The most stressful part of entering the VA healthcare system is attempting to file a disability claim or appeal. Claims often take 20 or more years to see any result, and many of those are rejections. Appeals are the same, taking many years to resolve.
The mission of the VA is no secret to those of us who’ve been through the whole process, from filing a claim to appealing at the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The VA aims to deny . . . delay . . . and ultimately defeat a veteran’s claim.
I wrote these articles so you would not have to go through all the pain and suffering I experienced over a 20-year period, where I had to fight hard for every little crumb, every inch, and every small victory. While I think it would be a great life lesson for you, something new to put in your bag of tricks, it is not necessary to become an expert in this whole process just to earn a fair and just disability award. You do have to follow some tried-and-true steps to be successful, though.
If you are one of those folks who love to learn something from the inside out, then you will enjoy and get much satisfaction from these articles and all the other books and resources I suggest you read and study. I found the journey, with all its ups and downs, utterly fascinating and captivating.
I was successful enough to earn a 100% disability rating and was praised for a ten-page letter/report I submitted to the Board of Appeals for Veterans Claims (BVA). That letter, along with many years’ supporting evidence, earned my 100% disability rating, according to a source at the BVA.
Learning how to represent yourself is not something I recommend to every veteran, simply because you must learn the law and that is a whole different profession that requires years of training and experience. You must become a legal expert in VA law and also become an expert at navigating the treacherous seas of the VA disability claims and appeals process. Neither is for the faint of heart.
If you are like the majority of military service members and veterans, you want someone who has been through this entire process to show you the way, the shortest, and most accurate route possible. And with the least amount of time, effort, money, and pain.
Please read these articles thoroughly and learn everything necessary so you can successfully file your disability claim or appeal. Each part of the claims process has concrete steps to take and are listed in their logical order.
The various service branches have transition teams to assist you with the VA claims process, but please do not rely on them solely for advice and direction, because they are not experts and cannot give legal advice. They can, however, get you started, but you must be armed with prior knowledge of the whole VA claims process before you start asking questions or requesting assistance with your VA claim.
What can you learn and do to make the whole process less stressful?
First, get organized. You must properly document everything. This is the most important item to remember, especially if you are still on active duty.
If you are injured on the job, especially psychologically or sexually, see a healthcare provider immediately. Have them document the issues and injuries and note that they are service-connected, i.e. occurred on the job during your time in the military and were not the result of an issue that occurred prior to your service in the military. This step alone will save you a lot of time and effort, as it can be difficult once you enter the VA system to get a doctor to certify that your injuries or issues are service-connected.
For each issue or injury, ensure the accurate date/time stamp is noted and also exactly what events occurred before, during, and after the issue or injury, what type of medical attention was sought and given, and the result, e.g. x-ray, MRI, cast put on the leg, rehab for a week, psychological or psychiatric counseling, etc. The more accurate you are in documenting your injuries and issues while you are still serving on active duty or in the reserves, the easier it will be for you when you are discharged and enter the VA system.
Not properly documenting injuries and issues is the number one mistake servicemembers make before being discharged.
They think that it won’t matter later on and get lazy about documenting medical problems. This is understandable, given all the stress associated with one’s job in the military.
You must look at it this way: another important job of yours, which is just as important as your normal service job, is documenting all your medical injuries and issues and ensuring you have accurate paper and electronic records that are legible, plus a 100% accurate copy of these records, stored at a different location (think insurance: fire, hurricane, tornado, flood, theft, etc.).
You must treat your personal medical records like precious cargo. And if you do not believe or appreciate this importance now, then please have your spouse or parents read these articles so they can look after you and do the right thing on your behalf.
As a member of the US military, you are taught to suck it up and drive on, and not be a “weak” man or woman by complaining of any injuries or problems. On the battlefield, this is important for survival. But you also must be mentally and physically healthy to be an effective warrior, so when you’re hurt, see someone and have them document the issue or injury as much as possible, and keep a record of it.
It may seem a pain to document every little detail, but you’ll be grateful when you’re separated from the military and are seeking VA disability benefits. Believe it or not, the devil is in the details, and the VA will use the details against you at every turn, so be prepared with the best possible information and case about your mental and physical health.
Do not suck it up and ignore your injury. It may get worse in the future and you will regret not having dealt with it properly when it happened by seeking medical assistance and getting copies of all the reports and exam results.
Many of my special-operations buddies were too “tough” and chose against entering the VA system. A few have called recently, telling me how right I was. Now they’re actively applying for a VA disability claim.
The number one complaint by recent veterans filing a disability claim and/or appeal: not having proper documentation of their injuries while in service. I’ve said this already and it bears repeating because it’s the reason why most veterans are denied disability awards for service-connected injuries.
The most important point before you transition out of the military: get all your injuries noted by military doctors and ensure military healthcare providers note that your injuries and disabilities are all service-connected and not due to issues, conditions, and problems prior to your military service.
Keep the originals of all your military service records, esp. medical records, no matter how seemingly insignificant, including x-rays, the results of blood work and urinalyses, and all other films (MRIs, CT scans, etc.).
Every time you go to a medic, technician, nurse, or physician, get a copy of the notes from the exam, take your own notes about what happened during the exam, and keep an accurate and well-organized set of records of everything related to your time in service and health.
This is especially true if you get any medical care through the VA MISSION Program, where you are permitted to see a non-VA physician for medical issues. The paperwork involved creates another layer of bureaucracy that will only get worse if you do not keep accurate copies of every procedure done and all doctor’s notes, blood work, and urinalyses, plus copies of all films from x-rays, MRIs, PET scans, etc.
Because VA MISSION is so new, most veterans’ representatives do not know all the laws and rules governing the program. Again, keep copies of everything having to do with your Program visits, tests, surgeries, etc.
I say again—yes, again!—the number one complaint by recent veterans filing a disability claim and/or appeal is not having proper documentation of their injuries while in service. Take the time to get organized before it’s too late.
For those of you who wish to learn all about the VA claims and appeals process, please use this series of articles along with John D. Roche’s two outstanding books The Veteran’s Survival Guide: How to File and Collect on VA Claims, Second Edition and Claim Denied! Both books contain insider information about the VA claims process, although this knowledge is not necessary to file and win a VA disability claim.
They are now ten years old and, unfortunately, will never be updated due to Mr. Roche’s death in 2012. New laws, rules, and regulations have come into effect since his books were published. Nonetheless, if you are interested in the in-depth process of how VA disability claims are handled by regional offices, please consult Mr. Roche’s books. Both are currently available on Amazon.com.
I also strongly encourage you to purchase and read Navigating Legal Issues for Military Veterans: Leading Lawyers On Arguing Disability, Pension, and Other Claims Before the VA, authored by seven different experts on the VA disability claims and appeals process. You will find it on Amazon.com for about $90, and it is worth every penny.
Curiously, Navigating Legal Issues for Military Veterans is not a guide designed for service members or veterans. It was written for attorneys, but it is surprisingly readable and helpful. It is a wonderful resource for lawyers who wish to represent veterans in the VA disability appeals process, a handbook that tells it like it is.
I suggest you purchase this book because, when used with these articles, it will give service members and veterans the best possible, easy-to-understand resources on the subject of VA disability claims and appeals for the layperson.
Please note that it’s not necessary to learn all about the claims and appeals process before you prepare and file a VA disability claim. The additional information in Navigating Legal Issues for Military Veterans is valuable and may help those who are currently without legal representation.
You should be prepared mentally to prepare and file your VA disability claim because you are likely to encounter some unpleasant surprises in the VA healthcare system. Mind you, not everyone is exposed to the dark side of the VA. Many veterans I’ve worked with over the years have shared their nightmare experiences with me.
Here’s a sample of what many veterans have faced when attempting to file a disability claim or appeal:
- VA healthcare workers who lie, falsify documents and fabricate evidence on examinations.
- VA regional office officials who deny your claim outright, even if you prove your claim and provide all the necessary paperwork.
- Veterans service organizations’ officers and employees who are ignorant of the law and thus provide you with unsatisfactory assistance.
- Board of Veterans Appeals judges and lawyers who ignore key evidence in your case and ultimately deny your claim.
- Court of Appeal for Veterans Claims judges who refuse to hear your case.
And that’s just the beginning. Are you ready for the entire process of preparing and filing a VA disability claim or appeal?
If so, please join me for the entire series of articles, VA Disability Claims and Appeals: How to Navigate the Complex VA Minefield and Win!
AUTHOR: Bo Riley reports on issues of interest to veterans and active-duty personnel. He’s a former Army Ranger with the 1st Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.