As defense officials get ready for 3 million more people who will be able to shop at military stores on base, some veterans are wondering whether they’ll be able to use their new benefits.
Some veterans have contacted Military Times to say that they are eligible for the new benefit that takes effect Jan. 1, but are concerned they won’t have access to the stores. That’s because they don’t have the specific credential required ― the Veteran Health Identification Card, or VHIC, issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Based on responses to Military Times queries, there are no answers yet for these veterans. Information was not immediately available about how many veterans could be affected.
Under a 2018 law, Purple Heart recipients; former prisoners of war; veterans with a service-connected disability from 0 to 90 percent as documented by the Department of Veterans Affairs; and certain primary veteran caregivers will be newly eligible to shop at commissaries and exchanges. It applies to all military bases, including Coast Guard.
Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with a VA-documented service-connected disability rating of 100 percent and their authorized family members have long been authorized these privileges, under DoD policy.
Commissaries sell discounted groceries. Military exchanges sell a variety of items ranging from clothing and shoes to toys, furniture, home appliances and electronics. They have on-base gas stations and stores that sell alcoholic beverages.
This newly eligible population will also be able to use certain morale, welfare and recreational, or MWR, facilities such as golf courses, movie theaters, clubs and certain other programs and facilities that are self-sufficient, generating enough revenue through fees and/or sales to pay their operating costs.
The departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security have been working together for months on plans for how the program will be implemented. A crucial part of that is the credential required to get onto the base and to shop at the stores, because most veterans who aren’t retired don’t have access to installations.
Defense officials are working to enable technology at the front gate to scan those veteran cards so veterans can get in to use those benefits. Commissary officials are working on adjusting their technology to enable systems to read the cards.
Some veterans have said they are eligible for the new benefits because of their disability rating, but don’t qualify for the VHIC, for various reasons. One veteran said she has tried to get answers from VA about what she can do to be able to shop, but has been unsuccessful. “I hope the VA and DoD will work together to ensure that no veterans with a service-connected disability are overlooked on this benefit,” said the veteran, who asked to remain anonymous.
“The VHIC is the only credential that DoD resale and MWR facilities will accept from veterans authorized privileges solely under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018,” said DoD spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell. “Specific questions about who can and how to obtain a VHIC should be directed to the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
For their part, VA officials say DoD is in charge of this benefit expansion. "We are working with DoD to accommodate all eligible veterans,” said VA spokesman Randy Noller.
For veteran caregivers who are newly eligible, the process will be different, initially, since caregivers aren’t directly affiliated with DoD or VA, other than through the annual appointment to be a caregiver. The benefit applies to the primary caregiver of wounded/injured veterans who are registered in the VA caregiver program. The VA will post a memo to VA.gov for caregivers, to be used for access at the front gate, along with driver’s license or other authorized form of ID. The VA process will later transition to a caregiver-type ID card, which will have scanning swipe capability.
Some other questions from readers:
Q. How do I apply for the VHIC credential?
A. The VHIC is issued only to veterans who are enrolled in the VA health care system, according to the VA website. You can complete an application by telephone by calling 877-222-8387, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern. You can also apply for VA health care benefits online at www.va.gov/healthbenefits/enroll, or in person at your local VA medical facility.
Q. Are spouses and other family members of the newly eligible veterans and caregivers able to shop and use the MWR facilities?
A. No. Family members of these eligible veterans and caregivers who aren’t eligible for privileges in their own right are not authorized to shop, according to DoD, and the law.
Q. What if I don’t live near a military base, with its commissaries, exchanges and MWR facilities?
A. One option is that all honorably discharged veterans can shop online at military exchanges.
Second, there may be some extra opportunities in certain areas for commissary shopping where there isn’t a nearby commissary. DoD spokeswoman Maxwell confirms that the newly eligible veterans and caregivers of veterans will be authorized to shop at the Defense Commissary Agency’s on-site Guard and Reserve sales.
The commissary agency periodically holds these on-site sales at Guard and Reserve units around the country. This program allows Guard and Reserve members and other authorized customers who aren’t close to a commissary to order items and have them delivered to that location during the specific scheduled sale date.
Q. Where do I get information on locations of commissaries?
A. Click here.
Q. Where do I get information on locations of exchanges?
Those are the Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores, www.shopmyexchange.com and click “Find a store”; Coast Guard Exchange stores, ; Marine Corps Exchange stores, and Navy Exchange stores, https://www.mynavyexchange.com/storelocator/storesearch.jsp.
Authorized shoppers can shop at any of these stores — or will be able to Jan. 1 — regardless of which branch of service they are or were affiliated with.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.