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Commissary, BX, MWR access expansion: how to get access, FAQs

A photo of a crowd waving numerous United States of America flags.

Starting Jan. 1, 2020, access will expand to include all veterans with service-connected disabilities, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, and individuals approved and designated as the primary family caregivers of eligible veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. (Courtesy)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --

A new Department of Defense policy came in effect January 1, 2020: expansion of access to veterans and caregivers to military facilities.

With the new policy, an eligible veteran or caregiver would need to display their eligibility status to gain access to military installations and facilities.

For ease of access and to prevent fraudulent persons from gaining base access, Malmstrom Air Force Base has a process for eligible veterans and caregivers to gain access after an initial enrollment in their system.

How to get initial access
Bring all documentation that proves veteran or caregiver eligibility status to the Visitor Control Center, located at the 2nd Avenue North Gate. Some of these documentations include:

  • Veteran Health Identification Card
  • Veterans Affairs Health Eligibility Center Form H623A
  • Any acceptable identification credential
    • DOD common access card (when otherwise eligible)
    • DOD uniformed services identification card (when otherwise eligible)
    • REAL ID-compliant non-driver or driver's license issued by a state, territory, possession or the District of Columbia
    • Enhanced driver's license issued by a state, territory, possession or the District of Columbia
    • U.S. passport or passport card
    • Foreign passport bearing an unexpired immigrant or non-immigrant visa or entry stamp
    • Federal personnel identity verification card (when otherwise eligible)
    • Transportation Worker Identification Card

The VCC hours are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, excluding holidays.

Personnel at the VCC will be able to insert the eligible veteran or caregiver's information into a system to allow further access from then on.

New policies bring new questions and as such, below are some frequently asked questions in regards to this policy.

Q: How will newly eligible veterans and caregivers get access to installations?
A: To access the installation, veterans eligible solely under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, who have been issued a VHIC from VA can present their VHIC to gain entry to DOD installations and some commissary stores; and at point of sale at commissaries, exchanges and morale, welfare and recreation retail activities to complete their transactions. The VHIC must display the veteran's eligibility status. Upon the first visit to the installation, eligible veterans must present their VHIC at the VCC. If an eligible veteran is unable to obtain a VHIC, DOD will temporarily accept the VA Health Eligibility Center Form H623A, indicating placement in Priority Group 8E, paired with an acceptable credential, like a REAL ID-compliant driver's license or a U.S. passport, until DOD and VA identify a long-term credential. Driver's licenses that are not REAL ID-compliant will not be accepted for entry. During the first phase of rollout of these privileges, eligible caregivers of veterans will receive a letter from the VA Office of Community Care that indicates they are the primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran under the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers and are eligible for these privileges. Upon the first visit to the installation, caregivers will present this letter paired with an acceptable credential at the VCC.

Q: What MWR activities will these newly eligible veterans and caregivers be authorized to use?
A: Newly eligible veterans and caregivers will have access to DOD MWR retail activities, including: entertainment, clubs, recreational lodging/resorts, special interest activities, bowling, golf, restaurants, marinas, equipment rental, movie theaters, vehicle storage, kennels and more. In addition, access to the following MWR basic community support programs may be authorized: camping, equipment check out, boating programs and other basic community support program activities. Use of MWR activities primarily funded by appropriations and child development programs are not authorized.

Q: Why won't these newly eligible veterans and caregivers be allowed to use all of MWR activities?
A: Different categories of MWR activities receive appropriated funds to operate, in relation to their necessity for meeting the military mission and the needs of military families. The Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 authorizes access to MWR retail activities because these activities are generally self-sustaining and do not rely on appropriations to operate.

Q: Can spouses or dependents shop?
A: While spouses and dependents are not eligible for this benefit, or to make purchases, they may accompany the eligible veteran or caregiver as a guest. For installation access purposes, guests must present an acceptable credential as proof of identity and pass a basic on-the-spot background check.

Q: Are disabled veterans eligible for privileges at commissaries, military exchanges and MWR activities?
A: Yes. If the individual has a service-connected disability, but the individual is a veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart, was a former prisoner of war, or the individual is the primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran under the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, they will be eligible for privileges provided for under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018. Veterans eligible solely under this act who are eligible for VA health care, but not enrolled in VA health care or are enrolled in VA health care, but do not possess a VHIC will not have access to DOD installations for in-person commissary, exchange and MWR retail privileges, but will have full access to online exchanges.

Q: What's the definition of a service-connected disability?
A: A service-connected disability is an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service, as determined by the VA.

Q: Are Reservists included?
A: Yes. Reserve members who are veterans who were awarded the Purple Heart, former POW, or with a VA-documented service-connected disability will be eligible for privileges provided for under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018.

Q: Can a Veterans Identification Card be used to get on an installation to access these privileges?
A: No. The VIC is not an acceptable form of identification to facilitate installation or privilege access at DOD installations.

Q: How does an individual get a VHIC?
A: The VA currently issues the VHIC to veterans enrolled in VA health care. Visit https://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/vhic for information regarding eligibility for the VHIC and the application process. Depending on the type of installation, veterans may be enrolled for recurring access, which would allow them to proceed to the gate for entry upon subsequent visits without having to stop again at the visitor control center. As with all other individuals seeking access to DOD installations, all eligible veterans must pass a basic on-the-spot background check prior to enrolling and an automated check each time they enter the installation. Veterans with felony convictions, felony arrest warrants or other types of derogatory information related to criminal history or terrorism will not be permitted entry. Veterans who are Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with VA-documented service-connected disability ratings of 100 percent are eligible for a DOD-issued identification card that will facilitate installation and privilege access.

Q: If an individual's only eligibility for these privileges is a zero percent VA-documented service-connected condition and are not eligible to obtain a VHIC, can they bring another form of VA documentation to access these privileges?
A: If an eligible veteran is ineligible to obtain a VHIC, DOD will temporarily accept the VA Health Eligibility Center Form H623A, indicating placement in Priority Group 8E, paired with an acceptable credential, like a REAL ID-compliant driver's license or a U.S. passport, until DoD and VA identify a long-term credential.

Q: If an individual meets one of the new veteran eligibility criteria and have a VHIC, but it does not display their eligibility on the front of the card, will they be allowed access to the installation and these privileges?
A: No. Because there are many veterans with VHICs who are not eligible for military installation or privilege access, the only way personnel monitoring this access will be able to confirm eligibility is if the VHIC displays one of these new veteran eligibility categories on the front of the card: 'PURPLE HEART', 'FORMER POW' or 'SERVICE CONNECTED'. Go to the nearest VA health eligibility office to obtain a new VHIC if these criteria have been met and have a VHIC that does not display the criteria on the front of the card.

Q: Are veterans of the U.S. Public Health Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration eligible for these privileges?
A: Yes. If a commissioned officer of the regular or Reserve Corps of the Public Health Service or a commissioned officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meets the requirements for being considered a veteran under Section 101 of Title 38, United States Code, and was awarded the Purple Heart, is a former prisoners of war, or has a VA-documented service-connected disability, they are eligible for privileges provided for under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018.

Q: Is a new VHIC needed if a current VHIC was received before the individual became service-connected?
A: If the current VHIC does not display 'PURPLE HEART', 'FORMER POW' or 'SERVICE CONNECTED' on the front of the card, then they will need to get a new VHIC that displays one of these eligibility identifiers if for access to military installations and these new privileges.

Q: If an individual is waiting to receive a VHIC with all of the required identifying information, can they bring their VA eligibility letter or VHIC request receipt to get access instead?
A: No. If they are eligible to obtain a VHIC, the individual must use the VHIC to gain access to military installations and privileges. Installation access and facility personnel must be able to quickly and accurately verify eligibility and identification, which the VHIC facilitates.

Q: Does an authorized caregiver have to be the disabled veteran's spouse?
A: No. An authorized caregiver eligible solely under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 does not have to be the disabled veteran's spouse. During the first phase of rollout of these privileges, an authorized caregiver must be the individual assessed, approved and designated as the primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran under the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. When the VA formalizes assessment, approval and designation of general caregivers under the Program of General Caregiver Support Services, the DOD will consider expansion of caregiver privileges to this group.

Q: Do caregivers who get these privileges have to be enrolled in a specific program?
A: Yes. During the first phase of rollout of these privileges, a caregiver eligible solely under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, must be the individual assessed, approved and designated as the primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran under the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to receive these privileges.

Q: How can a spouse be enrolled in the caregiver program?
A: For information on the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, visit https://www.va.gov/health-care/family-caregiver-benefits/comprehensive-assistance/

Q: Are all veterans eligible for in-person commissary, exchange and MWR privileges on DOD installations?
A: No. Unless otherwise authorized commissary, exchange and MWR access, only veterans who are Purple Heart recipients, veterans who are former prisoners of war or veterans who have a Department of Veterans Affairs documented service-connected disability rating of 0-90 percent are authorized in-person privileges, as provided for in the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018. While not all veterans are eligible for in-person privileges on DOD installations, all honorably discharged veterans are eligible for online military exchange shopping through the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit.

Q: Why can't all veterans get these privileges?
A: The Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 recognizes the service of those who endured captivity during conflict, were wounded in combat or sustained a service-connected disability and the individuals approved and designated as their caregivers under a formalized VA caregiver program. DOD infrastructure is not equipped to handle an influx of over 15 million additional veterans to these types of facilities without severely impacting its ability to provide these critical services to active duty military personnel and their families, which is why they exist.

Q: If a VHIC does not display 'PURPLE HEART', 'FORMER POW' or 'SERVICE CONNECTED' on the front, is the individual eligible for installation and privilege access?
A: If they are enrolled in VA health care, but do not qualify under one of the three new veteran eligibility conditions, the individual is not eligible for installation or privilege access. However, if they do meet one of these conditions but it is not displayed on the front of the VHIC, the individual is eligible and encouraged to visit the nearest VA health eligibility office to obtain a new VHIC to access these new privileges.

Q: Will family members of the eligible veterans and caregivers also have the same privileges?
A: No. Only the veterans and caregivers eligible solely under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 will have these privileges.

Q: If a deceased spouse was a veteran in one of the new veteran eligibility categories, can their spouse use his/her benefit?
A: This benefit does not extend to family members and cannot be transferred to survivors.

Q: What level of priority will newly eligible veterans and caregivers be afforded when accessing commissary, exchange and MWR retail privileges?
A: New users eligible solely under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, will receive the same priority and service levels as military retirees for activities authorized under this law. These new patrons may be prioritized lower than military retirees if authorized access to additional MWR activities by the DOD.

As this is a new policy, some procedures may be updated over time. For more FAQs, visit the official Expanding Access Factsheet: https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Factsheets/expanding-access-fact-sheet.pdf

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