The new year will bring back new shopping and recreation opportunities for veterans with service-connected disabilities, former prisoners of war, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients, and some approved caregivers of service members injured since Sept. 11, 2001.
The expansion as specified in the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, included in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 will allow about 4 million additional veterans or their enrolled caregivers the privileges to use the commissary, the Exchange and some Morale, Welfare and Recreation services at military installations around the world.
The exact impact the influx of new visitors to Fort Campbell isn’t known yet, but the new law applies to thousands of veterans in the nearby region, said Marc Rollins, Directorate of Emergency Services installation access program manager.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Rollins said. “These veterans have sacrificed. They’ve contributed to the military and I think they are deserving. They are valued members of our community.”
Veteran health identification card
To use the newly enacted privileges, eligible veterans must first have or obtain a veteran health identification card. The VHIC is issued to veterans who are enrolled in the Veterans Administration health care system.
To get the needed VHIC card a visit to a VA office is required. The Clarksville VA Clinic, 782 Weatherly Drive, is the closest but veterans also can go to the Nashville VA Medical Center, 1310 24th Ave. S, or the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center, 3400 Lebanon Pike, Murfreesboro, said Chris Dawson, business office/member services for the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System Nashville.
Although veterans can begin the enrollment process by calling 877-222-8387 or by visiting www.va.gov/healthbenefits/enroll, a visit to a VA medical center is still required for a photo for the VHIC.
Dawson said enrolling in person can speed up the verification process to a day or two, rather than waiting up to a month.
Two forms of valid identification are required to receive a VHIC including one photo ID. In addition to a driver’s license or state-issued ID, social security cards, older VA cards, gun carry permits, passports and military IDs are among accepted forms of identification, Dawson said.
The process can take longer if the veteran is not enrolled in the VA health care system.
“It could take several weeks if they’ve never enrolled before,” Dawson said. “If they have enrolled, it would just be the process of getting the ID card, which is about 10 days.”
Eligible caregivers will not be issued a HVIC card but receive a letter as a caregiver. They must apply through the VA caregiver program and, if not already the designated caregiver by the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, they should contact the veteran’s primary care social worker to start the process, Dawson said.
The VHIC or caregiver letter is needed to establish identity and purpose to enter post.
To gain access to post, honorably discharged veterans with service-connected disabilities must submit to a background check and present their HVIC cards at the visitor control centers at T.C. Freeman Gate or Gate 7, Rollins said. Anyone with warrants or certain felonies will not be granted access to post.
Rollins urges those who plan to take advantage of the privileges to begin the pre-registration process by filling out a Form 190-5 and emailing it to email@example.com to avoid long lines.
Applicants will be contacted within 24- 48 hours with additional instructions. In addition to background checks, motorists must have a valid driver’s license, insurance and registration. Those who qualify will receive an Air Assault Card, that can be presented at Fort Campbell’s access control points with a valid driver’s license to gain entry to post, Rollins said.
The expanded privileges mean access to the commissary, the Exchange and MWR Category C activities. It does not apply to MWR activities primarily funded with appropriated funds, such as the fitness centers, libraries and child development programs.
“MWR is excited to serve our nation’s heroes at any of our food and beverage establishments, Hooper Bowling Center, Cole Park Golf Course, equipment rental at Gear to Go including campers and boats, vehicle and RV storage at Air Assault Auto, our dog kennels, many outdoor recreation programs, including our skeet, trap and privately owned firearm range, and Leisure Travel Services,” said Stacye Downing, Fort Campbell Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation director.
The Fort Campbell Directorate of Emergency Services, Physical Security Division began pre-registrations Dec. 1 for eligible veterans and caregivers. Meanwhile, workers at the commissary and Exchange have begun readying for the new customers.
“The past couple of weeks our folks in Dallas have been formulating the training strategy for associates,” said Steve Shaw, Fort Campbell Exchange general manager. “We are in the process of putting that out in the field.”
As part of their formal training and morning meetings, employees are learning about who is eligible, what credentials they will need and what impacts to look for with the Exchange.
Shaw does not expect there will be a need to adjust staffing or inventory levels.
“We expect more customers,” he said. “It depends on how long they’ve been gone and if they know they can come back and making the experience when they come back a memorable one.”
That impact could also be lessened by the Exchange’s veterans online shopping benefit that was rolled out January 2017 for all honorably discharged veterans.
Shaw said employees will “easily” be ready by Jan. 1 for whatever happens.
“We’ve known it’s been in the works, so for me it’s more of the credentials that the veterans will have to get back on base, what difficulties they might have at the gate,” he said.
Now that more information is available, Shaw and others can talk more about it at outreach events. As word spreads, he expects more people to begin taking part.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, a Department of Defense agency, has been in place 124 years with the primary mission of taking care of military Families. AAFES at Fort Campbell covers food facilities, gas stations, concessions set up in the Exchange and more, with roughly 24 facilities on post employing about 560 people, with five other sites in Tennessee that includes a store at the armory in Nashville, Shaw said.
“We’re excited about reconnecting with customers that have been gone for a while,” he said. “In some cases, it might have been six months ago, in some cases 20 years since they’ve stepped in to the Exchange, so that’s pretty exciting to think how far we’ve come.”
Preparation is also underway at the commissary, said Charles Shropshire, store director of the Defense Commissary Agency Fort Campbell.
“We have already gone through the training of every employee in the store to be able to support the customers when they arrive,” Shropshire said. “If, by chance, they do not have the correct credentials, we will not turn anyone away initially. We will give them the information how to obtain the correct credentials.”
Shropshire said those who get on post and go to the store would be allowed to shop and pay.
“They would be allowed to make their purchases,” he said. “The most important part is, we will not turn anyone away initially. We have no idea how far these individuals may have driven to use their benefits they have earned, and have now been granted, and we will do our utmost to ensure they are taken care of.”
Shropshire said he does not know if there will be a significant increase in sales, but it’s “exciting for us all to see people come back.”
He expects among the newly eligible veterans, maybe a third will take part initially, but as word spreads Shropshire thinks more will take advantage.
“We are posturing for as many veterans as choose to show up and shop with us, so orders or merchandise will be in accordance to support the uptick,” Shropshire said.