“Kate, what exactly is a Veteran?” my friend Seth asked.

Perplexed at what sounded like a naive question, I began to rattle off my answer. “Well, a Veteran is someone who has served in the Armed Forces. . .”

He interrupted with, “Yeah but why are there American Legions and Veterans of Foreign Wars? And when does someone actually become a Veteran?”

He made his point: The definition can be unclear. And it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered confusion over the topic. Former service members give a variety of answers when posed with the question. I’ve heard it all: everything from, “One is a Vet once they’ve obtained a DD-214,” and “Someone who had the stones to raise their right hand and honorably serve without question,” and “In order to be a Vet you have to have served in a war, but I know people who haven’t and they’re also considered Vets.”

Not only is the definition unclear, but it can also be isolating. A few months ago, I spoke with Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris and Dr. Betty Moseley Brown—the Director and Associate Director—of VA’s Center for Women Veterans. One of their biggest challenges is that many women Veterans do not self-identify as Vets, so they’re unaware of VA benefits and services. For example, out of approximately eight million Veterans who enrolled in VA health care, only 524,000 are female.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery of what exactly a Veteran is and why some service members don’t self-identify, I grabbed my Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The definition is as follows:

Vet-er-an: old, of long experience. 1: an old soldier of long service. 2: a former member of the armed forces. 3: a person of long experience in an occupation or skill.

I picked up my phone and called Seth.

“Seth, a Vet is someone who is old and has lots of soldiering experience.”

“So, what you’re telling me is. . .you’re not a Vet?”

“Guess not. . .” I paused. “Of course I am.”

Not only does the dictionary give a vague definition that plays into the stereotype that all Veterans are elderly, it doesn’t advance the conversation. There has to be a more substantial reason as to why some Vets (mostly women) don’t self-identify. One could say our society is almost wired to believe a Veteran looks and acts a certain way. We’re not all old white males. We’re not all unshaven and wearers of mismatched camouflage uniforms. We’re not all poor or uneducated. As one Iraq War Vet put it, Veterans of the current conflicts are invisible—easily slipping into the depths of society unnoticed.

And unnoticed, I typically am—the first to be disregarded as a Veteran. A few months ago, I walked into a Virginia VFW Post with three fellow male Veterans. We were welcomed and asked if we had all served.

“Yes,” we replied. “Iraq and Afghanistan.” Drinking ensued and soon followed the usual exchange of stories and VFW applications. Later in the night, the female bartender leaned over and quietly asked me, “Did you get the right application?” I opened the envelope and took another look.

“Yeah, I believe so.”

“You were in the service?”

“Yes, the Army. I deployed to Iraq like these guys,” I said, pointing to my three coworkers.

She motioned to another woman across the bar who was worried I wasn’t given the right application.

“What does she think I need?” I asked.

“The Ladies Auxiliary application.”

I leaned back in my bar stool—thinking—we are a country that has been at war for a decade. And women have served our country, in uniform, for years. Why did this seem so foreign? Why did I seem out of place at a VFW? Isn’t this where Vets are supposed to go when the rest of the country has turned its back?

A few weeks later I was surprised, once again, when I opened my email inbox.

Subject line: Veteran.

“I would like to know if my son is considered a Veteran. He served in the Air Force but not during war time.”

I simply replied, “Yes, your son is a Veteran—it doesn’t matter that he didn’t serve during war time. Take a look at our general eligibility information below.”

There are over 22 million living Veterans across the country, but only 8.3 million are enrolled in VA health care. While the Iraq War draws down, thousands of service members will be transitioning—entering a world of “the one percent.”

The meaning of a Veteran can be riddled by misperceptions, stereotypes, ideals, and just pure confusion. A Veteran is someone who served their nation—in war or in peacetime, of any race or religion, sexual preference, young or old, male or female. If you fit that description, the definition of a Veteran is you.

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Published on Nov. 28, 2011

Estimated reading time is 4.1 min.

Views to date: 199


  1. Raymundo Lastella February 20, 2012 at 11:44 am

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  2. Sandra Smith January 2, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I am the spouse of a Vietnam veteran.He has been deceased since 07-06-04. I have been denied once again for MDS/AML..claim..I stated in a letter to the regional office in Louisville, Ky. that my husband had open-heart by pass surgery in 2003..I was told to file for D.I.C. under this new presumptive illness as it could be associated or otherwise have contributed to his death..I had no idea I could claim this since he is deceased..Called hospitals for records and they said I had to go before a judge to be appointed administrator of my hubbys estate..SSSOOOO I have done all of this and am waiting doctors statements and opinions along with records..My husband was mis-diagnosed in 1992 with primary cerebral vasculitis..In 2003 with echo-gram they detected a huge myxoma in the heart..Transplant for AML was put on hold for surgeries on the heart..So I was told the myxoma was his problem all along..He spent weeks in different hospitals and they failer to detect it..His doctor told me without a doubt he had the myxoma before his strokes and that is what caused his problems along with surgery for heart disease..Has anyone heard of myxoma being associated with “ischemic heart disease”..any help is greatly appreciated…

  3. Nlck RETVETUSA92 January 2, 2012 at 2:58 am

    Apply to VA early .
    VA has category of care and provides care as need, inquire.
    If sustained a blast, amnesia, severe neck whiplash or strain or PTSD have this documented medical record.
    If denied , Appeal early often and reapply.
    The goal is to acquire VA ID CARD this gets you in the door. The providers will do the rest.
    Have all serious illness and injuries documented . Maintain in personal records Copies of encounters, Sick Slip, Profiles, TBI SCREENS ETC. RECORDS get lost , people witnesses lost, operations/missions forgotten or stored in dust files. Also have a exit physical.
    The second and susiquent goals. 0% sc covered care/ 10% $$ tax free, eye glasses if needed. Big One >30% sc care and Voc Rehab/ Educational assistance.

    Hope this helps.
    p.s. Those that don’t know TSGLI NOT just for combat injuries.
    Agent Orange exposure can result in Cancer, Heart Disease, Parkinson and Diabetes.

  4. Nlck RETVETUSA92 January 2, 2012 at 1:55 am

    Thank you for your service-Veteran. I experience a delayed thank you of being a Veteran. I am not female, but a Veteran of Vietnam Era served in Germany; 70-73. ETSd 73 one semester of College rejoined as prior service served during Cold War, with assignments in Germany, South Korea, Greece and TDY x2 in Turkey. Also served during Desert Storm in Sinop Turkey x 30 days prior to assignment of 1 yr tour of duty in Greece as a sole independent provider x 11 months. Retired after 22 yrs service. I lived and witness first hand the old Brown Boot Army transition to an Vol. Force, peace time Army and Non Conflict. My first encounter with female service personnel was at Ft Sam Houston observing the WAC’s in training, later in my enlisted Career attended Basic NCOES , 91 C-LPN, PA Course that was co-ed. Prior to PA School served in Aviation BN Aid Station and later Weisbaden Air Base Germany with Supportive Staff and partal medic section was co-ed. As the NCOIC Sr. 91C I expect same compliance of medical care and soldier traing regardless of sex. I insured they all rec’d same type training without reservation or limited standards. Never having involvement to live combat that is foreign to me. Yet in 2003 I returned as a civilian provider both as Contractor and GS end of term last year, 2009. Again I witness from a distance perspective of outside looking in the current transition from All Vol. Force to the now Army Strong Military combination of older youthful generation. Females have always considered Veterans. But when I ets’d in 73 the US was in termoil, with Student and Citizen Riots especially Atiwar sentiment and Anti-War attitude toward the military. i didn’t or have attempted joining the American Legion/ VFW or even a Vet Center. Vet Ctr’s were considered too radical, and I heard VFW required in hostile environment taking either incoming or lead flying. Recently I found or read where I might qualify for War Time Vet Pension. You not only put the uniform on protecting our county’s lives, and values but also as a spouse you provided support for a Veteran. There is no female in the word Veteran. In my book you and serving females earn the right, honor and gratitude of thanks, Veteran! THANKS FOR A JOB WELL DONE

  5. jim December 17, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Veteran as a word traces back to old romance dialict, latin as the ethos of “vetus”. Poetic reflections of old with experience, neither male nor female. .vetus, a experienced person such as the DAR, who battled the british this. Dec 16, 1773 in boston harbor. Or the vetus 12 to 14 year old young boys who boarded the vessels or joined the continential militia ..vetus one and all mr webster. Look at the ww1, ww2, regiments of Countless service as volunteers now approved for va benefits..the women postal flyers just as one history would make a cool story….vetus, older, experienced, rezilienze, robust…and can be found volunteering quitly in your community…vetus one and all, welcome home in any era or language. Vr, jw

  6. James Toomey December 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I “thought I was a Vet” ? (I served active duty for 2 years; 1957-1959). With the cost of prescription drugs getting very high and finding that I have to take a pretty expensive drug, I recently applied for VA assistance only to be told that my annual income of $31,000 is too high and makes me inelligable for VA assistance. I was even told that I couldn’t get a photo “ID” as a Vet. since I wasn’t approved for assistance.
    In th 50 years since my Honorable Discharge I have never asked for a dime from the VA, but not I can’t even get acknowledged that I am a vet?

  7. butch71 November 30, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    I like this blog and I’am a 20 year veteran in which I have served in two wars, Vietnam, and the Cold War and proud of it.

  8. John M November 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Hi Kate, I wrote on this same topic in my blog (www.ffov.org) over the weekend. I recall my return home from Iraq and being looked at with a peculiar look when I mentioned I was a member of the VFW. “You’re too young to be a VFW memeber” or “don’t you have to be old to join the VFW” a just a few of the questions I received. And trust me, there is still a massive amount of confusion within the armed forces as to what is or is not a Veteran. A few senior enlisted Soldiers that I serve with insist the only way you can claim the title Veteran is have been deployed. I disagreed then and I disagree now. In my eyes, and male or female who serves his country in the armed forces is a Veteran. In my blog, I define a Veteran as an American hero who is serving or had served in the United States armed forces with an unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”.
    Thanks for the nice post.

  9. Christine November 30, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Great post! I think many people, myself included, didn’t realize the definition of Veteran was so broad. Before reading your post and the eligibility requirements, I actually thought there was a length of time that someone had to serve before they were considered a Vet.

  10. Lin McNulty November 30, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    I served 10 years, and although it was during the Vietnam era, it was in the Reserves. Neither VFW, American Legion, nor VA consider me a veteran because I don’t have a DD-214 with any activity duty. So it seems to be that magical form that determines veteran-ism.

  11. Cecilia November 30, 2011 at 12:29 am

    I am a vet – I think.
    Unless it excludes me for being transgendered.

    “The meaning of a Veteran can be riddled by misperceptions, stereotypes, ideals, and just pure confusion. A Veteran is someone who served their nation—in war or in peacetime, of any race or religion, sexual preference, young or old, male or female. If you fit that description, the definition of a Veteran is you.”

    • Chrystine Collins-Blums March 16, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      Transgendered or not you served – therefore you are a Vet. You have the right to a.y benefits due you as a Vet.
      Best wishes,
      ARNG 1984-2009

      OIF III

  12. Mick Hall November 29, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    I’m still slightly embarrassed every time someone “thanks me for my service”. Maybe slightly uncomfortable is a better word. In 1961 it was just the thing to do. Few Marines chose the infantry MOS when they signed up. Although all marines are “basic riflemen” and are supposed to always be trained up/ready to go on the “front line”, that is not the reality. Point is: there are Combat Veterans and support veterans. Most had no real choice. It was mostly a matter of luck which hand you drew. Of course I’m speaking of the majority of volunteers. Then you’ve got the “War Fighters”, Seals, Rangers, UDT, Combat Swimmers in all the services, rescue swimmers, Delta, C.I.A. etc. The guys (and a few women), who have really EARNED the title of VETERAN. The ones who -truly-volunteered to “put it all on the line” There IS a difference.

  13. Charlie S. November 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Excellent work, Kate.

    I drove through downtown Bagdhad at 2:00 in the morning in the lead gun truck of a convoy on a number of occasions in OIF III. Often, my gunnner was an 88M (Motor Transport Operator) named Allysa D..

    She was 19 and had entered the Army Reserve just out of high school. Her normal assignment was to drive a 20 ton dump truck. She was good with a machine gun, clear headed and reliable – more so than many of her peers – so on missions where we didn’t need the dumps, she gunned.Up front. Lead truck. Standing in the turret, directly responsible for the safety of everyone behind her.

    She was fired on a number of times, and returned fire effectively.

    She has a Combat Action Badge and a 20th Engineer Brigade combat patch. So, yeah, I think she’s a Veteran.

    Nonetheless, when we were out in a group in civilian clothes after we got back, she was typically mistaken as being the girlfriend of one of the Veterans. “So, which one of them is yours?” she’d often get asked. “None of of them. I was with them in Iraq.”

    Through this and your other blog entries you’ve made me more aware of the barriers women face when they try to access VA services. As an “old white male” who often goes unshaven, I appreciate your efforts and the the efforts of your fellow VA employees to make sure that all 22 million living Veterans learn about their VA benefits and get access to them.

    Keep writing.

  14. Kate Hoit November 29, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Just wanted to thank you all for your service!

  15. Carl Wells November 29, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Well said.

  16. Wendy Carolan November 29, 2011 at 12:57 am

    We moved back to my hometown area after my husband finally retired from the Army in 1994, and that was when we decided it was time to get active with our local veterans organization. We were greeted warmly by all, but when it was time for the post and auxiliary meetings to begin, an auxiliary member tugged on my arm, urging me toward the “ladies” meeting room. Neither my husband or myself had to say anything because all the post members, (who happened to be all male), said…”Oh no, she is a veteran and she stays in here with us”! It was nice to be recognized and welcomed into our new post.

    Since that time, we have worked to make sure all veterans are recognized for their service and help them not only to learn about their earned benefits, but to access them as well!! Those of us who served are aware that no one knows for certain who will or will not be in direct conflict, regardless of mos. We all took those risks and since the mid 70s, we have been VOLUNTEERING to serve our country to keep us all safe.

    Thank you to ALL who have honorably served in the military uniform!!

  17. Bella November 29, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Great post! Your post was insightful and hopefully the article will reach other veterans that need assistance. Also, thanks for adding an updated definition for all veterans. Hopefully that will diminish the past stereotype for future veterans. I’m one of the 524,000 and you’re correct about the misperceptions that are still in place for female veterans. I’ve served 18+ yrs., not too old (40), educated & working on my masters, well traveled and I’m a spiritual person who prefers a peaceful resolution….I don’t fit the typical mold of a veteran ither. Most people think I’m like Martha Stewart…I like to bake and do crafts…lol. Your post was refreshing. Keep up the good work!

  18. CC November 28, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Phenomenal. I can speak from experience, I often find it difficult to self-identify, especially when I don’t know who I’m talking to. And what female vet hasn’t been the assumed girlfriend or wife of the male veterans we are with. Keep it coming Kate!

  19. Lisa November 28, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Great post, Kate! I ETS’d in 1976 from the Army. I was in the ASA (Army Security Agency) and served during the Vietnam era in the US (for school), Thailand and Germany. I had a TSSI clearance and was a squad leader. I filled a ton of experience into those three years! I ETS’d in country (Germany), because my husband was stationed there for several more months. I distinctly recall the guy in personnel saying, while going through my separation paperwork, “Okay, you are married, you won’t need any of this.” and putting whatever it was aside. I’m betting I’m not the only one that happened to.

    I AM a Vietnam Era veteran. I served my country. I am married to a disabled Vietnam Era veteran and mother to a Navy veteran who served 10 years before separating. My brother is also a veteran, as is my half-brother, two step-brothers, my father, and my father-in-law.

  20. Michael Minjack November 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    A veteran is a person who @ 1 time wrote a chk to the US Gov’t up to including his life!!!!!

  21. Danielle November 28, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Excellent points – kudos on stating the issue clearly!

  22. John Roane November 28, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    This was and is a stupid post and has little to do with women veterans. Only those with service connected disabilities, or those without means enter the VA healthcare system, but all must be a service member and or a service member’s dependent.

    Saying women are easily confused about this is sexist. Stupid is as stupid does regardless of sex.

    • Kate Hoit November 29, 2011 at 11:39 am

      Sexist? Point is women disregard themselves as Veterans for a variety of reasons—never once hinted it was because they are “dumb.” That’s absurd. And Veterans enroll into the VA health care system for other reasons than not being well-off.

    • Charlie S. November 29, 2011 at 1:01 pm


      Not all users of VA healthcare use it for service connected issues or because they have no means.

      I use VA healthcare for both my service connected disabilities AND for routine health care. I pay for the non-service connected care with my health insurance and a co-pay. I’m fortunate to have plenty of “means” these days.

      I use the VA for all my health care needs because these days it’s quite simply the best care I’ve ever received. For me it wasn’t always this way. At one point I had a number of bad experiences with VA healthcare years ago. I gave it another try a while back and found nothing but excellent care. Given a choice between being treated at a civilian hospital and a Veterans hospital, I’m taking the VA any day now. Go check out the ratings for hospitals and see how many of the VA’s hospitals are ranked at the top of the scale.

      It’s the best health care a Veteran can get.

      And just so you don’t think I’m some “VA is awesome” cheerleader, I’ll share that I still really dislike the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and think they seriously need to fix their bureaucracy and long decision times.

      Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris and Dr. Betty Moseley Brown and didn’t tell Kate that women were “confused.” They told her that women, “…do not self identify as Vets.”

      It’s a real problem, one that is perpetuated by stereotypes, and is not just a matter of confusion.

  23. John Ledingham November 28, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Never thought about it until reading what you wrote. Everybody that was “in” should be counted no matter their sex.

  24. TSgt Daniel E. Decker November 28, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    A veteran is someone who has signed a blank check for an amount up to and including his/her life made out to the United States of America.

    • D. Gomez December 9, 2011 at 2:22 am

      Right on brother!

  25. Bob Mulholland November 28, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Whoever wore the uniform of this country and served honorably is a veteran. During the years of the Vietnam War & the Cold War most of our military served in other places from South Korea to Germany and they did their job as we see prosperity in S. Korea and the collaspe of the Berlin Wall. Thank you Veterans.

  26. Jennifer November 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    This was a really great post. It gets to the heart of the big hurdle women face for getting recognition of their service, self recognition.
    Keep up the great writing!

    • Mike Goodrich November 29, 2011 at 10:13 am

      Your last statement is not TOTALLY true. There are many reservists who have served but not on active duty for other than active duty for training (ACDUTRA) – by VA standards they do not qualify for all VA benefits. You can find the basic eligibility requirements for VA benefits at http://www.va.gov.

      • Kate Hoit November 29, 2011 at 11:33 am

        Hey Mike,

        I linked to our general eligibility page in the blog post where it explains VA’s take on who qualifies—and how not everyone is entitled to the same benefits. “Veterans of the United States armed forces may be eligible for a broad range of programs and services provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)… Eligibility for most VA benefits is based upon discharge from active military service under other than dishonorable conditions. Active service means full-time service, other than active duty for training, as a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or as a commissioned officer of the Public Health Service, Environmental Science Services Administration or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or its predecessor, the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Generally, men and women veterans with similar service may be entitled to the same VA benefits.”

  27. Tom McCuin November 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Kate, thank you for raising this important issue. But veterans should keep in mind that at the state level, things may be different.

    For instance, in Massachusetts, Chapter 4, Section 7, Clause 43 of the Massachusetts General Laws (http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleI/Chapter4/Section7) states: “”Veteran” shall mean (1) any person, (a) whose last discharge or release from his wartime service as defined herein, was under honorable conditions and who (b) served in the army, navy, marine corps, coast guard, or air force of the United States, or on full time national guard duty under Titles 10 or 32 of the United States Code or under sections 38, 40 and 41 of chapter 33 for not less than 90 days active service, at least 1 day of which was for wartime service; provided, however, than any person who so served in wartime and was awarded a service-connected disability or a Purple Heart, or who died in such service under conditions other than dishonorable, shall be deemed to be a veteran notwithstanding his failure to complete 90 days of active service; (2) a member of the American Merchant Marine who served in armed conflict between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, and who has received honorable discharges from the United States Coast Guard, Army, or Navy; (3) any person (a) whose last discharge from active service was under honorable conditions, and who (b) served in the army, navy, marine corps, coast guard, or air force of the United States for not less than 180 days active service; provided, however, that any person who so served and was awarded a service-connected disability or who died in such service under conditions other than dishonorable, shall be deemed to be a veteran notwithstanding his failure to complete 180 days of active service.”

    So… 90-days “active service” with at least one day during wartime (unless killed or wounded), or 180 days “active service” in peacetime constitutes a “Veteran” as far as that state is concerned.

    The statute further states: “‘Active service in the armed forces’, as used in this clause shall not include active duty for training in the army national guard or air national guard or active duty for training as a reservist in the armed forces of the United States.”

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