Proof of service connection is one of the principal hurdles to be cleared in a Veteran’s receipt of VA disability benefits. In theory, this concept is simple and straightforward. In practice, it’s extremely hypertechnical and complicated.
The problem in making the theoretical practical is that each and every claim is unique. No two Veterans have experienced the same events while serving their country, and a person’s physical, mental and emotional makeup determines long-term repercussions of injurious or traumatic experiences. An intense tour of duty may not continue to contribute to one Veteran’s present-day health, but placing another person in the exact same situations could give him/her long-lasting medical problems.
Accordingly, it is impossible to employ a one size fits all mentality to this threshold issue. The assumption that each case (and each Veteran) is different is a significant focus of our representation. In fact, it might be what we do best.
Simply put, service connection is a VA-recognized link between a Veteran’s disability or medical condition – physical, mental or emotional – and a specific traumatic experience or injury suffered while serving in the military. If it has a direct service connection, this medical condition is subject to a disability rating, measured by how “disabling” it is, or how much it hinders a Veteran’s day-to-day life.
Every claim for an injury from active duty service, no matter if it’s for hearing loss, PTSD, exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, back injuries or even the loss of use of a sexual or creative organ, must have service connection determined before disability compensation is received. A hypothetical example: Suppose a Gulf War Veteran suffers from a herniated disc after their active military service. In order to establish his right to receive Veterans benefits, the Veteran must prove his present-day back condition was caused or aggravated by an event experienced while serving in the United States military.
A Veteran’s subjective explanation of his symptoms, such as back pain or limited range of motion, or or the condition’s impact on his life is not sufficient to prove an existing current-day medical condition. It must be supported by someone with the credentials to make a valid opinion, like a physician. The current diagnosis can be supplied by a VA examination or a Veteran’s own private health care provider. Often both are used to prove a Veteran’s eligibility for a VA service connection.
You can also prove service connection of your disability by showing what is called “continuity of symptomatology“: that you have had continuous symptoms of your disability from service to diagnosis. You can prove a VA disability claim like this using only lay evidence – you do not need to provide a medical expert opinion. That’s the upside.
Even if you have substantial lay evidence to prove that your injury, illness, or disability has a service connection, it may not be enough to convince the VA of the truth.
In fact, it’s often wise to gather multiple types of evidence to make your disability benefits claim as substantial as possible. You should gather:
For example, a lay statement from an employer stating that you can’t fulfill your work duties due to your disability could help convince the Department of Veterans Affairs of the necessity of compensation.
Next, a disabled Veteran must establish which in-service event might have caused his/her present-day medical condition. This is an enormous task for the Veteran’s advocate. Simply obtaining the records is hard enough, but then deciphering the sometimes thousand-plus pages of documents (written by different hands, recorded on different, sometimes conflicting, forms) is not a task for the faint of heart.
A common source of information for the Veteran’s advocate are military service medical (and non-medical) records. For instance, in our hypothetical back injury case, if the military service records reveal an in-service automobile accident for which our Veteran sought medical treatment, this can help establish a service connection.
The Veteran’s induction and discharge medical examinations may also shed light on his back injuries. If his induction examination specifically reflects an existing back problem, the advocate might argue the automobile accident aggravated this prior condition. The discharge examination may supply proof of this aggravation.
The Veteran’s non-medical military service records may also supply some proof. For instance, if the Veteran’s DD-214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) reveals that a Veteran saw combat, various presumptions may come into play. These include the accepted fact that record-keeping is seldom organized in a combat zone. As such, contemporaneous medical records are sometimes unnecessary in and of themselves when corroborating a Veteran’s lay statements of the event. Even if a Veteran was injured during combat service, he/she might lack any service medical record proof of treatment for said injury. Being awarded the Purple Heart or other ribbons, decorations or certificates may be enough to establish the event which caused or aggravated our Veteran’s back condition.
Private medical treatment records may also prove to be helpful. They can establish, among other things, the ongoing chronic nature of the medical condition and present a diagnosis of the present-day condition as well as instances when a Veteran linked an in-service event or injury to his condition. This linkage is discussed in greater detail below.
A “nexus letter,” written by a medical professional, links a present-day medical condition and the in-service event which caused or aggravated the said condition. This letter is most often supplied by a Veteran’s private health care provider or a VA examination. A Veteran’s statements alone can never meet this requirement.
Even though a nexus letter is written by a medical professional, a Veteran’s advocate must still persuade the VA to use it as evidence. The VA will often pick and choose what evidence it believes is most accurate, meaning it might reject that which is favorable to a Veteran’s case. A Veteran’s advocate must argue that a nexus letter is legally competent and probative.
Once a Veteran is service connected for any medical condition, the VA will evaluate the Veteran’s degree of disability. A disability rating is measured as a percentage (10% to 100%), awarded for a service-connected medical disability. Monthly VA disability compensation is determined by this percentage.
The nexus letter is almost always initially written by a licensed physician/medical healthcare provider assigned by the VA. The VA has a group of physicians that relies on to administer Compensation and Pension Exams (C&P exams). These exams are required to receive disability or pension benefits from the VA.
However, the physician or medical healthcare provider who administers your exam may not do so correctly, or they may not take your opinions into account. In that case, they may write an inaccurate nexus letter.
To prevent this from negatively affecting Veterans, every Veteran can request an independent medical opinion from their private physician. The independent medical examiner or IME should have a copy of your service medical records and your other medical information.
The IME can write a nexus letter to the VA to substantiate your claim. This is often wise, especially if you have been seeing the same physician or healthcare provider for years or from the beginning of your disability.
The VA may not completely disregard the opinion of their assigned medical examiner. However, they will also take the opinion of your independent medical physician into account. For example, if you have been treated by a psychiatrist for several years, it may be more helpful for you to get their official medical opinion added to your benefits claim.
The right independent medical opinion can make proving a service connection to your disability much easier and more straightforward. You can ask your physician or medical provider for such as a service at any time. Your attorneys can help you ask the right questions or add an independent medical opinion to your disability benefits application.
Generally, the monthly payments are based on percentage of disability – not the type of medical condition. A Veteran who is 100% disabled due to post-traumatic stress disorder’s impact on their mental health receives the same dollar amount each month as a Veteran who is 100% disabled for heart disease. A Veteran may be found to be 0% disabled, yet service connected for a medical condition. This happens when a Veteran suffers from a service-connected medical condition that has yet to manifest itself in a disabling way.
In addition to pursuing your claims for service-connection, The Berry Law Firm can review existing compensation amounts to see if you may be eligible for an increase in benefits or a VA rating higher than your current disability rating. To speak with a member of our team, please call (888) 883-2483 today or contact us online. Your consultation is free.
VA Claim Exam: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) | VA.gov
LAY/WITNESS STATEMENT | VA.gov
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