I say again, the VA disability claims system is stacked against the inexperienced veteran UNTIL he gets help. THEN, the advantage goes to the vet. I liken it to a card game where the VA plays its hand, at which point the knowledgeable veteran is allowed to pick up the deck and choose the cards necessary to win the hand... Read on to see what I mean...
- Retirement / Discharge Physical. When you retire or separate from service, I wouldn’t worry about whether or not the Air Force (or army, etc.) actually does your retirement physical, because it doesn’t really matter. As far as your retirement physical goes, unless you are being medically discharged, your service hospital won’t really look for anything wrong with you anyway. The only reason the military services do so-called retirement physicals is to fill a square—it’s mostly cursory. The examining doctor will have you fill out a form that has you describe your current medical issues that you plan to claim for from the VA. It will help to have already gone over your records with a fine-toothed comb and pre-write EVERY item you intend to claim. Have this list with you when you go in for your physical. As I said, I would go to the VA without first getting a full-blown physical done by your service. I waived my retirement physical and it turned out perfect for me. I was able to “manage” my VA physical very nicely this way, but as long as you know what to expect, I would suppose that you could manage your discharge physical in the same way. The point is that YOU want to control what happens to you—don’t let the system push you around. Stay in charge—stay proactive! Do so by reading on.
Find a Veterans Service Officer to represent you. Before you make your claim at a VA Regional Office, contact a well-trained AND experienced Veterans Service Officer. These people do NOT work for the VA—they work for YOU! The VFW, DAV, American Legion, etc., all those organizations provide Service Officers. Keep in mind these folks are not supposed to charge you for their help—most of them get paid from local city, county or state funds to assist Vets.
- Call around, interview a promising Service Officer candidate, and ask about success stories and so forth. If they don’t have time for you, find some one else. Many folks try to do it on their own and they get beat down by the VA system, mostly out of ignorance. Or, they get an award and don’t ever realize how underrated they actually are. You don’t know what you don’t know!
- The VA is not supposed to be adversarial, but it IS! The VA Disability System is complicated, and time-consuming. I know folks who have struggled through it, got what they sought after many years of fighting and learning how to fight, and could have received the same award first time, if they had only used representation from the start.
- A good Service Officer will act exactly like your lawyer—a good lawyer of course (a contradiction in terms?).
- Most veterans are either NOT told of the existence of Service Officers during their Transitional Assistance Program (TAP) briefings, or they are not told how crucial they are for a successful claim. I got out in early 2002, and although we were briefed at the time by what I thought was a very informative VA Representative; HE did NOT mention once that it might be a good idea for a veteran to attain the services of a Service Officer in the veteran’s quest for disability benefits. Is this a conspiracy? It seems so.
- Maximizing your disability rating is all about strategy!
- Get with your Service Officer Representative and map out what you want. Make two copies of every page of your active duty medical records BEFORE you get out. One copy you might have to submit to the VA and you will keep the other copy. (You’d be surprised how often the services or NPRC (National Personnel Records Center) loses SMRs (service medical records) after you last see them at your separation).
- Get a highlighter and mark every medical issue, the date, the inclusive dates of treatment, the clinic and its address, and the doctor or clinician involved. You will need all this info when you make your claim. Then, using the format provided in the VA Form 21-526 (used for initial application of benefits), make a table just like the one shown in the form. The one in the 21-526 is not even a page long and the blocks are too small for the information they ask for. I suggest you do this using a program like MS Word. List each and every medical issue per line.
- Once you get them all loaded, group them together by issue still in chronological order. Do not worry about listing too much. When I filled out my form, I turned in 12 pages of disabilities, and I used a font of only 10! Overwhelm them with your preparation! Most veterans do very little to prepare, so the VA workers that receive yours will be very impressed and in fact appreciative. In reality, they want to do what’s right for the veteran; so, why not make it easy for them to do exactly that?
- Get Every Test You Can!!! This bullet is very important, so read this one and its sub-bullets carefully.
· What you want to do is to have every possible assessment, lab test, and procedure done to you while you are in or within a year after you are out.
· For example, if you have a bad back and an MRI to show any kind of disk abnormality, it may be worth upwards of 20% depending on pain and limitation of motion. And remember, most conditions, if discovered during the first year of your discharge, will most likely be rated as SERVICE-CONNECTED, based on presumptive connection to service.
· The bad thing is that it works the other way as well—if you find something wrong with you 366 days after you get out, it is NOT service-connected. Automatic DENIAL is a sure thing.
· Thing is, neither the VA nor TriCare in the good old USA will want to rush to getting an MRI accomplished. In the States, before a doctor will order an expensive procedure or test, she wants to be convinced that it must be done. This means you might have to complain about your back, or whatever, continuously until your doctor relents and consents to the cost of the test. What happens if a year passes before you can finally convince your doctor to tell TriCare that you NEED an MRI? The answer is you might lose the possibility of getting service-connection for your condition!
· Here's an important one for you over-40 vets... increased urination! If you notice you are voiding a lot more than you did when you were in your 20s and 30s, chances are you have some kind of problem with your prostate, kidney or bladder. Go to the clinic and FIND OUT now! It's easier to do it while you are still on active duty.
· Of course, every time you complain about a twinge, or a pain, or a pang, that is EVIDENCE, and it is no little thing because it shows chronicity, severity and history. My advice is NOT to worry about being a “sick call ranger” because believe me, the Air Force, Army, Navy, and especially the USMC is NOT going to be there for you once you get out. Take care to get ALL your problems documented and DIAGNOSED while you are in. That way, once your service washes IT’S hands of YOU, the VA can start to take up the slack. Hey, you deserve it!