I’ve decided to start a series of posts on VA disability claims based on what I’ve learned over the last five years of my dealings with the Veterans Administration. Recently, I was let go from my volunteer position as Veterans Service Officer due to what I will call “philosophical differences” with local members of my veterans service organization. I have to say that that was probably a good thing for me, since the psychological pressures and physical requirements of the position were affecting my own physical and mental well-being.
I’ve learned a lot of “VA stuff” over the years, because they know that, local veterans continue to approach me here in the Philippines for advice on how to pursue their claims and appeals. The disability claims system can seem very confusing indeed to the average veteran who, unlike me, does not have the benefit of hundred of cases of experience.
What drives me nuts is that any veteran should even require outside help, and believe me, THEY DO! A law passed in 2000 called “The Veterans Claims Act of 2000 and Duty to Assist” was enacted to TRY to make the VA do right by the veteran by forcing them to tell the veteran what they need to successfully support their claims. Despite the law, the VA rarely does this well. Now, veterans get reams of extra paper filled front and back with procedural code excerpts. Supposedly, the VA does this is to help “explain” their decisions. Unfortunately, to many veterans, all this extra “explanation” reads like gobbledygook and is overwhelming. In my experience what is mostly happening is that VA raters and review officers comply with the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.
I waited for several reasons to pass out this my VA disability claims “lessons learned.” At first, I wasn’t sure how much applies to veterans outside of the Philippines—I didn’t want to mislead anyone and hurt them with their claims. Also, I was leery about placing this information in the public domain for worry that it might cause young troops to become “sick call rangers.” However, I made up my mind to post after reading recently so much current news on how terrible the VA is at properly and expeditiously rating servicemen’s claims. It’s outrageous.
I realize the Internet is loaded with sites doling out this kind of advice, just the same, HERE is some more! With that said …
- First, you are doing the right thing by getting started NOW. I wish I had known what I am imparting here as I went about completing my military career. Luckily for me, I ran into a vet about a year before I retired and she was nice enough to let me in on the basics of preparation while still on active duty. All I want to do is to try to pass on likewise what that nice lady did for me. She was a Godsend.
- Get EVERYTHING documented. Ensure that every medical issue—past (if possible) and present (most certainly)—is reflected in your records. This includes headaches, twinges, sprains, aches, pains, tenosynovitus, muscle pulls, muscle strains, spasms, tinnitus, hemorrhoids—Everything! Ever had surgery? If you have any numbness, limitation of movement, tenderness—anything at all resulting from your operation—get it documented. Too many Vets try to use as an excuse that they’ve been self-medicating—that it hurt, but they were too busy setting a good example for their troops to make an appointment at sick call or through TriCare. The VA will NOT give much weight to your personal statement as credible evidence. Get your conditions documented in your service medical records or from your personal doctor in a written statement. In other words, the Air Force (or Army, or Marines, or Navy, or Coast Guard) may well appreciate your devotion to duty and your intense willingness to accomplish the mission, but the VA does NOT!
- No matter how minor your ailment, especially if it is orthopedic, get it documented. For instance, if you twist an ankle or knee, strain your shoulder, or pull your back, get to the clinic and get it in your records no matter how minor you think it is.
- Get a Diagnosis. Before you get out, while you still have the chance, check to ensure that your medical record entries show an actual diagnosis is entered and not just a symptom. The navy and army are guilty of doing this the most. Here’s what happens: You go to sick call and a corpsman or medic sees you. He writes down that you are complaining of low back pain or pain in your wrist. (PAIN is NOT a diagnosis!) He gets a prescription approved for a pain killer and that’s all you have in your records. The VA will fight you tooth and nail over your claim stating that you do NOT have a definite diagnosis, and therefore they will INITIALLY deny you every time. Bottom line: get every condition diagnosed to preempt this potential problem.
- Keep in mind, though, that if you exhibit even a small amount of pain or if, for example, you find it difficult to bend over or do a knee bend, then you will get a minimum of 10% for each disability AS LONG AS THIS CONDITION IS DIAGNOSED TO A DISEASE OR CONDITION. It is important to remember thought that the VA will NOT diagnosis your painful condition. You would suppose they should but they will not. If you are already discharged, you might have to pay to get your own diagnosis. If you do not, then you put yourself at the mercy of the VA (NEVER DO THAT!)
- If it is your knees, you could get 10% for each knee, although it’s possible that the rating board could combine them into a single rating. (The VA rates in increments of 10% starting at 0%, anything over 5% is rounded up to the next 10). Also note that a 0% is still good, because that means the VA is granting service connection for that problem, and if and when it ever flares up again, you can make a claim for an increase. A good example of this is Hemorrhoids. If you had a single flare up for them in your records, but they are fine during the exam, it is common to get a 0% for them as a rating.
No excuses! The VA doesn’t care if you were too busy while you were active duty to get treatment for an illness or ailment. I’ve had retired combat troops who had been injured in the field that had received treatment from field medics, and never bothered to follow up and get that treatment entered in their medical records. Their only recourse is to go back and find that medic or corpsmen and get a statement from him. That can be very difficult if it happened in I Corps in Vietnam in 1967, yet that’s what they have to do. Lesson is—get everything documented—the VA entertains no excuses.
Much more to come... Part 2