TIP #1: Recognize and Document Disabilities When They Arise. Many veterans do not want to leave service and immediately complain about any medical conditions. As a result, you deal with the problem on your own for many years without going to a doctor. Then after many years, the problem becomes severe and then you see a doctor. At this time, many years have passed and the VA may say they do not trust that you have continuously suffering since you got out of service. You should document ongoing problems even if you perceive them to be minor. But do not worry, if you did not do this you can still win! You likely must explain the gap in medical treatment and provide alternative forms of evidence such as statements from friends or family.
TIP #2: Use Statements of Friends and Family to Document the Nature and Symptoms of Your Disability. An invaluable piece of evidence you can use are buddy statements, or statements from friends, family, and those you served with. These statements can address and corroborate a stressor that occurred in service (i.e. an IED that is not in your military records), symptoms you have been struggling with, or the impact the disability has on your daily life.
TIP #3: Get Treatment for Your Conditions. Making sure you get treatment for your service-connected conditions can help your claim. From the VA’s viewpoint, if you are not treating your conditions, they must not be that severe. Therefore might not need VA disability benefits. Receiving treatment also helps create a record of your medical conditions. Your treating physician’s record can be submitted to the VA when you are applying for benefits. It is important to know you can receive treatment by doctors outside the VA system. Those records are just as important and can be submitted as well. If you have more than one doctor you can submit all of their records that pertain to your condition.
TIP #4: Get a Complete Copy of Your Claims File, Including Service Treatment Records and Post-Service Treatment Records. In order to be able to properly develop your case, you need to be able to analyze what evidence exists and then be able to assess whether you have sufficient evidence to meet all the required criteria. There are multiple ways to request your service treatment records: through milConnect, through mail or fax with an SF 180, or in person at the National Personnel Records Center(NPRC) or through a representative(VSO, Accredited Claims Agent or Attorney). More information is available at: https://www.va.gov/records/get-militaryservice-records/
TIP #5: Obtain Your Own Medical Expert Report Linking Your Disability to Service. To substantially increase your chances of success, you should have your own medical expert review your claims file and provide a written opinion as to whether your current condition is related to service. If you are able to afford it, your own private medical expert is almost always better than relying on the VA. EXAMPLE: Assume you have a current disability of knee pain. Your service treatment records show treatment notes for knee pain. This missing link would be a medical nexus opinion linking your current disability to the documented knee pain from service.
TIP #6: Understand the Basics of the Claims and Appeals Process. The more you understand about how the VA’s claims and appeals process works, the more power you will have over your claim. Knowing when to take certain actions or what the process will look like can help ease some of the stress and frustration often experienced by veterans seeking benefits. The Veterans Disability Blog on this website can serve as a valuable educational tool for this information.
TIP #7: Keep the VA Updated. Make sure that the VA has up-to-date contact information for you, including your address. The VA is only obligated to send correspondence related to your VA claim to the address on file. If your address is incorrect or out-of-date, you can risk your claim being delayed or even potentially closed due to missed deadlines. Make sure you also update the VA with any changes in dependency status, including recent marriage or divorce, or birth of a child. Failure to update the VA about a divorce or dependency status could result in an overpayment of dependency benefits which you would likely have to pay back. If you have recently gotten married, making sure you update this information could result in more monthly compensation. Finally, be sure to update the VA with any change in your bank information so there are no delays in your monthly benefits. As with all updates, the burden is on the veteran to inform the VA.
TIP #9: Attend Your C&P Exam and Obtain a Copy of the C&P Report. Compensation and Pension examinations are medical exams ordered by the VA to assess the etiology and/or severity of a veteran’s disability when they are pursuing a disability compensation claim. The VA weighs the results of this examination very heavily. If you do not attend your initial exam for service connection, there is a high likelihood your claim will be denied. Further, if you fail to attend your exam for an increased rating claim, the VA may have to rely on outdated medical evidence which may not show the progression of your symptoms. If you know you are unable to attend your upcoming examination you should reach out to the VA as soon as possible to reschedule. If the VA sends you for a C&P exam, make sure you obtain a copy of the report. If it is not favorable, you will then be able to submit rebuttal evidence from your own doctor(s).
Tip #10: Do not Accept “No” For An Answer. A high percentage of all first-time applications for VA disability benefits are denied. If this happens to you, do not give up!
Tip #11: Hire an Experienced Representative. Ultimately, if you want to ensure your VA disability claim is done correctly, hire an experienced claims agent or lawyer. Some veterans fight against the VA for years alone and can keep getting denied because they do not know VA law.