VA DISABILITY APPLICATION PROCESS
Service connection is required in order to grant a veteran disability compensation for their condition(s). Service connection is awarded when a veteran’s condition is shown through evidence to be a result of or aggravation from the veteran’s military service. For service connection, a veteran must show that 1) they have a disability and 2) an injury or incident occurred during their service in the military that 3) caused or worsened the disability.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognize Veteran qualification for VA disability compensation when the condition(s) is “an illness or injury that was caused by– or got worse because of– [the veteran’s] active military service.” The veteran is required to prove they have a diagnosable condition, generally evidenced through medical treatment records.
There are three types of disability claims:
1. In-service disability claim: the veteran’s condition(s) is linked to an illness or injury that
occurred while serving in the military
2. Pre-service disability claim: the veteran’s service in the military worsened an illness or
injury that initially developed prior to service.
3. Post-service disability claim: symptoms of the veteran’s condition(s) did not occur until
after military service.
In order for a veteran’s disability to be service connected, the disability must have incurred or been worsened during the veteran’s service. The VA recognizes events, injuries, or illnesses as sufficient causes of veteran disabilities.
There are two exceptions to proving an in-service event:
- First, the VA recognizes a list of conditions in certain populations of veterans as
presumptive. As long as the veteran meets the veteran population requirements, the VA will presume their condition was caused by their service in the military.
- For example, the VA will presume that a veteran’s diagnosis of cancer is service connected because the veteran served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and it is presumed therefore that the veteran was exposed to certain toxins like Agent Orange.
- Read more about presumptive conditions below.
- Second, the VA recognizes a veterans combat experience as a generalized in-service event for their disability. When a veteran has a disability and experienced combat, the VA will accept proof of combat as proof of a specific event in which the veteran developed the disability.
- For example, the VA may presume that a veteran’s chronic sinus problems are a result of the veteran’s combat experience if the veteran claims to have broken his nose in battle, even without any definitive proof of the specific event where the broken nose occurred.
- Read more about combat related disabilities in the Nexus section of this article.
The VA assumes that certain medical conditions in certain veteran populations were caused by military service. For this reason, a veteran may be eligible to receive VA disability benefits for what is called a “presumptive condition.”
The PACT Act was signed into law on August 10, 2022 to expand VA benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic exposures. The PACT Act added additional conditions presumed by the VA to be caused by the veteran’s military service. This is the largest expansion of benefits in VA history, adding more than twenty conditions to the presumptive list.
The following list is composed of common presumptive conditions, but it is not exhaustive:
1. When a condition arises within one year of discharge from military service, the VA will assume the condition was caused by the military service.
2. When a condition is caused by the veteran’s experience as a prisoner of war, the VA may assume the condition was caused by the military service. For more information on qualifying conditions and requirements for obtaining disability compensation related to time as a POW please visit the VA website.
3. When a condition is the result of exposure to hazardous materials the veteran encountered during duty, the VA may assume the condition was caused by their military service.
- a. Agent Orange: if a veteran was diagnosed with cancer or another illness caused by Agent Orange and served in the Vietnam Era, they may be entitled to disability compensation. For specifications of eligible locations and times of service please visit the VA website.
- b. Asbestos: if a veteran worked in industrial services during their military service, they may have come in contact with asbestos. To learn if a veteran should get tested for asbestos related conditions please visit the VA website.
- c. Birth defects: if a veteran served during the Vietnam Era and has children who have spina bifida or other birth defects, the children may be entitled to disability compensation. For specifications for a veteran’s child’s eligibility please visit the VA website.
- d. Burn pits: if a veteran was diagnosed with an illness caused by exposure to toxic material while serving in the military, they may be entitled to disability compensation. For specific qualifying conditions and service locations please visit the VA
- e. Mustard gas: if a veteran was exposed to mustard gas or lewisite while serving in the Army or Navy, or through involvement in testing, the veteran may be entitled to disability compensation for related illnesses. For specific qualifying service locations please visit the VA website.
- f. Camp Lejeune: if a veteran served at Camp Lejeune or MCAS New River from 1953-1987 for at least 30 days, they may be entitled to disability compensation for a qualifying condition. For specific qualifying conditions please visit the VA website.
- g. Gulf War illness: if a Gulf War veteran served during or after 1990, they may be entitled to disability compensation for their qualifying condition. The Gulf War illness is undiagnosed, but evidence of persisting symptoms will qualify the veteran. For specific qualifying symptoms and service locations for service in Afghanistan please visit the VA website. For specific qualifying symptoms and service locations for service in Southwest Asia please visit the VA website.
- h. Project 112 or Project SHAD: if a veteran was involved in chemical and/or biological warfare testing through Project 112 or SHAD from 1962-1974, they may qualify for disability compensation for their related illness. For specific qualifying conditions please visit the VA website.
- i. Radiation: if a veteran has been exposed to radiation during military service, they may be entitled to disability compensation for the related condition(s). For specific qualifying service locations and periods please visit the VA website.
For more information regarding presumptive conditions, check out the following articles by the VA Disability Group:
- What Constitutes a “Presumptive Condition”?
- PACT Act Benefits for Veterans (Gulf War Era, Post 9/11, Agent Orange and Radiation Exposure)
- How to Get Benefits for Military Exposure to Agent Orange
- Burn Pits and Health Concerns for Veterans
- Presumptive Service-Connection for Certain Diseases Associated with Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune
- What is Gulf War Syndrome?
In order for a veteran’s disability to be service connected, the veteran’s disability must be caused by or worsened from an injury or incident that occurred during the veteran’s service in the military. There are several ways to establish a nexus between the veteran’s condition(s) and their military service:
- Direct service-connected claim: when a veteran is injured or develops a condition during active military service, they may file for a disability claim for it. Ideally, the injury or condition should be documented during service. But, there are some instances where the service connection will be presumed without evidence of the specific injury. For example, if a veteran is injured during combat, it is sufficient for the veteran to show evidence of combat to prove service connection. Proof of the specific event of combat where the injury occurred is not necessary.
- Secondary service-connected claim: when a veteran already has a service-connected disability, an additional claim may be filed for conditions that are linked to the service-connected disability. For example, if a veteran has a service-connected knee injury, they may file a secondary service-connected claim for the development of arthritis.
- Aggravation of a preservice disability: when a veteran develops a condition prior to military service and the service worsens the symptoms, the veteran may file a claim for such worsened condition. Evidence must be presented to show that the military service was the cause of the worsening, rather than the natural progression of the preexisting condition.
As Likely As Not Standard
The VA follows the standard commonly referred to as the “as likely as not” standard. This standard requires that the veteran’s records reflect that the claimed disability was as likely as not caused or worsened by the veteran’s military service. So, the threshold the veteran’s records must prove is that the disability is at least 50% likely to have been caused by or worsened from the veteran’s military service.
Under 38 C.F.R. § 4.3, the VA is required to interpret the veteran’s case broadly, making reasonable assumptions where the evidence supports such. Therefore, “[w]hen after careful consideration of all procurable and assembled data, a reasonable doubt arises regarding the degree of disability such doubt will be resolved in favor of the claimant.” 38 C.F.R. § 3.102 further explains, “reasonable doubt is meant one which exists because of an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence which does not satisfactorily prove or disprove the claim.” For example, if the VA determines the disability could have equally arisen during or after the veteran’s military service, the VA should rule in favor of the veteran.
Disability from Combat
The burden of proof is lessened for veterans who have disabilities caused by combat. The VA accepts evidence outside of official medical records when a disability is caused or worsened during combat. Instead, the VA may find lay evidence as sufficient to prove the nexus of a veteran’s disability and their combat history. For example, the veteran may use personal testimonial, buddy statements, or combat medals/awards to bolster their case.
38 C.F.R. § 3.304 explains lay evidence is probative “if the evidence is consistent with the circumstances, conditions or hardships of such service even though there is no official record of such incurrence or aggravation.”
National Guard and Reserve
Veterans of the National Guard or Reserve are eligible for some VA Disability Benefits. The veteran’s length of service, service commitment, and duty status will determine the veteran’s eligibility to receive benefits. Generally, the VA requires the veteran to have served in active duty (or full-time National Guard duty) to be eligible for benefits. Veteran’s of the National Guard or Reserve may be eligible for some VA benefits through service commitment if the veteran did not serve in active duty. In cases of inactive duty, “the disability must have resulted from injury, heart attack, or stroke.”
For more information, find the Summary of VA Benefits for National Guard and Reserve Members and Veterans: HERE