Part 2: VA Disability Claims
This is part 2 of my advice series devoted to how to prepare for and pursue VA disability claims and what to watch out for. As I said in part 1, almost everyone needs help doing this stuff. The system is slanted against the vet, and most vets don’t know what they don’t know. The VA routinely screws vets without the veteran ever knowing it. So, I’ll continue with my “lessons learned:”
· Tinnitus. This inner-ear disease is possibly the most common of all hearing conditions, and yet it’s probably also the most underreported. People in the military are especially susceptible to it because it’s usually brought on by exposure to high intensity sound. It’s easy to tell if you have it—just go into a quiet room and if you hear a high-pitched tone or ringing then you have it. If you ever qualified with a rifle or a pistol, you more than likely had enough exposure to cause it. Almost all combat arms people are likely to get it. If you were around a flight line, that would do it as well. Tinnitus can also be brought on as a side-effect to many medications. Anyway, the only test for it is your complaint of it, but most service personnel get so used to it that they don’t even realize that it is an ailment—enough said. It’s an easy 10 percenter as long as it is documented. If you are still on active duty, report it. Once you have it in your records its good forever. Final note on tinnitus: As with many conditions this one can become VERY severe with age, to the point that it interferes with proper hearing--all the more reason to get it established while you can. Don't wait.
- Mental Health. If you have any of the following—mood/anxiety issues or disorders, fight with your spouse, unnecessarily yell at your kids, sleep problems, easily agitated, irritable, feel unexplainable anger, or sad/depressed—please think about seeing mental health specialists. Most service folk won’t consider doing it because of the negative stigma or concerns for their career. Thing is, if you have some kind of mental or emotional problem and you do not get it documented while you are still on active duty or within one-year from discharge, the VA will not grant compensation based on service-connection. Think very careful about this one, because once you go down the path it WILL haunt you for the rest of your career, that is, IF they even allow you to continue it.
· Traumatic Events leading to possible PTSD? On the same note as above, if you have ever been involved with a traumatic event such as witnessing the accidental or violent death of a co-worker, your own near death or trauma, or if you have just been around a lot of that kind of thing, perhaps during an assignment to a conflict area, AND it has affected you psychologically in some negative way, see your mental health specialist. The VA WILL award you disability for it if you are diagnosed with PTSD, especially if you can show current treatment. You can do it after you are out, but it is immensely easier to get these kinds of disorders approved for service connection if you get them documented while you are STILL in the service. It’s a tough decision, because it CAN affect your continued career, BUT you should at least know about it and understand what is at stake—yours and your family’s well being. ( I want to cover PTSD claims more thoroughly in the next post. There are other very important points to discuss concerning this condition).
· Watch out for these Mental Disorders! Watch that your service psychiatrist does NOT brand you with Personality Disorder or Temporary Adjustment Disorder. They seem to be in collusion with the VA when they do so, and they seem to be doing it more and more; primarily, I believe, because these conditions are NOT compensable.
- Ratings Percentage—what does it mean? I’ll try to keep this simple… A disability “percentage” is not the percentage of your retirement pay as many folks suppose. By a formula, it works out to be a percentage of your body and your ability to use it (or not use it) to be employed. Each percentage, is awarded in increments of 10, and the higher the percentage the higher the award. It will also increase depending on how many dependents you have, and it is not affected at all by what rank you were when you retired. Also, do NOT try to simply add these up to get your overall award--it doesn't work that way. For example, if you get awarded five 10's, another for your back for 40%, and then 30% more for a mood disorder, it will not equal 120%. There is a table called a Combined Ratings Table that the VA uses to total up the individual awards. It’s not a complicated formula, but it can be tricky if you don’t know how to do it. Plus, there is something called the “bilateral factor,” which must be figured first before the rest of the individual disability ratings are totaled by using the Combined Ratings Table. To the untrained, it all seems very unfathomable indeed! On top of all that are special monthly compensation,commonly called SMCs, based on severe conditions such as loss of limbs and organs or their use.
- Individual Unemployability (IU). Keep this in mind. If your disabilities combine to 70% or more and you have at least one disability rated at 40%, OR, if you have a SINGLE rating of 60%, your next step will be to apply for “Individual Unemployability (IU).” That is equivalent to 100%. In that case, if you have a couple of dependents, your monthly disability check will be about $2600—tax-free.
- The beauty of VA disability is that it is the same for an E1 as it is for an 06—your rank after retirement means nothing when it comes to your disability award.
- However, if you have a 4-year or even a 2-year degree of some kind, the VA, as a matter of course, ALWAYS turns a veteran down for IU with the rationale that clerical work should be possible. I represented a 77-year-old WWII veteran that I had to fight tooth-and-nail for to get him IU because he had a degree. Mind you, this guy had a heart condition, was mostly blind, a full-blown diabetic, and constantly experienced mini-strokes where he would black out at any time even while he was walking! We had to fight this one out until the VA finally relented and we got him his full 100%. What a bunch of weenies the VA can be at times!
- Concurrent Receipt: Starting in January 2004, a new law went into effect allowing concurrent receipt of both VA disability AND retirement pay, but ONLY for those with a disability combined total of 50% or more. However, to save money, Congress stipulated that it be done by yearly increases over a 10 year phase-in period which drags out full receipt until 2014.
- Concurrent Receipt for vets with IU: Congress passed a follow on provision that “hurried up” the process so that IU vets will receive their full concurrent receipt by October 2009, a full 5 years faster.
That’s enough advice and information for this installment. This stuff can be overwhelming if you try to absorb too much at once. The average veteran does NOT know even a smidgeon of the vast amount of specialized information required for claims success. I’m convinced that the VA and Department of Defense is perfectly happy to keep it that way. If you have any specific questions drop me an email at the address shown on my profile page. I’ll post part 3 soon.