When seeking VA disability compensation, veterans have the choice of submitting service-connected claims or non-service-connected claims. Veterans with service-related disabilities receive disability compensation, whereas war-time veterans with permanent, non-service-connected disabilities and low-income receive pension.
When submitting service-connected claims, applicants face the burden of proving that their injuries were either sustained during their military service or aggravated by their time in service. However, there are five different ways of defining service-connected disabilities. Understanding these will help you get the process of filing your claim off to a successful start.
1. Direct Service Connections
A direct service connection is often the easiest service connection to prove. This is when veterans have developed illnesses or injuries while serving in the military and when these same issues have already been diagnosed and recorded in their military records and service medical records.
However, there are also times when disabilities are directly connected to a person’s time in service, and yet no service records exist. For these cases, other forms of research can be presented to prove the service connection including:
- Veteran newsgroups
- Decks logs
- Installation news articles
- Lay evidence or personal testimonies from people who knew you during service
It is important to note that the presentation of lay evidence does not require the witness to be a medical professional or to have any specialized knowledge about the injury or illness in question.
2. Aggravation as the Service Connection
With aggravation as the service connection, your burden is to prove that an existing health issue was somehow aggravated or worsened by your time in the military. This might mean having an illness progress more rapidly due to environments, physical challenges, or other circumstances, or it could mean having symptoms heightened or exacerbated in a long-term way.
During the entry medical exam that all military personnel undergo, existing conditions are always documented and logged to individual service records. In addition to your service records, you will also need to have a medical doctor or medical specialist submit documentation stating how your condition has been negatively impacted by service.
3. Presumptively Service-Connected Illnesses
There are times when service-connected disabilities take months to be properly diagnosed. In fact, people may live with these conditions for quite some time, without being aware of them. However, when their symptoms do present, they can be life-altering.
These types of service-connected issues are common among those who’ve spent time in unacceptable conditions as prisoners of war, but they can also include:
- Exposure to war-time chemicals such as Agent Orange
- Exposure to contaminated water
- Radiation exposure
- Tropical diseases
Many times, proving a presumptive illness or injury can be next to impossible. For some claims, it is only after significant numbers of veterans who’ve served in specific areas report similar illnesses that presumptive service-connection are honored. When this is the case, submitting a VA disability appeal based upon newly accumulated evidence will often result in a positive ruling.
4. Secondary Service Connections
A secondary service connection can be established if one disability has led to another. For instance, if you have service-connected diabetes and are able to live and function normally such that your diabetes does not warrant the issuance of disability compensation, you may eventually develop another illness like glaucoma that is directly connected to your diabetes.
In many instances, secondary conditions can be more severe and debilitating than the primary, service-connected issues that caused them. In these cases, filing on the basis of the secondary service connection rather than the primary one decreases the likelihood of denial.
5. Injuries or Illnesses Resulting From VA Healthcare
Filing a disability claim concerning injuries or illnesses that are the direct result of VA healthcare is essentially the same as claiming medical malpractice.
If care received from VA healthcare services has aggravated an illness or injury, delayed treatment, or otherwise diminished your prognosis, this would be the most appropriate service connection for submitting your claim. The primary challenge in using this connection, however, lies in being able to definitively prove negligence on the part of the VA.
Establishing a service connection is always the first and most important part of submitting a disability claim with the VA. Making sure that you are able to prove the exact way in which your condition is service-related is also key. By covering these two bases, you can help move the claims process forward while significantly increasing your chances of getting approval.