Commissaries, post exchanges and FMWR recreational facilities Army-wide have opened their doors to additional veterans who were previously ineligible to use them.

As of Jan. 1, shopping and patronage privileges were extended to veterans who are Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, and all who have any level of service-connected disability. Individuals who are designated as primary family caregivers of eligible veterans also will be granted privileges if they are recognized under the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.

It didn’t take long before Fort Lee exchange and commissary customers and staff witnessed the impact of the broader benefit.

“I’ve seen lots of new faces already and received around a half-dozen calls about it this morning,” said Leslie Bennett, commissary assistant grocery manager. “I look forward to having them shop. They served their country, and we welcome them.”

Eric Desveaux, Exchange general manager here, said he and his staff have been receiving phone calls from veterans and inquiries about eligibility daily over the last month.

“The extension of this privilege has definitely captured the attention of our veteran community,” he said. “What a great opportunity for them to finally be able to use a long-overdue benefit and take advantage of tax-free shopping, while we simultaneously welcome them back into the military family.”

For some returning veterans, it has been a long time since they were on a military installation or in a commissary or exchange, said Army officials, who also added that each of these new patrons has contributed to the military community, either through a service-related sacrifice or caring for a veteran with a service-connected disability.

“It’s great news and long overdue,” said former Staff Sgt. Michael Dukes, a newly eligible veteran for post retail privileges. “I think this is the honorable thing to do for those who served their country in uniform.”

Veterans and caregivers also will be authorized to use morale, welfare and recreation retail establishments such as golf courses, bowling centers, lodging facilities and vehicle campgrounds, as well as other MWR Category C activities.

“Primary family caregivers of veterans with service-connected disabilities perform a noble and necessary service for those who proudly served and ought to be recognized for their important role and relationship to the military family,” officials confirmed.

The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers is currently the only formalized VA caregiver program where assessed, approved and designated caregivers can be positively tracked and identified in VA databases, so initial caregiver access is limited to those enrolled in this program, sanctioned under Section 1065 of Title 10, United States Code.

Veterans eligible solely under this act should have a Veteran Health Identification Card from the VA, which must be presented at installation access points to gain entry to DOD and Coast Guard installations, officials said.

The VHIC must display the veteran's eligibility status, whether it be Purple Heart recipient, former POW or a service-connected disability.

If a newly eligible veteran is unable to obtain their VHIC, the DOD will temporarily accept the VA Health Eligibility Center Form H623A, indicating placement in Priority Group 8E, paired with an acceptable credential, like a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, until DOD and the VA identify a scannable, secure credential for this small group of veterans.

Before Jan. 1, only uniformed service members, their dependents, retirees, veterans who were 100-percent disabled, and Medal of Honor recipients could take advantage of MWR activities.

Previously eligible individuals should continue to use their DOD identification cards for installation and facilities access, officials said.

Temporary lodging facilities on installations also will be available on a space-available basis to the new group of authorized veterans. Installation commanders also are authorized to grant access to other post activities such as skills development and outdoor recreation programs, when space is available and the activities are primarily self-funded.

While not all veterans are eligible for privileges on military installations, anyone who separated under an honorable discharge is eligible for online military exchange shopping through the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit.

Visit www.va.gov/healthbenefits/vhic for information regarding eligibility for the VHIC and the application process.