Legal Considerations for New Veterans

After serving in the Army for over 30 years, about half active duty and half reserve component, and multiple deployments, I have become personally familiar with the Veteran Administration (VA) System since my retirement in December 2020.  I write this article as both a lawyer who practices some military law and also as a veteran who has learned nuances of the system through experience.  This article will be focused on the initial stages of making a claim for VA disability compensation and a supplemental claim in the event of a claim rejection or unsatisfactory disability rating.

           First, it’s important to start the VA disability claims process early.  Without going into details, it is most advantageous to submit the VA claim before retirement or non-retirement discharge from service. In that event, your claim is processed more rapidly and at a higher priority than otherwise. After leaving service, it is still important to act diligently with making a claim or claims.  If claims are made within a year of discharge (for this article, it is assumed the discharge is under honorable conditions), any disability compensation granted will be backdated to the time of discharge and payment will include backpay to that date. 

          In putting together the claim, it’s important to gather all potential evidence of the “service connection” of the claim and the seriousness of the disability. For an injury occurring during training or operations, the medical documents from the treatment of that injury are critical. It’s important that any injuries suffered while on active duty are memorialized by a visit to a military health care provider.  Ensure that the medical records include the service connection of the injury. For example: “SM appeared for treatment for a twisted knee incurred during a parachute landing fall while on field training”.  In addition to the initial treatment and evaluation records, it’s important to show records of follow up evaluation and/or treatment. Recording witnesses to injury is recommended, as their statements to witnessing the injury can become necessary evidence. 

          The VA will review all documentation submitted, and pull records from various databases they have available (military records, potential medical insurance records, etc.).  They will assess each claim separately, so they may give a rating to one claim and deny another (for example, give a 10% rating for hearing loss, while denying an ankle injury).  The level of rating will determine the monthly compensation check which will be directly deposited into the veteran’s account.

        In the event a claim is denied or given a substandard rating for the level of injury, the veteran should consider immediately file a VA Form 20-0995, Decision Review Request: Supplemental Claim. The veteran has only one year to make this claim, and if successful in overturning a rejection or receiving a higher rating, the claim will backdate to the filing of the original claim (which backdates to discharge if the original claim is made within one year). In this claim process, the servicemember must provide new evidence not previously considered.  This is the time to scour records and documentation and potential witnesses who can provide statements to provide new information. In the case of one claim, the rejection was based on the grounds the serious injury was preexisting to an “initial enlistment physical”.  This was clearly incorrect, as the veteran had been injured at an Army School as a Cadet, and the physical referenced in the rejection was right before commissioning a year after the injury. The records of this person being injured as a Senior ROTC Cadet on Army orders (orders going beyond a month) were the critical documents that were not considered and the key to overturning the rejection.

       In future articles, I will write about higher appeals procedures.  It’s important to consider the help of an attorney with claims, as the lifetime effects of a claims decision go well beyond what would be paid to an attorney. That is particularly the case after a claims rejection.  Lastly, thank you for your service!

By Bill Connor