How NOT to do it: Applying for VA disability years after military separation
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In a previous post on One Sick Vet, the blogger “Die Fledermaus” showed us a good example of how to prepare for a VA disability claim while still on active duty: going to the military healthcare providers and getting all health problems examined and documented; getting a copy of military medical records for self and a copy for the VA; correcting paperwork errors and omissions; etc.
I did none of those things.
Partly, it was due to ignorance. I didn’t know that I was eligible for VA benefits, and I didn’t know how to apply for them. Although I *did* attend the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) briefings, it happened very late in my separation process because my unit ignored the guidelines on how far in advance of separation individuals should receive the training and kept sending me TDY until I barely received the training before I separated. [If you are retiring, separating, or considering doing either and would like more information about the Transition Assistance Program, this article is a good place to start.]
Also, veteran’s benefits did not receive the same level of emphasis prior to OIF/OEF. They just weren’t emphasized as much during the briefings as they are now. (As you can see in the article mentioned above, the entire TAP has subsequently been revised.)
And partly it was due to apprehension: my career field required a high level of physical health, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my chances of continuing to work in that field after I separated.
I think that for many Desert Storm-era veterans, VA benefits – especially disability – seemed like something that existed for WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam vets, but didn’t really apply to us. Plus, I was still relatively young when I separated, and I didn’t understand the value of VA benefits.
But as I got older, the long-term effects of military life and various service-related injuries started becoming more obvious and started having more of an impact on my life. Plus, Korea and Viet Nam vets were telling me how beneficial it was to have VA healthcare. Some of them had poor healthcare coverage, or no healthcare coverage from other sources, and they told me what a difference it made to have VA healthcare, and urged me to sign up if I was eligible so that I would always have VA healthcare as an option. “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” Well, I may be dumb but I ain’t stupid, so I decided to look into applying for VA benefits.
What I did right: Research! When I finally decided to apply for VA benefits, including disability compensation, I did a lot of research. I had heard that it can be difficult and take a long time, especially if there is a time gap between separating from the military and applying. (To a certain extent that makes sense, since your military records, including health records, get archived and have to be retrieved.)
Here are a few resources that might be helpful for you as you do your own research.
This video is a good place to start:
And this article from The Military Wallet provides a very comprehensive overview of VA benefits, including disability compensation, and includes many links to additional resources.
Don’t do it alone.
The most important information I found was the caution not to attempt to navigate the process alone. I learned that there are individuals who have training and experience filing disability claims who can assist you with the process and help you avoid common mistakes that could delay your claim or result in a less-beneficial outcome for your claim.
The VA website can help you find a VSO representative to assist you with your claim. The exhaustive list can be found here. There are also state and county VSO reps, and you can find one near you using this site or this one. How do you find the rep that’s the right fit for you? You could start with the advice in this post.
Or you could choose to hire a VA disability lawyer to assist you with your claim. I don’t have any experience with that, but I would caution you to be very careful that you don’t get taken advantage of. Remember that VSO reps are free, but you pay for a lawyer’s services. If your case is very complex, or your initial claim didn’t go well and you’re concerned about the appeal, you may decide it’s worth it to hire an attorney. Just make sure you’re getting what you pay for, and that the lawyer you select has specialized knowledge and experience in the area of VA disability claims.
My experience filing for VA disability.
In my case, I chose to work with a VSO rep who had an office in the local VA hospital. After I filed my initial claim, I had to wait 14 months to receive my physical examination. I was told the delay had happened at the regional processing center, not the local VA hospital. (Since there was a great deal of attention focused on VA delays during this time, I suspect that my case was back-burnered while they focused on OIF/OEF vets’ claims, which were receiving more media attention and were simpler to process than a claim filed well after separation.)
[The good news is that compensation is back-dated, so if your claim is accepted the money will catch up with you, no matter how long you had to wait. See here for more information on how that’s determined.]
When I finally had my exam, the folks at the VA hospital were in a rush to complete my case, since the metrics looked bad (14 months!). On the one hand, this meant that my case was given priority. On the other hand, in the rush to close out my paperwork a few corners were cut. For example, one of the specialists I needed to see was not available, and I never received that portion of my exam. The claim was processed without it, and that portion of my claim was denied.
Overall, exam day was a neutral experience (neither good nor bad). Several of my examiners were skeptical of my claimed disabilities, which was frustrating when they seemed to make up their minds against my claim almost instantly, regardless of what I said. It was difficult for me to catalog my ailments and argue for my disability after years of conditioning to show no weakness and admit nothing to the doctor. “Take Vitamin M and drive on” doesn’t leave a very strong paper trail for supporting your case, and old habits are hard to break.
I received a decision on my disability claim less than a month after my physical exam. Fewer than half of the items for which I filed were accepted, but I did receive a disability rating. My most disabling condition was denied as non-service-related. I intend to appeal, but have not yet started the process because I’ve been too incapacitated to do so.
1. Document everything. Injuries, ailments, exposure to hazardous substances or environments, treatments received, impact on your life or ability to do your job. Keep track of TDY/Deployment dates and locations (easier for some career fields than others). Save medical records and TDY/Deployment orders. You will need lots of supporting evidence for your claim. [You can also file for disability due to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Save reporting documentation, if you have it, and related health records.]
2. Take care of your body. If still on active duty, find a healthy balance between being a team player/accomplishing the mission and taking care of yourself. Some injuries may not seem like a big deal when you’re young, but they can return with a vengeance when you get older. Take heed when the old head tells you something will damage your knees, your back, your hearing, etc. – they know what they’re talking about, and you won’t be “bullet-proof” forever. If you need to see the doctor, go see the doctor. Things you don’t report don’t get documented.
3. Do your homework. The more prepared you are for the process, the more smoothly it should go. Research the process. Dig out all the relevant paperwork. You need to be able to show that your disability is service-related. If necessary, schedule appointments to see medical providers and get diagnoses.
4. Don’t go it alone. Talk to vets who have made it through the process of filing for disability. Find a representative to assist you with filing your claim. If you intend to appeal, talk to folks who have experience with the appeals process. There are people who want to help you with the process; find the one(s) you feel comfortable working with.
5. You earned it. VA disability compensation is not charity. It’s a benefit. If you have a qualifying service-related disability, you have earned disability compensation. Don’t be too embarrassed to accept something that could make your life easier. You never know what the future holds.