Hi folks, I’ve been away from the blog for two years, and wasn’t very active for two years before that. I’m hoping that I’m on the verge of a comeback. For now, I wanted to write up some lessons we learned filing for VA disability last year. I realized that we’re already forgetting some of the pain and frustration we went through, and I thought that if I could memorialize some key points here, it might help others navigate the unknown territory and provide some starting points and resources for more information.
Don’t Assume Everything is in Your Medical Record
To prove a service-connected disability, the VA is going to be looking for a diagnosis of your injury or condition in your medical records, during your years of service. To ensure that you actually HAVE that information, request your medical record from the unit and scan or make a hard copy of the entire thing. The VA will need a copy for the claim, and you need to review it first, to make sure you have support for the things you want to claim.
Read through it all. Look for your specific diagnosis detail. Flag those pages with sticky notes, make a catalog of the page numbers where to find things, whatever method works for you to help easily find that information again. If you don’t own the full version of Adobe Acrobat or don’t have access to it in some way, I would suggest it’s worth the money to invest in it. It will make the process faster, but this is all doable with paper copies if that’s your only option. With Adobe, you can use the Find function to search for key words for your condition and jump directly to the information you need.
As you go through your records, you may find that (a) you don’t have the diagnosis that you thought had you been given at some point, or (b) that some of your records are missing from the file. (We ran into the latter.) If you are missing a diagnosis that you thought you had, see your doctor about your condition(s) and have them documented into your record before you separate. Get copies of any additional records to add to your master copy at home.
If records are missing altogether, which is what happened to us due to service in remote areas and being treated at civilian facilities, start reaching out to those facilities and request your medical records. Don’t assume all your records were appropriately provided and added to your military file. We thought it had been done, and it fell through the cracks.
Use DD Form 2870 to request your records. We had better success at obtaining records in a timely fashion when listing the unit HS as the person to release the records to. Just be diligent and stay in constant contact with the HS to follow up and know that the records were received, and make a copy for yourself when they come in. You can request to have records released to you personally, but some facilities dragged their feet when we did that. Regardless, if you have to track down old records that were not in your official file, be prepared to make a lot of calls, and to do a lot of follow up. Don’t expect someone else to take care of it for you or to make you their priority. You might have some headaches at this stage, but just keep following up until you have everything you need. If any records are sent directly to you rather than the unit, make a copy to for yourself, and then provide them to your HS to be added to the official file.
Get Help with the Actual Filing
Use someone who knows the system to help you file. We used Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and I would highly recommend their service. (We had some frustrations but it was worth it in the end.) There are many other Veteran Service Organizations offering filing assistance as well. Contact a VSO and find a representative to work with early on; don’t wait until you need to file and you’re up against a deadline. Many transition officers are volunteers with limited availability and very full schedules.
VA Pays One Month Behind – and a there’s a “Zero” Month
Our decision paperwork said our payment start date was November 1st. When no payment arrived, we contacted the VA and this is what we were told. Keep this in mind when planning your budget.
Because we received your claim within one year of your release from active duty (RAD), the effective date of your claim is the day following your RAD. Your RAD is September 30, 2018, so your effective date is the first of the month following your discharge date which is October 1, 2018. Your payment entitlement date is the first of the following month. You will receive this money the first of the next month (because the VA pays one month behind). For example:
RAD: September 30
Effective Date: October 1
Payment Start Date: November 1
Actual Pay Date: December 1
OMNIBUS RECONCILIATION ACT OF 1982, Public Law No: 97-253
Payment of VA benefits starts the first day of the month following the award of benefits. The award date is the date the application was received or the date the individual became a Veteran which leaves a “zero” month of payment between the discharge or retirement date in which no benefits are paid.
The Math is Confusing
Most people know this but don’t really understand it. I won’t try to explain it either, because I get it but I don’t think I can explain in a few words. If you want to try to understand it better, a very good explanation is provided by the VA here, along with a lot of other helpful information. Bottom line, if you have, for example, 7 disabilities with the following percentages: 50, 20, 20, 10, 10, 10, 10, your combined won’t be 130, it will be 80. This awesome website will do the math for you so you can do some estimating and planning your budget so you’re not just waiting and wondering how your claim might add up.
Be Realistic About Expectations
Read up on how the VA determines their ratings. Think about your condition(s) and research how the VA will view them. You might think something is terrible to live with and should be considered more severe than how the VA views it. It might be a hard pill to swallow but knowing up front how your health conditions are translated into “disabilities” by the VA ahead of time will help you be more prepared. It will also let you know whether you need to revisit your doctor to discuss and document the severity of a condition. If you’ve never been truly honest with your doctor about the severity, your records won’t support your claim. Don’t sweep your condition under the rug because you feel like you’re admitting weakness. If you’ve been adversely affected or injured during your time of service, disability is a benefit that you have every right to claim.
Types of Claims and When to File
There are many different types of claims and everyone’s situation is different. We filed a claim through the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) but that might not fit your situation. Visit the VA website to read more about the many different options. Or contact a VSO to start getting hands-on help from a transition officer.
If you have questions about our experience that I haven’t mentioned here, please feel free to contact me. I’ve included additional links for other resources that I used or found helpful below.
Actual VA Schedule for Disability Ratings – dry and technical, but helpful
Veterans Benefits Video Series on YouTube