Benefits expanded for disabled vets, Purple Heart vets, former POWs

  • ROBERT MONTAGUE

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald The Hilo VA Primary Care Clinic is at 45 Mohouli Street, across from Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary School.

A new law that took effect Jan. 1 allows more veterans than ever privileges to military service exchanges, commissaries, and military recreational facilities such as golf courses, bowling alleys and movie theaters.

The Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 — a collaboration between the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security — now opens those facilities and services to U.S. military veterans with VA service-connected disability rating of 90% or less, Purple Heart recipients and former prisoners of war.

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That news is music to the ears of Robert Montague, a 91-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. For years, Montague volunteered at the Office of Veterans Services in Hilo, assisting thousands of his fellow former brothers-in-arms navigate the red tape of VA disability claims.

“Previous to this, the only people who had commissary privileges and so forth were active people, retired people and veterans with service-connected disability who were 100% disabled. I’ve been advocating for years to allow veterans with 10% to 90% disability ratings approval for them to have commissary and PX privileges,” said Montague, using Army shorthand for post exchange.

“Now, everybody with a service-connected disability status, POW or Purple Heart has access to these privileges.”

Veterans with service-connected disabilities and other veterans who are newly eligible can use their Veterans Health ID card, known as a VHIC, to gain access to military installations and to shop while on base.

Here on the Big Island, that includes access to the post exchanges on Keaukaha Military Reservation near Hilo International Airport and Pohakuloa Training Center on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway near the 32-mile marker, as well as cabins on a space-available basis at Kilauea Military Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

“They’re pretty well stocked at KMR, but you go to Oahu, and you’ve got a lot of options there — big PXs and commissaries, golf courses (and) bowling,” Montague said. There’s also lodging at the Hale Koa Hotel at Fort De Russy in Waikiki.

Eligible veterans are required to show their VHIC — which must display their eligibility status, such as service-connected, former POW or Purple Heart — as well as a Real ID-compliant driver’s license, state ID card or U.S. passport to gain entry to a military installation.

There are exceptions to the expanded benefits, however. Military gyms aren’t included, nor are libraries. Military Airlift Command flights, or MACs — which provide space-available flights on military aircraft to service members — aren’t included. Movies on military installations are included only if there’s an admission charge. Free movies are only for active-duty military personnel. Access to swimming pools is at the installation’s discretion, subject to capacity and funding. And on-base pharmacies also are excluded.

VA-approved caregivers for disabled veterans also are eligible for the benefits.

“That caregiver can then go to PXs and commissaries and pick up items for that veteran, whoever that might be,” Montague said. “We’ve got a lot of vets who are stranded. They need a caregiver to help them get around.”

Veterans with a 10-90% VA disability rating are eligible for a VHIC.

“They need to go to the VA community-based outpatient clinic, get their picture taken, and get the card printed,” Montague said.

The VA Primary Care Clinic in Hilo recently moved from its location near Hilo Medical Center to the building with the clock-face at 45 Mohouli St. across from Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary School. The VA Kona Community Based Outpatient Clinic is at 75-3877 Hualalai Rd. in Kailua-Kona.

Call 935-3781 for an appointment in Hilo, or 329-0774 for an appointment in Kona.

Eligible veterans can also apply online at https://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/vhic. That’s also where more information is available.

Veterans with a documented 0% disability rating — who have a service-connected disability, but aren’t deemed disabled enough for monetary compensation — can’t obtain a VHIC, nor can VA-approved caregivers, but both are eligible for access to these benefits. Information for these veterans is available at https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/homepage and for caregivers at VA.gov.

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For additional assistance, both veterans and caregivers can go to the Hilo Vet Center at 70 Lanihuli St. Suite 2. The phone number is 969-3833.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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