WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD, Hawaii -- Since Jan. 1, more than 40,000 veterans with a service-connected disability have access to U.S. military commissaries, exchanges and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) facilities here in Hawaii -- as well as throughout the world.Congress has authorized patron expansion into these facilities by former members of the Department of Defense, or DoD (and a few other organizations) to recognize their service-connected duties and sacrifices. Veterans Affairs (VA) is the organization responsible for verifying each veteran's eligibility and issuing them credentials. The VA Pacific Island Health Care System at Tripler Army Medical Center has kept veterans in Hawaii informed via social media and Internet postings.Specifically, the following personnel will be authorized access to Defense Commissary Agency, or DeCA facilities; Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES retail stores; Navy Exchange and Marine Corps Exchange retail stores; plus some MWR facilities:• Veterans who have been awarded the Purple Heart;
• Veterans who are former prisoners of war;
• Veterans with a service-connected disability, documented by the VA; and
• Primary caregivers of veterans who are eligible per the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with 100% service-connected disability, documented by the VA, are already covered and receiving access to these facilities.The first thing veterans must do is to get their credentials -- the Veterans Health Identification Card, or VHIC -- from the VA at Tripler. That ID card will specifically list what makes them eligible. Note, the VHIC is different than a Veterans Identification Card, or VIC, which only allows veterans to shop stores online."The next step prior to shopping (after the VA at Tripler) is to stop at a Visitor Control Center," said Joe Chesnut, deputy director, Directorate of Emergency Services, U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii. "Go to the Leilehua Golf Course (in Wahiawa) or the Tripler VCC. That's where they will get their Controlled Access Pass, or CAP. We'd like veterans to get a full year pass at the VCC. We can also issue day passes, but full year passes are more convenient."DES leaders think there may be some long lines at either VCC, but they believe the lines will grow shorter as veterans obtain their registration for the installation CAP.According to Brad McMinn, store director, Schofield Commissary, he's been told about 14,000 already have their VHIC. He "definitely anticipates an up-tick" in his store, "conservatively about 2,000 people."DES believes an increased number of patrons should be expected to come through the installation gates, headed to the commissary and exchange, around typical times like paydays and holidays. The commissaries and exchanges will use the first couple months in 2020 to gauge their number of patrons. They want to prevent shortages of merchandise and employees, and also anticipate customer volume. They hope to establish a track record by March 2020.McMinn and Chris Holifield, general manager, Hawaii Exchange, AAFES, said they "welcome the new patrons, the disabled veterans.""We're thankful for their service. We have open arms and are happy they will be rewarded for their service," McMinn added.For more details regarding eligibility, contact the call center at 1-800-827-1000. Get more info on enrollment at 1-877-222-VETS (8387), Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Eastern time.