One of the biggest myths perpetuated within the VA claims system is that veterans cannot service connect their alcohol or drug abuse. Veterans may obtain service connection for their alcoholism or drug use in certain circumstances. They cannot do so on a direct basis. However, veterans can service connect their alcoholism or drug abuse as secondary to other service connected conditions or as an aggravation of that conditions. For example, if veterans use alcoholism to self-medicate their service-connected PTSD or use medical marijuana or heroin to cope with the pain of their service-connected back condition they may be entitled to benefits. In sum, to overcome the myth veterans can file one of two claims: alcohol/drug abuse secondary to a condition or alcohol/drug abuse “aggravated by” a service connected condition (usually used when there was a history of abuse prior to service). Service connecting alcohol or drug abuse alone does not result in an increase in benefits.
Veterans who use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their service-connected disabilities may also be entitled to compensation for other conditions arising from that abuse. Alcohol abuse may cause cirrhosis of the liver or heroin use may lead to the veteran being infected with hepatitis C. While these conditions developed after service, they are secondary to the veteran’s service-connected condition. As such, getting secondary service connection for drug or alcohol abuse may open the door for service connection for other health issues down the road. It also protects survivors of the veteran and makes them eligible for Death Indemnity Compensation, Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA), CHAMPVA medical care, Accrued Benefits, and loan guaranty benefits.
Inconsistent application of the law by the VA causes this myth to persist. A recent decision from one of our veterans (used with permission) illustrates the conflict that many veterans experience when seeking to service connect their alcoholism or drug use secondary to their PTSD or other mental health condition. The examiner in this case stated: “While correlation may be present (between alcohol abuse and PTSD), correlation is not in and of itself sufficient to support causation. For example, numerous studies have established a positive correlation between ice cream sales and an increase and murder rates, however, one would be hard pressed to argue that ice cream caused the increase in murder rates.” It is no wonder there is still confusion from veterans as to whether they can connect their alcoholism or drug use when they get that message from the VA.
The VA is reluctant to service connect alcohol or drug abuse either because a misunderstanding of the law or because they do not want to open the door for more claims. As a result, veterans filing for these benefits need to have their evidence ready to make it easy on the VA to grant benefits. One good way to shore up this claim is to get lay statements from friends and family about alcohol/drug use prior to service compared to after service. Statements from friends in the service who may have noted an uptick in alcohol or drug use after an injury or stressor are also good evidence to have prepared. The most important statement to have is from the veteran describing the change in behavior. Independent medical opinions can also be helpful, as VA examiners, such as the one who provided the statement above, may not understand the current law and might give negative opinions. Lay statements and medical opinions are just some of the evidence that veterans should look for to overcome the myth that drug and alcohol abuse may not be service connected.
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