FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Purple Heart recipients, disabled veterans, former prisoners of war and those designated as caregivers for veterans are now allowed to use Department of Defense commissaries, exchanges, and recreation facilities, including those at Fort Benning, under new rules that took effect Jan. 1
Those privileges come about under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veteran Equal Access Act of 2018, which also allows access to Coast Guard facilities. The act is a provision of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which became law in August.
Caregivers covered under the new rules are those approved and designated as the primary family caregivers of eligible veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
The new rules do not apply to family members of the eligible veterans and caregivers.
Prior to the new access rules, those allowed to use commissaries and exchanges were service members, their dependents, veterans with 100 percent VA disability ratings, military retirees, and in certain cases, government civilian employees.
Those newly eligible patrons have the same privileges as those who already use the commissaries and exchanges.
"They are eligible to buy all merchandise," said Fort Benning exchange store manager Tamala McCoy, a privilege that includes buying alcohol and tobacco items, where sold, officials said.
"They'll show their ID at purchase time," McCoy said.
Fort Benning officials do not expect the changes to have any adverse effect on shopping, recreational services, or on-post vehicular traffic, they said.
Managers at both the commissary and the exchange here expect their customer bases will increase by about 25 percent, but only gradually, they said.
"We think that we're going to add at least 25 percent to our shopping," said Fort Benning commissary store manager Gregory R. Dooley. "That's the projection and the hope. And we have prepared the store and the employees for that eventuality.
"We're expecting it to pick up and not be an instant influx but to gradually grow based on word of mouth," he said.
To make use of the facilities, and to be allowed onto post, disabled and other eligible veterans must have a Veteran Health Identification card (VHIC), with "Purple Heart," "Former POW" or "Service Connected" printed on the front.
A service-connected disability is an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service, as determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VHIC is issued only to veterans enrolled in the VA health care system.
To enroll, veterans can complete an application by telephone without the need for a signed paper application, by calling 1-877-222-8387, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
VA healthcare benefits can be applied for online at www.va.gov/healthbenefits/enroll, or in person at the veteran's local VA medical facility. Once enrollment is verified, a photo can be taken at a local VA medical center, and a VHIC will be sent by mail.
In preparation for the law taking effect, Fort Benning's commissary and exchange employees have taken online training on the new rules, including how to recognize the VHIC.
"We have prepared, we have trained, and everybody is ready," said Dooley.
Besides access to commissaries and exchanges, the new act allows use of golf courses, bowling centers, recreational lodging, recreational vehicle campgrounds, and movie theaters.
Staff at those recreational services here are ready to accommodate the new categories of patron, and foresee no inconveniences resulting, said Al Jelineau, director of the U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
"MWR projects that our capacity can absorb their participation" without any adverse impact, he said.
For caregivers to have access to the post and use the facilities, they will have to have with them a memo from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which the VA began sending to caregivers in November. Along with the memo, caregivers will have to have a REAL-ID-compliant driver's license or other approved government-issued photo ID.
Veterans who fall within any of the new categories but who are also government employees and who normally use their CAC identification to enter post may continue to use them for access. The same applies to military retirees, who use their retiree identification card to enter post.
But veterans in the new eligibility categories who do not have government CAC or retiree identification will need either of two identification cards to be allowed on post.
One is the Fort Benning-issued AIE card, which has a green marking and the word "Visitor."
Those veterans who currently use an AIE card to enter Fort Benning for appointments at the VA medical clinic here, and who have registered those cards with Fort Benning authorities, will be allowed to continue using them until the cards expire, said Matthew Dillon, chief, Access Control Branch, part of USAG Fort Benning's Directorate of Emergency Services.
Thereafter, however, they will have to have the VHIC card to be admitted to Fort Benning, and no other form of VA identification will be accepted, he said.
Veterans who will rely on the VHIC to enter post will have to first register the card with Fort Benning authorities, by taking it to one of three locations:
• Lindsey Creek Visitor Control Center (Open 24 hours, seven days)
• Harmony Church Contractor Visitor Control Center (Monday - Friday, 6 a.m. - 2 p.m.)
• Contractor Badge Office at building 19 (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.)
"They would have to go to one of those three locations and they don't have to wait until 1 January," Dillon said.
Those with questions about on-post access can call the Contractor Badge Office in building 19 at: 706-545-3215, or can seek answers at the Lindsey Creek Visitor Control Center, Dillon said.
More information on the new expanded access is available online at: www.militaryonesource.mil/expanding-access.