I have written previously on the Top Ten security clearance issues and problems that I see in my law practice. It gets a lot of views at our web site so I thought I would come up with a Top Ten list as it relates to VA disability claims filed by military veterans.
1. In a nutshell, if you are applying for a VA disability claim, you are stating that you have a CURRENT disability of some type that was incurred or aggravated during your ACTIVE duty service. It is really that straight forward but please always keep this concept in mind as you are trying to get your VA disability. It will help you focus on and improve the chances of your claim being granted.
2. If you are an active duty service member currently or under active orders with the National Guard or Reserves, do yourself a great favor which will have long term benefits for you if you EVER do have to file a VA disability claim. ANYTIME you go on sick call and/or for ANY doctor, specialist or hospital visit that you do have, MAKE SURE to get and SAVE a copy of all of those medical records for each and every visit. This also includes pharmacy records showing exactly what you were prescribed. KEEP THEM FOREVER and put them with your medical records file. I promise you that they will be invaluable to your VA disability claim down the road if you ever have to file one.
3. When you are discharged from your active duty military service, make sure to provide a written document about any and ALL medical conditions that you have that you got while on active duty service or that were aggravated by your active duty service. Do this before your discharge is entered and before you clear so that your military branch and the VA know exactly what you think your disabilities are BEFORE you leave active duty! Failure to do so could very well be fatal to a future VA disability claim.
4. Filing a VA Disability Claim. You have to fill out and submit a VA form 21-526EZ to the VA. My suggestion is to submit the claim BOTH on-line and by U.S. mail, certified mail, return receipt. You must always have proof and save your proof of what you sent to the VA or the VA could claim that they never received anything from you. This goes for ANYTHING that you send to the VA. The first seven pages of the claim form provide a detailed list of information needed to substantiate your particular claim, as well as additional forms that may be required. I recommend that you gather all of your medical evidence, buddy statements, and any other supporting evidence and submit it all along with your initial claim form.
5. Keep copies of everything you send to the VA and what you receive from the VA. GET a box and label it “VA Papers” and put a copy in that box of everything you send and everything you receive to and from the VA and keep that box forever in a very safe place. It will pay dividends to you down the road.
6. NEVER EVER miss a VA imposed deadline. There are always VA deadlines listed in every document that a veteran receives from the VA. Don’t even get close to VA deadline! I can’t tell you the number of veterans that I have met with who lost out on their VA claim because they missed a deadline. Carefully read every document you get from the VA and figure out the deadline for any action you have to take and make sure you do whatever you need to do FAR IN ADVANCE of the deadline. Make sure you have proof of complying with the deadline response and the best form of proof is a U.S. mail, certified, return receipt requested green card. ALWAYS KEEP the green card you get back from the post office showing that the VA received whatever you sent.
Put the green card in your “VA Papers” box that is kept in a safe place! TIP: On the front of the green card, below your return address which will come directly to you, put a note of what you are mailing to the VA and what VA dated letter or document that you are responding to. You want to make it absolutely clear that you are timely responding to whatever you need to so there is no wiggle room by the VA to be able to say that you did not timely comply with any VA deadline.
7. Missing VA deadlines is so important that it gets listed here again. DO NOT EVER MISS ANY VA deadlines! The VA will use a missed deadline against you forever.
8. With regard to VA disability claims, there are generally two systems that claims, as of this writing, fall under. The “older system” is called the “Legacy” claim system and the “new system” is called the “Modernized Appeals System.” Know which system you are operating under. Also, regardless of the system, NEVER miss a VA deadline! The modernized appeal system gives claimants the opportunity to participate in the new Supplemental Claim and Higher-Level Review lanes or choose to file an appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. If you choose to have an appealed claim processed under the modernized appeals system, you will not be able to return that claim back to the legacy system.
9. Service connection, in my experience, is the area where veterans have the most problems proving their claim. What can you do if you have a current disability, but the VA says it is not related to your service and there aren’t many or any service medical records (SMRs) to show service connection? If you don’t have medical records, the best evidence is from other service members that you served with. These are referred to as “buddy statements.” In this day and age of Facebook and Google, do your best to find one, two, three or more “buddies” that you served with who can write a letter with their contact information on it and simply tell the story of how they saw your service connection happen. Get as many of these “buddy statements” as you can!
For instance, if you had a knee injury while playing flag football (remember, active duty service is 24/7 and it doesn’t matter if you were on leave, or if your injury happened on the weekend or playing with your child), get your friend to write a letter describing how you got injured in the football game, how you complained about it all the time, that you couldn’t do PT for several weeks, etc. Here is another example for, let’s say, if you are claiming sleep apnea caused by your active duty military service. You slept in the barracks or tents with a bunch of other people and your snoring and your constant waking up and gasping for air caused the people trying to sleep around you a lot of problems. Find some of your buddies to write statements like these as to what they witnessed, how it caused them not to be able to sleep themselves, that they told you to go to sick call, etc. Make sure your buddy writes a detailed statement and provides where and when he or she served with you along with all of his or her contact information. They can then send the letter directly to you by regular mail or email and then YOU submit it directly to the VA. Remember to keep a copy and proof that you sent it to the VA! Another equally important piece of evidence is a “nexus letter” from your physician.
A nexus letter specifically connects an in-service incident to your current claimed disability. Get ALL of your SMRs and provide them to your treating physician and ask your doctor to write a letter on your behalf to the VA. You may choose to ask the private physician that is currently treating you or you may seek out a specialist to write a nexus letter. In either case, the letter should contain some specific language, for example: “The Veteran is a patient of mine who served (dates and length of active duty). Based on review of my patient’s service treatment records, (discuss incident that caused current diagnosis). The Veteran currently suffers from (diagnosis). It is my professional opinion that it is at least as likely as not that the Veteran’s (current medical condition or disease) was caused by (his/her) military service.” If requesting an increased rating, your private physician may also be able to provide an opinion as to the severity of your condition prior to the adverse decision.
10. Every service member knows the military saying of “hurry up and wait” along with the military slang “SNAFU.” Those two things, unfortunately, still apply to the VA disability process. Waiting is part of the game. I know it is frustrating and, from my perspective, there is nothing you can really do to expedite a VA claim. Thousands and thousands of deserving veterans are caught up in the delays in the system just like you so there is, unfortunately, not a way for an individual claimant to advance his or her claim. Don’t give up, however! I recommend that veterans do all that they can during the long waiting period to improve and enhance their claim by trying to get any medical records that will help their claim, get buddy statement, doctors letters, etc. As you get any of these items, submit them to the VA ASAP and see #5 above as a reminder.
11. This is a bonus to the list. Send everything to VA by certified mail, return receipt requested (CMRR) and keep a copy of everything you send to the VA and everything you receive from the VA.
12. This is a bonus to the list. NEVER EVER miss a VA scheduled appointment of any type to include Compensation and Pension exams or your failure to make your appointment will be used by the VA against you to deny your claim.
13. This is a bonus to the list. Set up and log on weekly to your VA site so you can follow along with what is happening with your VA disability claim.
14. Here is the last bonus to the list. Make sure your bank account information to include routing number and bank account number and your home mailing address is ALWAYS current and up to date with the VA.
Please feel free to contact me, by phone or email, if you would like to discuss any concerns that you have regarding your VA disability claim. You can also read some of our most popular blog posts on VA disability below. Thank you to all veterans for your service.
You may be interested in some of our other VA Disability Blog Posts
- How Should a Veteran File an Original VA Disability Claim?
- How to file a VA disability claim – New Rules Announced by the VA for ALL claims filed March 24, 2015
- Notice of Disagreement (NOD) to the VA
- What are the VA deadline dates if I am trying to get my VA disability?
- Why Does It Take So Long For My VA Disability Claim To Be Processed?
- Why Does My VA Disability Claim Take So Long?
- VA Delays – The Saga Continues…
- What Can Veterans do to Improve Their Chances of Obtaining Denied VA Disability Compensation Claims?
Navigating Legal Issues for Military Veterans – Co-Author
Ron Sykstus is a Managing Partner of several of the Bond & Botes Law Offices throughout Alabama. He holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a Juris Doctorate from the Northern Illinois University College of Law. Ron has served in numerous positions throughout the U.S. Army and now utilizes his expertise in the areas of VA issues, security clearances, military law, and bankruptcy to assist his clients when they need it most. Read his full bio here.