What is a Veteran?

Do you know what a Veteran is…?

Believe it or not, some people don’t know what a veteran is. What’s more, you might be one of them! This post goes over the specifics of veteran status.


Most people think of a military veteran when the word is used, but there are other legitimate meanings and associations. Every now and then when I search for news about my alma mater, in fact, the word pops up in reference to college athletes. After all, a generic veteran is someone who is experienced in something.

In Latin, veteranus simply meant “old,” from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language wétos, for “year.” From there the word evolved only in form, never in meaning; vecchio (Italian), vieux (French), and viejo(Spanish) all simply mean “old.”

It wasn’t until the 16th century (that is, the 1500’s) that the association moved to status or position, as in a noble (which was at that time parallel with military) rank. Although vieux still meant old in French, vétéran came into use to refer to old soldiers, specifically the aging nobility responsible for the defense of feudal lands.

Federal Law — What Veterans Are

Sometimes it seems that, for anything to mean anything, it must be enshrined in law. That is the case for veterans in America whether we like it or not, since some veterans can be disqualified from classification as a Veteran…

United States Title Codes are where you can find federal laws in all their glorious boringness. Each “title” covers a specific area of law, and Title 38 is all about veterans. It’s titled simply “Veterans Benefits,” because benefits are a surprisingly important (read: monetized) legal concern… (don’t get me started about the historic tension between modern nation states and their “old” military personnel receiving pensions, just google “Shays Rebellion,” or “Bonus Army” for starters). It is at the very beginning of that Title, 38 USC §101(2), where we find the following federal definition for veteran;

The term “veteran” means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.

There are two important elements to this definition, and those are “discharged or released” and “other than dishonorable.” The latter makes clear that nobody in the United States legally qualifies as a Veteran until they “get their out” as we used to say. This usually comes in the form of DD Form 214, which each and every branch of the armed services receive. DD214 forms outline a servicemembers dates of service, their awards, legal name, all kinds of things. Here’s mine, with my social marked out, of course.

A DD214 is not a discharge certificate, however, which one might receive to signify a reenlistment, when one contract is voided in order for another to begin. Depending on the circumstances, there are also “Entry Level Separations” that are issued when a servicemember does not complete a minimum time in service, somewhere between 120 to 180 days. I cannot confirm whether ELS releases meet definition above, but when I can I will update this post accordingly.

Veteran status is restricted to former service members who have been issued a DD214 displaying an honorable character of service.

The former element, “other than dishonorable,” deserves a post all its own. It means that if a servicemember receives a dishonorable discharge they forfeit legal classification as a Veteran. Commissioned officers, it’s worth pointing out, cannot receive punitive discharges; only enlisted men and women can have their military service legally erased by a piece of paper. They also lose all their veterans benefits and, apparently, their 2nd amendments rights since 18 USC §922(g)(6) AKA the Gun Control Act of 1986, made it “unlawful for persons who have been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions to receive or possess firearms.” (p.34637)

Total Force — What Veterans Are Not

If discharge or release is a requisite element of being a Veteran (proper noun) in America, then any service member without a discharge or release is not a veteran. That seems simple right? Not so much…

“Total Force” refers to all personnel serving under contract with an armed service branch, all of which answer to either the Department of Defense (DoD) or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Although many people may be accustomed to the idea that there are only four branches and a few reserve elements, that isn’t accurate. There are actually 12 distinct entities that make up the Unites States total force, just five of which are considered “active.”

Here’s a handy chart to help visualize the make up of America’s military.

Some confusion comes in due to what’s called the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). The IRR is made up of servicemembers who have been discharged from their service but who have time remaining on their eight year service obligation. Although they are legally veterans and may even receive care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), they are also members of the Total Force because they can be recalled to service and are still under contract.


Historically, veterans were anyone who have served in an armed force, regardless of the character of the service. Once a soldier no longer served in the same capacity, they became veterans. In modern American, however, Veteran status is restricted to former service members who have been issued a DD214 displaying an honorable character of service. That creates an important distinction with “soldiers” since, if you’re a current member of an armed force, then you cannot be a Veteran at the same time. It is therefore rather tragic that someone who enlisted to serve our country can lose healthcare and other benefits with the stroke of a pen.

Have you learned something, or do I have yet to learn something? Let me know in the comments if any of this came as news to you or if I need to correct something I’ve written.

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