U.S. Rep. Phil Hare’s use of the word “veteran” to describe his military service has angered some local military veterans who say he’s improperly taking on the title.
However, a survey of advocacy groups, lawyers and government officials shows that there’s no standard definition of the word.
In fact, while Hare’s service doesn’t appear to meet the basic legal definition of “veteran” used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the purpose of receiving benefits, some of the largest veterans organizations in the country say he’s properly using the word when referring to his own service.
A notable exception: the largest organization representing Vietnam veterans, which takes a different view.
The debate over Hare’s use of the word “veteran” has been a topic of conversation on some conservative websites for about a week, sparked by a Memorial Day encounter between Hare and a Moline veteran.
“It’s insulting not just to me but to all those thousands of veterans who served,” said Hare, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1969 to 1975.
But Ken Moffett of Moline, a Vietnam veteran, says he’s the one who’s offended.
“As veterans, we take our service seriously,” Moffett said.
“It’s very disturbing to me that he would now steal the valor of veterans,” said Bill Albracht, another Vietnam veteran.
The men say a person must have served 180 consecutive days of active duty to qualify for the term.
Both are part of a veterans group backing Hare’s Republican opponent, Bobby Schilling.
Hare, who has sent at least one mailing to constituents using the term to describe himself, said his unit was never called to active duty. He’s also said he never claimed to be entitled to veterans benefits, nor does he want them.
Still, in an interview, he said he deserves the title.
“I consider myself a veteran. I consider everybody that served during that era, all those years or any of them, a veteran,” he said.
Hare’s official biography refers to his service in the Army Reserves but doesn’t use the word “veteran.” His campaign biography says he’s a “veteran of the Army Reserves.”
What is a veteran?
In truth, there is no single definition of the word “veteran,” according to government officials, veterans organizations and lawyers.
The federal government, states and even local governments employ a patchwork of definitions to establish eligibility for certain benefits.
“It varies from program to program and from state to county to federal,” said Jeff Thompson, a public affairs officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The department refers to the federal code in saying a veteran is someone who has served in the “active military, naval, or air service” and who wasn’t dishonorably discharged.
“Active duty” does not include training, according to the VA, except in certain cases, such as in the event of a death or service-related injury.
At the same time, there are instances in which veterans might qualify for VA benefits but not preferential treatment established by state or local governments.
For example, Iowa law provides a real estate tax exemption for men and women who have a served day of wartime service, but not for those who served in peacetime, even if they’re in the active military, Thompson said.
Groups differ on definition
Advocacy groups differ on the definition, too.
A spokesman for the Reserve Officers Association of the United States says that reservists, no matter their length of time in uniform, deserve the title.
“For that six-year period, whether they were called up or not, they were at the ready,” David Small said. “They were standing by in case their country needed them.”
The association backs pending legislation that would add National Guard and Reservists with 20 years service to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ basic definition of the term veteran.
Officials at the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion had much the same opinion.
“What was his time in the military, in the Reserve force, what would that be called? It doesn’t count for anything? It doesn’t count for service?” said Jerry Newberry, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “He served in the U.S. military. That makes him a veteran of the U.S. military.”
Joe March, a spokesman for the American Legion, said: “Anyone who serves honorably in the uniform of the Armed Forces of the United States is a veteran.”
An official at the Vietnam Veterans of America said Hare has been extraordinarily supportive of veterans.
But he said to be considered a veteran by his group one must have 180 days of active duty service, not including training, or have been medically discharged as the result of a service-related injury.
“Then you’re a veteran,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for the group.
Albracht and Moffett complain that some people joined the Reserves during that time to avoid having to go to Vietnam, including Hare.
In a statement issued last week, Schilling, who did not serve in the military, said that Hare served honorably and the campaign didn’t consider it an issue.
However, in part of a statement posted to his campaign website June 1, Schilling said there were men and women who did not want to go to Vietnam and who enlisted in the Reserve.
“Mr. Hare served honorably in the U.S. Army Reserve, presumably for that reason,” it said. The statement was on the website until Friday.
Hare calls the claim offensive.
“He diminishes my service and the people I was in with,” he said.
Schilling’s campaign manager, Terry Schilling, said Friday the campaign did not draft the remarks, Albracht did, and they do not reflect its views.
The remarks were removed from the website Friday.