VA Disability Compensation
By Mike Pritts
Filing for disability compensation from the Veteran’s Administration is one of those tasks that we all think about as we approach separation from the military, but there are very few transition assistance resources that prepare Veterans for what to expect. The VA portion of the Army’s Transition Assistance Program is great and covers a lot of information, but it just scratches the surface of what you should do before preparing your initial application for disability compensation. I wrote this post from my experience going through the process blind and with little more than a few comments from service members who had recently separated and were waiting on their decision.
- Prepare your Medical Records. Start preparing your medical records a year or more out from separation to help support your claim. Three things about your injury/illness are critical: 1) it happened during you aggravated the injury during your service, 2) The injury illness is chronic and, 3) you have limited mobility/range of motion (injury) or have a permanent condition that requires care (illness).
Your doctor should reevaluate everything that you have ever been seen for in the military, if it is still a legitimate issue, during your final year or two of service. Updating your medical history will help to demonstrate that the injury/illness was chronic and required care over a number of years, and is still an issue at or near the time of your discharge. I recommend you are upfront with your medical team about wanting to take a look at every injury/illness again before discharge to ensure your medical records reflect your current condition. This process took me several visits and months of follow up as my doctor wanted to look at two items per visit so that he could make the necessary detailed entries into my record for each one, and order any necessary tests/radiology. I recommend having a head to toe X-ray and any MRIs necessary to support your conditions during this time.
Limited mobility/range of motion is what governs how much compensation the VA will award you. I didn’t do much research on this before beginning the process, and I don’t know that more research would have yielded any more compensation. If you want to read up on how the VA rates your disability, start here. If you have a permanent medical condition that requires medication or follow-up care, ensure your medical reevaluates the issue before discharge. Many conditions have a disability rating set by law. (For example, Tinnitus is 10%, hypothyroidism is 10%).
- Pick a VSO to fill out your claim. I recommend that you use a Veteran Service Organization to assist you with your claim. You certainly can file the claim on your own at https://www.ebenefits.va.gov, but these people are professionals at filling out the claim making sure properly so that the VA accepts your initial submission. I used the Disabled American Veterans to help with my claim paperwork, but there are others (OASIS, VA, etc.). Regardless of what organization you choose to help, ensure they accurately note every condition you wish to claim on form 21-526EZ, APPLICATION FOR DISABILITY COMPENSATION AND RELATED COMPENSATION BENEFITS. They will request your medical records and prepare this form based on your records. It’s a good idea to go into that meeting knowing after a bit of your analysis to know what conditions you should claim. Remember, the VSO is helping you with this form, but you are still responsible for ensuring everything is accurate.
If you are claiming with dependents, (the VA pays extra compensation for dependents to Veterans that have a combined disability rating of 30%), remember to bring a copy of your marriage license to this appointment. I know of people who didn’t establish this at the time of their original claim, and it took years to get it switched.
Popular Veteran Service Organizations:
Disabled American Veterans: https://www.dav.org
- Retirement physical vs. VA physical. You will receive two different physical exams as you near separation. Your retirement physical is the last chance you have to document any conditions and schedule treatment during your military service. The physical exams section of your servicing military treatment facility regularly conducts this exam. The VA physical will be carried out by your nearest VA medical facility, or one of the VA contracted physicians. The purpose of this is to evaluate the conditions claimed on VA form 21-526EZ, not to provide you with care. Take the time to understand the different objectives: your physical exam doctor will document conditions and schedule referred follow-up treatment. The VA physicians do not have access to your medical records and will only evaluate your claimed injury/illness for compensation.
Before your VA physical, the VA will send you a Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ). The DBQ contains a series of questions on each of your claimed injuries/illnesses that attempt to determine the duration of the condition and what caused it. If possible, tie your condition to your military training as much as possible. I found that I could tie just about every condition on my claim to long movements carrying a rucksack (SFAS, SFQC, ODA time) or Airborne operations. Be as detailed as possible in how and when the condition started. Also include how/if the condition still bothers you today and what medications you take to help alleviate pain.
When you go into the VA physical, leave your Green Beret behind. Today is not the day to tell the doctor how much of a badass you are. Your conditions will get worse as you get older. The doctor will evaluate your conditions based on your mobility by manipulating each joint. Each joint requires a measurement for this. If you experience pain, stop when it becomes painful. Be honest about your pain and range of motion during the exam.
- How the VA determines your combined rating. If VA finds that a Veteran has multiple disabilities, VA uses the Combined Ratings Table below to calculate a combined disability rating. Disability ratings are not additive, meaning that if a Veteran has one disability rated 20% and a second disability 20%, the combined rating is not 80%. This is because subsequent disability ratings are applied to an already disabled Veteran, so the 20% disability is applied to a Veteran, who is already 60% disabled. There is more information about how the VA determines your final rate of compensation in the VA compensation Combined Ratings Table. (Insert link http://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/rates-index.asp#combinedRatingsTable1)
- Benefits of having your disability rated by the VA. This is subjective, and there may be more benefits available to you based on what your state provides to disabled Veterans.
Each condition is rated at “service connected, 0%.” Zero percent means that the VA acknowledges your condition, but it doesn’t limit you today. You will get no compensation for this, but you are eligible to receive VA care for the condition.
20% combined service-connected disability: eligible for VA Vocational Rehabilitation.
30% combined service-connected disability: eligible for compensation at the “with dependent” rate.
50% combined service-connected disability: eligible for Concurrent Retirement Disability Pay (CRDP). Up to this point, your retirement pay will be reduced by the amount of your disability payment. At this level, you will receive your full retirement plus disability compensation from the VA.
If you start the process early enough in your transition planning and are remaining close to the military installation where you out-process, you can participate in the Benefits at Discharge program. Benefits at Discharge is an effort by the VA to expedite the process to complete all of your medical appointments before discharge and determine you compensation shortly after you separate. This process, as I experienced it was pretty straightforward. I started as early as possible, used a VSO to help me prepare the paperwork, and was honest about my injuries throughout the process. I had an initial meeting with the DAV approximately 6-months out from retirement, and received notification of the VA’s decision within 90 days of separation.
Mike Pritts is a former U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) Command Sergeant Major that recently separated after 30 years of service. He resides in Colorado with his family and is working on a master degree in education. Mike is also a cohost on the Mentors for Military podcast show that has been on iTunes “New and Noteworthy” list since its inception. His wisdom, military and life experiences, and his down-to-earth approach to things has endeared him to nearly everyone he meets or who hear him on the podcasts.