February 25, 2020

Veteran Benefits in U.S. Territories

By Emma Moore and Brent Peabody

In the post-9/11 era, a “sea of goodwill” made up of organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors has formed to support veterans, service members, their families, and survivors. While services from nonprofit organizations and federal agencies are widely known, benefits offered by states to veterans are less so. State-level benefits, though extensive, vary widely and are often difficult to identify. To fill that gap, CNAS developed a State Veteran Benefit Finder with easily searchable information about 1,814 identified benefits. This tool allows users to filter state-level veteran benefits by type of benefit, beneficiary, and state to identify benefits for which they may be eligible, providing a unique and invaluable reference. The accompanying report, “From Sea to Shining Sea: State-Level Benefits for Veterans,” offers analysis of trends in state-level benefits and includes recommendations for an array of key stakeholders, from veterans to those who serve them, across domains. A series of follow-on briefs provides deeper dives into specific topics. CNAS recently identified 57 benefits offered by U.S. territories and added them to the tool; this brief analyzes the extent and categories of those benefits.

Veteran Benefits in U.S. Territories

Department of Veterans Affairs’ benefit coverage extends to those veterans who are from, and live in, the United States territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. A total of 103,712 veterans, out of a population of 3,784,409, live across the five United States territories. Just as in U.S. states, veterans living in U.S. territories are eligible for national benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs and benefits offered by each territory. Using the same methodology as in “From Sea to Shining Sea: State-Level Benefits for Veterans” to identify benefits offered to veterans by the 50 states and District of Columbia, CNAS has added benefits for veterans in the U.S. territories to the online Veteran Benefit Finder.

Due to many of the islands’ geographic isolation, veterans face additional challenges reaching the nearest VA hospital or seeing specialists, making benefits offered at the territory level that much more important. Benefits offered in the territories ranged from a high of 26 in the U.S. Virgin Islands to a low of zero in American Samoa: Guam offers 14, Puerto Rico 13, and the Northern Mariana Islands 4. Together, the territories average 11 benefits compared to an average of 36 benefits offered nationwide, a discrepancy that may be attributed to small populations in the territories, divergent legislative priorities, disparate levels of funding, and other structural differences. For instance, each territory—except Puerto Rico—is home to a fraction of the population of even the least populous state (Wyoming) and the District of Columbia. However, the shortage of benefits is more glaring considering veterans comprise an average of 5.6 percent of the population in American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Guam has a veteran population of 7.9 percent, the highest percentage of veterans among the territories and 90 percent of the states, surpassed only by Alaska, Montana, Virginia, Maine, and Wyoming as percentages of the state population. Puerto Rico has more veterans numerically, numbering 83,641, but fewer as a percent of the population, comprising only 2.5 percent. High rates of service in the U.S. territories correlates with the presence and population of the U.S. military, which contributes thousands of troops to the islands’ populations. This is particularly true of Guam, which has the highest number of troops stationed on the island of any of the territories. Regardless of differences between populations and veteran demographics, the U.S. Virgin Islands offers almost double the number of benefits of Puerto Rico despite having one-thirtieth of the population.

Of the 12 benefit categories used in this analysis, no territory offers legal, memorial, or recreation benefits. The most common benefit types include tax (16), government services (8), and employment (9). In comparison, the most common benefits in the 50 states and the District of Columbia are employment, education, and legal and advocacy assistance. There is only one business benefit, offered by the U.S. Virgin Islands, and only two financial benefits, offered by Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Tax Benefits

Save for American Samoa, each territory offers at least one tax benefit. In three territories (the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam), veterans and their survivors are exempt from paying territory tax on income derived from VA payments such as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Military Retired Disability Pay, and survivor plans. Furthermore, these three territories all “mirror” their tax codes on the federal tax code, meaning that these tax benefits originated in federal law but are now administered by the territories. American Samoa has also sought to mirror its tax code off the Internal Revenue Service, but progress to fully incorporate federal tax benefits is unclear. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, does not use a mirror code and has used this flexibility to offer resident veterans a $500 tax deduction on their income tax instead of a full exemption.

Of the four territories offering at least one tax benefit, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico offer benefits on property as well as income taxes. These property tax exemptions tend to be generous. In Puerto Rico, for example, veterans can receive a 10-year exemption on property taxes for taxes appraised up to $5,000 and disabled veterans a 10-year exemption on property taxes for homes appraised up to $50,000. In the U.S. Virgin Islands veterans can receive a $20,000 deduction on their property taxes.

Employment Benefits

Every territory except American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands offer employment benefits, with a total of total of nine offered across the territories. The U.S. Virgin Islands offers unemployment assistance for veterans, although the conditions under which this assistance may be accessed is restrictive. The U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are the only territories to provide veterans with preferred hiring status for government jobs. This is a notable departure from a pattern found among U.S. states, in which 49 offer some form of preferred hiring status to veterans and could be explained by territory-specific processes for hiring government positions. The remaining six benefits all fall under the umbrella of reemployment protection for service members who have to leave a government position to fulfill National Guard or Reserve duties. These reemployment protections are similar to reemployment protections mandated by federal law.

Other Benefits

All eight government service benefits relate to driver’s licenses, vehicle license plates, or some other vehicle-centric government recognition of service. Each territory, bar American Samoa, for example, offers a special vehicle license plate for veterans. Guam also provides a special vehicle license plate for Gold Star parents. Many states offer similar types of recognition.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is the only territory to offer a business benefit, and it affords veterans the exclusive right to buy taxi medallions (a transferable permit allowing a taxicab driver to operate) from the local government, meaning that veterans have an effective monopoly over the taxicab industry since anyone hoping to join it must either be a veteran or buy a medallion from one. This is a unique benefit not offered by any state.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is the most generous in awarding benefits to veterans, both in terms of the topline number of veteran benefits offered and the size and scope of those benefits. In the U.S. Virgin Islands veterans can purchase land from the state at a 10 percent discount, qualify for a $220,000 low-interest loan to purchase their first home, and take select programs at the University of the Virgin Islands for free. Comparatively, in Puerto Rico, veterans can expect a range of tax benefits, and veteran dependents are eligible for a 50 percent tuition discount at the University of Puerto Rico and its regional colleges.

Conclusion

Each of the U.S. territories could do more to support veterans and make benefits more easily located. For instance, there is a discrepancy in accessibility given lack of information publicly available or collocated on a singular government website, which does not exist across all five of the surveyed territories. This is especially true of American Samoa, which provides virtually no government policies on its website. Similarly, Puerto Rico’s veteran office, the Oficina del Procurador de Veteranos, is hard to navigate and lacks information, despite the number of Puerto Rican veterans who could benefit from consolidated information. It is important to carefully research territory-level benefits and confirm eligibility with the relevant government agencies and departments as availability and requirements can change.

Veterans add value to the community given their training, higher levels of education, and higher rates of civic service, among other traits. One way for the territories to reduce emigration and depopulation, a challenge they all face, could be to expand benefits for veterans to attract and keep them. Benefits could support local economies and make the territories more attractive places to live for veterans and their families both from the islands and the U.S. states looking to move. However, this may be easier said than done given the absence of VA medical centers on the islands, except Puerto Rico. Veterans in the U.S. territories are a largely forgotten and unsupported population, despite high rates of service that outpace many U.S. states. However, these veterans do not have electoral votes in presidential elections, lack voting representation in Congress, and may have to go to great lengths to receive federal veteran benefits. Given current limitations on influencing federal policy, enhancing the provision and accessibility of benefits at the territory level is one way the territories could improve outcomes for their veterans.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Veteran Community" commentary series.

  1. Of note, Puerto Rico governs in Spanish and English, with the majority of laws written in Spanish. In addition, the Puerto Rican government websites are uniquely difficult to navigate. There may be some benefits missing due to data entry errors.
  2. American Samoa has a population of 54,200; Guam 162,742; the Northern Mariana Islands 53,467; Puerto Rico 3,411,000; and the U.S. Virgin Islands 103,000. See: “Population of the US States and Principal US Territories.”
  3. American Samoa hosts the Army and Coast Guard at Pele U.S. Army Reserve Center and Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment; Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are covered by Joint Region Marianas Command and includes Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base; Puerto Rico hosts the Army, Army National Guard at Fort Buchanan, Camp Santiago, Fort Allen, and Roosevelt Roads Army Reserve Base and the Air National Guard at Muñiz Air National Guard Base; the U.S. Virgin Islands hosts Army National Guard and Air National Guard.
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