Today we have a guest post about one veteran’s experience applying for VA disability in conjunction with retirement from the military:
“I recently retired from the military. I was fortunate to have some people knowledgeable in VA procedures to help me find my way through the little known avenues of applying for VA benefits. For starters, I was in a career field that discouraged complaining to the military doctors about physical ailments. That does a great disservice to the military member when it comes time to separate. If the ailment is not in your records, then it is difficult to prove to the VA that it was service connected. Fortunately, again, my last assignment was not as operational and I used that time to get to the doctor and get all of my problems written into my medical records. That did require many trips to the base/post hospital, but those trips were worth the effort, even if they did not resolve the issue. As I got close to my retirement date, I began the process of getting into the VA system.
The second thing I did was to attend the Transition Assistance seminar offered by the military. While not everything in this seminar may be relevant to you, the visit from the VSO (Veteran’s Service Organization) representative (if he or she is any good) WILL be worth your time. If you cannot attend the TA seminar, please contact a VSO representative BEFORE separating from the military. They are often found at VA hospitals and military hospitals, or a list can be found on the VA website. They will help you fill out the proper forms and get started. Applying before you separate makes things easier.
Well in advance of retiring, I went to medical records at my installation and had them make two copies of my complete medical record: one for me and one for the VA. This can often take a few months. I suggest you never give up your copy of your medical records. I went over my complete record and made a list of everything I ever saw a medical professional about while on active duty. The VSO representative will want a copy of your medical records to review as well, so be sure to give them a copy. My VSO found things to apply for that I would have completely ignored. I was surprised at what I got disability for and what I did not get disability for. I also highly recommend reviewing the e-CFR, Title 38, Chapter 1, Part 4 available on-line to see what the VA can give you disability for. I did this around the time that I applied for my appeal to the VA’s initial decision and wish I had reviewed them sooner. They are available here.
Even if the VA only gives you a zero compensable disability for something, it is in your records as service connected and can be upgraded later if the problem gets worse. The important thing is having proof that you had the condition while you were on active duty. If you have it in your VA medical records from your separation exam, then it is, as I understand it, by definition, service connected.
Eventually, the VA set up an appointment to review my case with a VA Physician’s Assistant (PA) but you may see a doctor there. This is where they assessed the degree of my physical ailments. This doctor or PA will not assign any disability. They fill out paperwork and send it off to others who will decide your VA fate. The doctor/PA will probably be very friendly (as mine was) and you can be friendly as well, but remember, they are there to assess you and you are there to convince them that you actually are impaired. (I am, of course, assuming that you are impaired and not trying to game the system. Please do not try to apply for things that are not actually wrong with you. Fraud is dealt with harshly by Uncle Sam.)
A few months later I got the results from my appointment with all the data on my 70% disability and information on disability pay. As I mentioned, I did appeal the decision on basically everything that the VA turned me down for that I knew gave me trouble. After going through the same process a second time, I was finally awarded a 100% disability. They had neglected to assess one of my biggest disabilities, plus I was awarded a few smaller percentage disabilities that had been zeros previously. Overall, because I started early and was knowledgeable on the process, the entire ordeal, although long (7 months for initial rating plus another 7 months for the appeal), was not as difficult as I had been expecting.
If you are eligible to be seen at the VA, I recommend going at least annually to get a check-up just to keep your file current even if you get your primary care somewhere else. I do this and feel a bit out of place due to my age. If you are newly retired or separated, you may feel a bit out of place at the VA as well, but don’t let that scare you into avoiding it.
Finally, there are lawyers out there listed on the VA website who specialize in dealing with the VA. I thought that seeing one early in the process would help. It did not. Remember, they work for a fee, while the VSO representative works for the organization they represent, and there is no charge to you. I am not disparaging the lawyers, but as the lawyer I saw told me, there was nothing he could do until the VA had rejected my claim. If you feel the VA is not giving you the disability you deserve and the VSO representative is at the end of his ability, then by all means consider one of those lawyers, but do not waste money on a consultation before you need it.” – Die Fledermaus
Thanks, Die Fledermaus, for sharing your experience with us.
***I (Crew Dog) STRONGLY recommend that you consult with a VSO BEFORE filing your initial claim – they have the experience to make the claim stronger and the process smoother.*** For example:
Filing a VA claim – AMVETS
Filing a VA claim – VFW
VSOs for benefits claims assistance, career guidance, and more
Advice from a lawyer: 8 ways to improve your disability claim
Here are some additional resources that may help you if you are applying for VA disability compensation benefits:
What is all this, anyway? A thorough explanation provided by MOAA
Understanding the VA disability application process
Getting started (pre-discharge from service)
Applying for benefits (all benefits)
VA service-connected disability compensation rates
38 CFR Book C, Schedule for Rating Disabilities
Legal presumption of disability
Another Vet’s experience: Lessons I learned filing for disability benefits
How do veterans file a PTSD claim?
The VA denied my disability claim. Now what?