“Learn From My Mistakes… Without Repeating Them!”
There are roughly eighty-two gazillion websites which will tell you HOW to file your disability claim with the Veterans Administration. (I’ll link to some of them.) This post explains WHY you want to file your claim (even when you feel 0% disabled), and why you want to do it as you’re separating from the service. I’ll also explain why certain steps happen in a specific way and I’ll share a few pro tips on optimizing the process.
If you’re a spouse or family member of a veteran, I’ll also share why you are personally motivated to have them to file their VA disability claim.
Bottom line up front
- When you’re leaving the service, start your VA disability claim in conjunction with your separation physical. It’s much easier to do it in parallel with your physical, and it’s the best time to document any “service connected” disability. Even if you’re disgustingly healthy, file the claim now so that it’s on the record if a surprise pops up later.
- If you’ve already separated yet haven’t filed a VA disability claim yet then start one now– so that your loved ones won’t ever have to do it for you. Even if the VA decides that you’re 0% disabled, you’ve done the hard work so that the claim could be upgraded later.
- If you’ve given up on your VA disability claim, then talk to a local veteran’s organization and consider getting legal assistance. You have nothing to lose.
It’s not just about the money. It’s about taking care of yourself now and making it easier for others to take care of you later.
Avoid these mistakes
In retrospect, I made a very common mistake. When I sat through the VA disability presentation at the Transition Assistance Program, I didn’t think that any of it could possibly apply to me. I didn’t feel disabled or even a little broken. I’m financially independent and I didn’t need to care about veteran’s hiring preference or disability programs.
It took me four more years after retiring to understand that I might have a service-connected issue (or two or four). If I’d consulted a Veteran Service Officer during my retirement physical (or had my medical record reviewed by the VA claims expert who was at TAP) then they would have shown me the error of my ways. The Department of Defense’s military separation physical only makes sure that you’re not sick or injured when you leave the service. They might not find your service-connected disabilities (unless you’re aware of the issue) and they’re not required to help you file a VA claim.
I was also avoiding treatment. In some branches of the service, the medical community can stop your career in its tracks. When I was on submarines, if I’d had to take any medications stronger than a decongestant then I would have been pulled from certain duties. If I’d had knee problems then I might have been beached from sea duty and even disqualified from the submarine force. I spent so many years minimizing or even hiding my symptoms (“I’m good!”) that it was difficult to change my attitude at my retirement physical.
The “I don’t deserve this” attitude is frequently seen among veterans. By the time I retired in June 2002, wounded warriors were returning from Afghanistan to our local VA clinic. I didn’t feel as though I had any right to clog up the care pipeline with my whiny little complaints about minor Cold War injuries. Vets tend to adopt a stiff upper lip and push through the pain. Hopefully our lessons of the last 14 years of war will improve that situation a little.
If any of this seems to apply to you (or a loved one) then here’s an additional problem: the VA disability claims process is detailed and tedious. It’s difficult to navigate. If you’re dealing with chronic injuries or pain, let alone a traumatic brain injury or PTSD, then the VA disability claims process is downright impossible. The only practical solution is building a team to help you.
Why you need to file your disability claim
Ironically, it’s not about you.
If you’re financially independent then it might not even be about the money.
When my father ended up in a care facility with Alzheimer’s, the very first question from the geriatric care manager (and the care facility staff, and the lawyers) was whether he was eligible for VA benefits. Dad was drafted years before I was born. He completed the Army’s 90 days of absolute minimum training before being given a “critical skills” waiver (electrical engineering) and sent to the IRR. We never spoke of it when I was growing up, and Dad never talked about it even after I joined the military.
Five decades later and after a few years of Alzheimer’s, all Dad could remember about his military service was a night spent guarding a tank. (He says he was cold.) It took my brother and me over a year to stumble across the box which contained his (misfiled, crumbling) DD-214, and it took several more hours to research 1950s veterans benefits.
As you might predict, Dad isn’t eligible for veterans benefits. It would’ve been nice to have had that discussion while he had his cognition, or to find it in his estate plan, or even (heaven forbid) to find a copy of a VA disability claim file. In retrospect, it’s clear that Dad never thought he’d be eligible for any veteran’s benefits (he was right). I wish he’d thought to write that down somewhere.
(Note for my spouse and daughter: Check the “Emergencies” folder in my desk drawer.)
Several other readers have mentioned this issue too. Ideally someday you’ll also be old enough for someone to ask about your veteran’s benefits. Maybe it’ll just be story time, but maybe your caregiver is trying to find help. You’re the only person who really knows what you went through during your service, and the daily events might not be written down anywhere. (Or they’re still classified.) If it takes 20 years for the medical community to learn (and for the VA to reluctantly acknowledge) that you might have been exposed to something during your service, then you want to have the relevant data already on hand. Try to imagine yourself 50 years from now (or ask a Vietnam vet) and consider how frustrating it might be for you (let alone for your family) to file the claim.
Even if you’re financially independent, maybe it still is about the money. When you’re “only” 20% disabled then you may not receive much compensation (just a smaller income-tax bill), but decades later your condition could get worse and you could end up 100% disabled. If your situation deteriorates then you (and perhaps your family and your caregivers) will be busy enough without the additional burden of filing your VA claim. Your veteran’s benefits might pay for your treatment, and they might also help support your caregiver. If your assets are dwindling and you’re facing Medicaid, your VA benefits might even offer the financial support of “Aid and Attendance”. People will ask you (or your family) about it, and it’d be great if you had this information in a file folder.
Finally, you might be all about the money. If you become unemployable and your disability care is draining your assets, then your VA claim is lifetime disability insurance. (It could also include Social Security Disability Insurance.) If you’re “only a little bit” disabled, your rating might still earn you a waiver of the funding fee of a VA mortgage. In some states, a service-connected disability (even with a 0% rating) is worth a college scholarship to the state university. Sure, you might already have the GI Bill or state National Guard benefits, but now you have more choices.
Enough preaching. Learn from my family’s mistakes.
Starting the VA disability claim process
Don’t try this at home, kids– seek professional help before it’s too late.
Find a Veterans Service Organization and use a Veteran Service Officer. If you’re a member of a veteran’s group then start there. If (like me) you don’t have a
clue preference then use the one near your local VA clinic. Other VSOs are sponsored by the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, MOAA, and other veteran’s groups. You don’t have to be a member of the group to use their VSO services, although they’d certainly appreciate it. Their job is to help you research, assemble, and file your claim, and they’re paid from other funds.
The VSO will show you how to navigate the VA bureaucracy. If you don’t enjoy dealing with bureaucracy then get more help now from your spouse or a friend and have them accompany you through the entire process. Submitting the claim is hard, and if you’re in pain (or dealing with a TBI or PTSD) then you’ll quickly get discouraged and give up. If you’re the spouse (or potential future caregiver) for a veteran, then help them get through the process– because someday you may end up having to upgrade their disability rating. When you help the veteran through the claim then you’ll also learn more about caregiver support and benefits.
There are four components to prove in a VA disability claim, and one of them is that the service-connected condition persists after you leave the service. (Otherwise you’re healed, right?) This means that your post-military medical records should show that you’ve regularly sought advice and treatment for whatever conditions you’re claiming.
If you’ve hidden a condition from the doctors while you were on active duty (for fear of being beached or even disqualified) then you can see the problem with documenting this treatment in your medical record. Your final year or two before separation is a great time to seek education, treatment, and possibly physical therapy. Even if you sought help from a civilian doctor (because you didn’t want the chain of command to get involved) then make that record part of your disability claim.
When you submit your claim to the VA, they want to see the treatment evidence. Make it easy for them to put the pieces together. You can provide that evidence to the VA much faster than they can pull it from DoD files. The VA might not pursue your civilian records at all.
Gather your records
In the case of my retiree medical records, 14 years created a problem. I only visit my local (civilian) clinic once every 12-18 months, and after three years they started archiving the paper in a storage facility. (Retrieval search fee: $50.) After seven years they shredded the archive records in favor of HIPAA electronic summaries. By the time I started catching up on over a decade of clinic visits, all the clinic had was a series of one-line entries on a one-page spreadsheet.
I’ve lived in the same house for over 15 years. If you’ve moved around since you left the service then you can imagine how much more difficult it would be to get copies of your civilian medical records.
After you leave the military, whenever you’re seeking treatment then get a copy of the records for yourself. This is a hassle. It usually means an extra visit to the clinic (after the doctor has finished writing up your record and the staff has filed it) and you’ll probably pay a copying fee ($15).
In 2013, when a friend suggested that I start my claim, all of my records were on paper. The first step was buying a scanner to create a PDF. Today you might get an electronic copy of your records during your separation/retirement physical, but you’ll still want to scan in your civilian medical records. It’s absolutely essential that you be able to print out copies for the VA and for anyone involved in your claim. The doctors who do your VA compensation & pension exams should have copies of your record, but bring a printout just in case. If you have family or a friend or a wounded warrior advocate accompany you to the exams, then give them a copy to read on their own. (The extra set of eyes is a big help.) If the VA loses your paperwork, or if you end up working with a lawyer, then: more copies.
Organize and read your records
Once you assemble your medical record, then read it!
You’ll be surprised what you’ve forgotten over the years, and you need to understand the chronology of any illness or injury. Your years of perspective might discover triggers or related events. You might need to find additional records (orders, travel claims, evaluations) that help document when it happened and where you were.
If you’re missing critical information, then consult with your VSO or ask a veteran’s disability forum. You might have to go through mission reports, command histories, or even access classified documents that you’re not cleared to read anymore. Another approach is the “buddy statement” of people who witnessed events or symptoms.
If your medical record is not merely incomplete but inaccurate or just plain wrong, then figure out how to fix it. (The VSO has seen this before– ask for their advice.) An exam by a different doctor might help reconstruct the series of events which led to your current condition. Maybe the VA can work with medical summaries from others who were there with you. If someone else was with you back when you sought medical advice, ask them to provide a buddy statement. Until you have the evidence, you’re wasting your time with the VA.
I re-read every page of my medical record and tabbed some pages with Post-It notes of injuries, dates, and questions. The VSO didn’t need that but it helped me answer his questions and the later questions from the exam doctors.
My military medical record is over 300 pages in an inch-high stack. My VSO considers that “small” and “easy”.
Once you’ve refreshed your memory, you’ll need to answer the VA’s important questions:
- How do these injuries or symptoms affect you today?
- What’s the impact on your life?
- What’s your pain level?
- What can you no longer do?
- How do you cope?
- How often do you seek treatment?
“Seeking treatment” could be as simple as physical therapy or talking with the doctor for education & reassurance. The VA needs to conclude from your actions (and your records) that the symptoms or the injury are still affecting your life and that you’re still treating them. If you’re on active duty and concerned about medical disqualification, then seeking treatment can be an issue. Consulting with a civilian doctor (on your own) can be expensive. In the long term, the right answer is to seek medical advice before the condition gets worse. Even if a diagnosis disrupts your active-duty career, avoiding it may affect you for the rest of your life.
I’m over 2500 words into this post and haven’t covered the details of filing the claim yet. We’ll pick up in the next post with visiting the VSO to actually file the claim, and then conclude with what the VA really does with the disability claim.
[I’d like to thank reader Ben (an occasional poster, and longtime friend) for pointing out that I should really get off my dead assets and file my VA disability claim. He helped me understand the “why” after I ignored the “how” for over a decade.]
[I’d also like to thank Crew Dog at One Sick Vet for sharing their experience and helping me understand what the doctors need to know. Hint: it’s probably not in your medical record. Or not yet anyway.]
Lessons I Learned Filing For Disability Benefits
How NOT To Do It: Applying For VA Disability Years After Military Separation