and funding for disabled veterans available. In order to be eligible for the majority of these benefits, one must qualify as a veteran and accumulate a certain number of active duty service hours, and be on active duty for a minimum of 24 months or a “full period” or active duty.

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Additionally, it’s necessary for a vet to have been honorably discharged, which means the service member completed all of his or her obligations “efficiently, honorably, and faithfully.” Not receiving an honorable discharge does not automatically mean a person has been dishonorably discharged. There is such a thing as general discharge, which means the service member had satisfactory performance but did not meet all expectations of conduct for military members.

Keep in mind, a discharge from the military, even an honorable one, is not military retirement. Military retirement indicates a person made a long-term career of their military service and served for at least 20 years.