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.

Here is another article from The Military Wallet that specifically focuses on VA medical benefits.

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.

Lessons Learned:

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.

Related articles:
Lessons I Learned Filing For Disability Benefits
Legal Presumption’ Of Disability for Vets, Former POWs
Surviving An Involuntary Separation
Preparing For The Unexpected

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

14 Comments
  1. My husband was in the Army and retired in 1994. He was in field artillery and started losing his hearing while on active duty but never said anything due to him wanting to retire some day. It is now 2019 and his hearing is almost gone and he is going to have to get hearing aids, which are very expensive. Can he file a disability claim and get help with this now or is it too late?

    • Good question, Shari, and many people are concerned about it.

      You can file a VA disability claim anytime. However instead of the claim being backdated to the date of his retirement, it’ll be effective as of the date that he files the claim.

      I’d strongly recommend filing the claim with the assistance of a Veteran Service Officer from your local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or Disabled American Vets, or the American Legion, or even MOAA. You can learn more about VSOs at the VA’s website:
      https://www.benefits.va.gov/vso/
      and use their directory to search their Regional Benefit Offices:
      https://www.benefits.va.gov/vso/varo.asp
      Your state government’s Veterans Affairs branch may also be able to help with a claim or refer you to a VSO in your area.
      You should also open an eBenefits account to track the progress of the claim and make it easier for the disability compensation deposits.

      More info is in this series of posts on why you file the claim, not just how:
      https://the-military-guide.com/file-veterans-disability-claim-not-just/

  2. What if you were out of service for more than 20 years with VA disability illnesses and never filled. If you were to file now how far back do they compensate you for? Do they go to the filing date or all the way back to your discharge date?

    • I get that question a lot, Rick!

      I can assure you (from personal experience) that you’re only compensated back to the date of your filing. Even if it takes the VA months after your filing for them to determine a disability rating, you’ll still be compensated back to the date of your filing.

      You will not be compensated back to your discharge date. However if you don’t file at all then you’ll never get compensation.

      It’s better to file now, and get it on record while you still have the documentation & memories, than to try to file later in life when you might not have everything necessary to validate the claim.

  3. I separated in 2012, and filed a month later. The VSO (great guy) mixed up my area code. (Had a 443 area code, but live in a 334 area code.) I became homeless after two months from filing my claim, and was never able to make my appointments due to not being able to reach me at my previous address, and incorrect phone number. I am finally in a stable job and living situation, so I decided to refile two weeks ago.

    I am the same as yourself. My father spent 12 years in the Army before being medically discharged, and always told me to man up. Same as in the Army. It was always take a knee and drink water, you’ll feel better. Due to this mindset, I only went to sick call twice. My unit was branched under the XVIII Airborne Corps. even though we lost our airborne status before I got to my unit, so it was constant 4 mile ‘fun’ runs, and 12 mile ruck marches.

    I have back, knee, hip, and shoulder problems. My current VSO says it doesn’t look good as far as my appeal goes.
    So I guess the only question I have is, do you have any advice, or is there anything that I can do to help my rating when I finally go see the VA doctors?

    • Good questions, Joshua. I’d seek the opinion of a second VSO, and you might even want to consider paying a lawyer who has experience in dealing with VA appeals.

      If you haven’t already done so, the first step is getting a copy of your C-file. I realize that your claim was denied, but your appeal (and your updated claim) will include everything that the VA omitted (or got wrong) in your original claim. Your VSO should ideally have already started that process.

  4. How to correct military records? Where can I see a list of the discharge codes? How to file a claim
    when military records are “lost’? Thank you

  5. I joined the Army in 1984. I was honorably discharged twice. I was in Europe during Desert Shield Desert Storm. I was part of the reduction in force in 1993. II have heart disease and just had quadruple bypass surgery. My father has heart disease and this was documented when I processed through MEPS. Should I qualify for disability compensation under a presumptive conditions?

    • Darren, it’s quite possible that your cardiac condition is due to a service-related cause, but I don’t know whether that’s presumptive.

      While you’re getting healthy, I’d strongly recommend reviewing your medical records with a Veteran Service Officer at your local VA clinic, from the American Legion, or the Disabled American Veterans, the VFW, or even MOAA. They’re the experts on presumptive conditions, their services are free to you, and they’ll be able to help guide you through the claims process.

  6. If the VA heath care system were its own separate agency it would be the largest government run health care system in the world. Larger than the British NIH in terms of expenditures. Larger than the French or Swedish system in terms of numbers served. I think most of the systemic system frustration many vets feel with the VA could be alleviated if it did operate on its own apart from other related services under the VA banner. But that’s a discussion for another day.

    My personal engagement in the health claims, disability appeals system took the better part of 5 years. A process which I did start on active duty. In full disclosure I retired as senior Navy Officer with an MBA. I did not consider myself dumb or a failure career wise. But after almost 25 years I was worn down. And I had what I admit where mental health related issues, readjustment issues I need to attend too. I am not ashamed to admit that. Many, many vets are or assume to do so is some badge of dishonor. I had to get over that. That said my experience with the VA system on that side of the fence has had its ups and downs. But at the end I felt that justice was done in my case and the “system” did work.

    The take ways for me is that you the veteran are your best advocate in the system and for yourself. Yes, many good and caring folk exists to help, Legion, VFW service officers. But I have to give credit to my local congressman from the 8th PA. district and his office that got some stuck things, unstuck. But at the end of the day the person that cares most about your case is you. Also never take “no” or denied as the final answer. Work the system and people, until that final response is yes. It can and does work. Lastly, to the veteran who may be suffering, many times in silence. Speak up, take that 1st step and walk into that VA outpatient center, hospital, outreach center and do not be afraid to speak up, and be honest with yourself. Yes, we all have paid a price for our service. Some wounds are external for all to see, other internal which we may try to hide. Taking that 1st step is the 1st step to healing and recovery.

    • Thanks, Peter, good advice!

      • I joined the Marines in 1997,and Honorably discharged in 2002. While in boot camp, I hurt my lower back during “mess duty”, was sent to the corpsman, he gave me Motrin and sent me on my way. But he never documented it in my medical record. My lower back has been bothering me ever since, but more now. I’ve been told that I can file a claim and I’ve also heard that if it’s not in my record that I’m pretty much screwed. So for the past 17 years I’ve just dealt with it. But the pain is getting worse, to the point where I can’t sit or stand for long periods of time. Could you please guide me in the right direction? Thank you.

        • Alberto, my first recommendation is getting healthy. Regardless of how you do with the VA, you should consult with your doctor to do as much as you can to stabilize your back and hopefully heal more.

          Separately, talk with a Veteran Service Officer about the possibility of other records of your visit to the corpsman. (There may be something in a Marine archive.) If there was never an official record of your visit to the corpsman then you might also try “buddy letter” statements from fellow recruits or drill instructors who could have witnessed your injury.

          VSO services are free. You can find a Veteran Service Officer from your local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, the VFW, your local VA clinic, or even MOAA. They’ll go through your medical & service records to help you find as much info as possible for your claim.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?