How to File A VA Claim for Disability Compensation

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NOTE: The following information was originally authored by Veteran Jim Strickland. Jim has been a pioneer in posting helpful information for veterans.  Many thanks to Jim for allowing us to post an edited version of his work. 


If you are just beginning to learn about VA disability benefits, you may want to watch this video first. It provides a good introduction and some of the basics of filing a claim. Then you can move on to our more detailed step-by-step guide.

Who can file? 

At any point after you have completed military service, you may file an application for disability compensation.  Here are the basic tests: 

  • you believe that military service has caused an injury or illness (called a "condition" by the VA) or
  • you believe that a preexisting condition was aggravated by military service.

There are no time limits or restrictions except in a few very limited circumstances. As a general rule, you may seek disability compensation at any time for any condition that you reasonably believe was caused or aggravated by your service.

Can I file a claim myself? Do I need a lawyer?

The initial filing of a claim is simple. You may file the appropriate forms yourself or get help from an accredited Veterans Service Officer who will likely work for a Veterans Service Organization or a State Veterans Service Office. You are not allowed to pay anyone to represent you at this stage of the process.

How do I know whether it's worth filing a claim?

Let’s assume you are going to represent yourself in this claim. Before you file, you'll need to understand the basic requirements. 

  1. Eligible military service: You must have done military service, and you must have a discharge that is other than dishonorable. If your discharge is other than honorable but not dishonorable, you may be qualified for only some types of benefits.  Go here for information about challenging your discharge status.
  2. Current “condition”: You must have a current injury or illness (condition) that can be connected to your military service. This means that you should have a fairly clear diagnosis. It should be stated in a medical record prepared by a qualified health care provider (preferably a doctor). The more precisely defined the condition is in the record, the better.
  3. Evidence: You must have evidence to support your claim. The best evidence is an event that is recorded in a Service Medical Record (SMR).  This is a detailed description of the cause of the injury or illness leading to your condition, how it was treated, and any residual effects of the event. If the condition is related to a non-combat event, you will need documentation of:
  4. A clear service connection: Your medical evidence must be clear enough to prove that your current condition is connected to the in-service event. This is called "service connection" or "nexus." If you can’t prove the service connection, you will not receive benefits.

What else do I need to know? 

I suggest that you consider another set of requirements before you file a claim. You should be well organized and prepared to deal with a lot of paperwork, including copying of files and searching for evidence. It helps if you:

  • are familiar with searching for records on the Internet,
  • know how to use a word processor,
  • own or have access to a scanner and copier
  • are confident that you have the patience to deal with details.

The VA process, even at its best, is slow, prone to error, and requires constant attention. You are much more likely to be successful if you can organize your information and keep good records of interactions with VA. If you believe that you meet these requirements, I encourage you to apply for your deserved benefits. If you have trouble with these kinds of tasks, you may want to seek help from a VSO or your state veterans affairs office.

NOTE: If it's not too late for you, plan ahead.  The process can be much easier for military members who are still serving,. Once you file a VA claim, your Service Medical Record is sent to the VA by your branch of service. Thus, if a soldier visits medical for claimable injuries and builds a sound medical history of the injury while still in service, the process could simply involve filing a claim, going through a VA medical examination (if necessary), and waiting to hear back about your disability rating. Your military records become your VA evidence. Therefore, through good prior planning, veterans can avoid much of the headache involved in the claim process.

June  2010

Comments

Submitted by JoeyAnderson on Wed, 2013-05-01 20:23

This is a nice, succinct, practical guide to initiating the claims process. There are only two parts that might benefit from clarification:

#1) Who can file? At any point after you have completed military service, you may file an application for disability compensation. Here are the basic tests: > you believe that military service has caused an injury or illness (called a "condition" by the VA)

Military service does not necessarily have to cause an injury or illness. Rather, the injury or illness need only have been incurred during, or aggravated by, military service. For example, the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations states:

"Service connection connotes many factors but basically it means that the facts, shown by evidence, establish that a particular injury or disease resulting in disability was incurred coincident with service in the Armed Forces, or if preexisting such service, was aggravated therein." 38 CFR §3.303(a)

Or consider this statement on the VA website:

"Disability compensation is a monetary benefit paid to Veterans who are disabled by an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service. These disabilities are considered to be service-connected." - Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors, Chapter 2: Service-Connected Disabilities

#2) Evidence: You must have evidence to support your claim. The best evidence is an event that is recorded in a Service Medical Record (SMR). This is a detailed description of the cause of the injury or illness leading to your condition, how it was treated, and any residual effects of the event.

If such evidence exists in a veterans SMR, that's great. But often, particularly for Vietnam War Veterans, the service medical records are skimpy. This is particularly true for PTSD or other mental disorder claims. For one thing, PTSD was not even an official diagnosis until 1980! Second, most Servicemembers in the 1960's and early 1970's were very reluctant to seek mental health treament because of the stigma and the harassment or even abuse they might have been subjected to if they sought psychiatric help. On the rare instances when a Servicemember sought mental health treatment due to what we now know was PTSD, he or she would have been diagnosed with a disorder listed in DSM-II (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2nd Edition), such as "Anxiety Neurosis" which may be difficult to decipher or undersatnd in terms of contemporary diagnostic classifications (DSM-5 will be released later this month).

The bottom line is that Vietnam Veterans might not need to worry if there is nothing in their SMR about their claimed condition. It will depend on the condition, e.g., for PTSD, diabetes, prostate cancer, Parkinson's disease, there is no need for those disorders to be mentioned in the SMR (because of the aforementioned issues with PTSD and because the later three medical conditions are "presumptive conditions" for Vietnam War Veterans, all of whom are assumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.