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How to Qualify for Veterans Benefits

Each time Congress passes a new veterans benefit law, it establishes specific eligibility criteria for that benefit. For the purpose of benefits, being a veteran is not enough. Whether you qualify for benefits, or certain types of benefits, depends on several factors:

  • Your length of service

  • Where and when you served

  • Your discharge characterization

Veteran benefits and length of service

Eligibility for most veterans benefits requires a minimum length of military service. Take a gander this table. As you can see, to qualify for full Montgomery GI Bill education benefits, you have to serve for a minimum of 36 months.

On the other hand, you could qualify for VA disability compensation or VA medical care with only one day of active duty. Don’t get too excited, because for disability or medical care, you have to meet a slew of other qualification requirements.

Veterans Benefits Basic Eligibility Criteria
Benefit Minimum Service Requirement Period of Service Discharge Characterization
VA healthcare Any Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Military health insurance 20 years Any Honorable
VA pension 90 days active duty Before Sept. 7, 1980 Honorable, general, or VA determination
VA pension 2 years active duty On or after Sept. 7, 1980 Honorable, general, or VA determination
VA disability compensation Any Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Military retirement 20 years Any Honorable
Military life insurance programs Any Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Burial and memorial benefits Any Enlisted: Service on or before Sept. 7, 1980
Officers: Service on or before Oct. 16, 1981
Honorable, general, or VA determination
Burial and memorial benefits 24 months continuous active duty Enlisted: Service after Sep. 7, 1980
Officers: Service after Oct. 16, 1981
Honorable, general, or VA determination
Active-Duty GI Bill 36 months active duty Any Honorable
Reserve GI Bill After initial training Any N/A
21st Century GI Bill 90 days continuous active duty or 6 months total active duty After Sept. 11, 2001 Honorable
Vocational training for disabled veterans Any Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Veterans job preference 1 day Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Veterans small-business loans Any Any Honorable general, or VA determination
VA Home Loan Program 90 days active duty Sept. 16, 1940, to July 25, 1947; or June 27, 1950, to Jan. 31, 1955; or Aug. 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975 Honorable, general, or VA determination
VA Home Loan Program 181 days continuous active duty Enlisted: July 26, 1947, to June 26, 1950; or Feb. 1, 1955, to Aug. 4, 1964; or May 8, 1955, to Sep;. 7, 1980
Officers: May 8, 1975 to Oct. 16, 1981
Honorable, general, or VA determination
VA Home Loan Program 24 months continuous active duty Enlisted: Sept. 7, 1980, to present
Officers: Oct. 16, 1981, to present
Honorable, general, or VA determination
VA Home Loan Program 6 years Guard/Reserve service Any Honorable
Homeless veterans programs Any Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Military retirement homes 20 years Any Honorable
Military retirement homes (100% disabled) 1 day Any Honorable, general, or VA determination
Military shopping benefits 20 years or 100% disabled Any Honorable
Military travel benefits 20 years or 100% disabled Any Honorable

Note: The table shows basic eligibility criteria only.

Veterans benefits and where and when you served

It seems that Congress just can’t make things simple. Just to complicate things, where and when you served in the military can have an impact on your eligibility for certain veterans benefits.

Take another look back at the table. To qualify for the VA Home Loan Program, you need at least 90 days of active-duty service if you served during the Vietnam War. However, if your military service was during the Gulf War, you must have at least 24 months of continuous active-duty service to qualify.

A member of the National Guard or Reserves must have at least six years of Guard/Reserve service to qualify (unless they otherwise qualify due to active-duty service).

Veterans benefits and service discharges

It's amazing how many people, including military people, think that there are only two types of military discharges (sometimes called characterizations): honorable and dishonorable. Didn’t anyone ever watch JAG on TV?

Military discharges come in two basic flavors:

  • Administrative: Administrative discharges are granted by the discharge authority, who is usually a high-ranking commanding officer.

  • Punitive: Punitive discharges can be imposed only by a military court-martial.

Both types come in various flavors as well, some of which affect your eligibility for veterans benefits. Basically, if you received a dishonorable discharge, a bad conduct discharge, or a dismissal from a general court-martial, you’re not entitled to veterans benefits.

If you received an OTH administrative discharge, or a BCD or dismissal imposed by a special court-martial, you may or may not be eligible for veterans benefits. If you received an honorable or general discharge, you’re eligible for most veterans benefits, assuming you meet the other qualifying factors for that benefit. A few benefits require an honorable discharge.

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