It is vital that the proper forms and documentation must be filed to begin the claims process since you cannot be granted a disability, even if compensation is deserved without filing a claim. Make sure to fill out VA Form 21-526 to begin the process. If you need help, a number of national and local service organizations, such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and others can assist you.
For a military-related disability condition, like PTSD to be recognized, the VA must be able to verify that you were exposed to a severe or life-threatening stressor. This can be documented using a variety of forms, including VA Form 21-4138, Statement in Support of Claim, as well as DD 214 and DD 215, if you have them. Form DD 214, officially known as Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, as well as Form DD 215, which corrects any errors on a DD214, will document your service and verify any wounds or exposure to life-threatening stressors.
Other acceptable forms of proof include original award documents, newspaper articles about a traumatic event, letters to/from loved ones regarding traumatic events, statements from those who served alongside you and photographs that document a traumatic experience.
Military stressors should be documented in a letter detailing any helpful information you can recall, including the unit in which you served, approximate dates and locations, anyone who served along with you, the names and ranks of individuals killed or wounded and other relevant details. Family and friends can also help by writing letters detailing any changes they may have observed in your behavior or health. Letters from friends who served alongside you, and whose participation has been verified by the VA can also assist the VA in documenting exposure to stressful events.
Part of the claims process involves meeting with a disability evaluator, whose job involves documenting the details involved in your claim. Generally they are Doctors and it’s important to speak with as much detail and candor to an evaluator as possible since that’s the best way they can get insight into any disabilities with which you suffer.
It’s also important to acknowledge to the evaluator if you had a security clearance that prohibits you from discussing classified matters. This way, when missions are declassified, it can be established that you indicated in a disability evaluation that classified events had an emotional impact on you. Also remember that deaths of individuals in your unit, as well as the dates of death, are public information, even if certain details are changed for national security reasons. Inevitably, some will have concerns about the examination process, so it’s best to share those with your evaluator. While you want to speak in a straightforward manner, it’s best to remain calm and avoid any behavior that might be counterproductive to your claim.
If a disability is denied or a rating issued that is lower than you think is appropriate, contact your nearest VA regional office and ask for a copy of the evaluation on which the decision was based. Check to see if there’s any missing or inaccurate information. Also, review information describing your impairment for accuracy and a realistic characterization. Finally, closely read the ratings decision to see if the reasoning behind any conclusions is based on fact, or if there are any flaws made, such as truthful information being denied or discounted.
If you still believe you were unfairly denied after reviewing your VA evaluation, you have the right to appeal, provided your appeal is filed within a year of the initial decision. If you fail to initiate an appeal within a year, you have to start the claims process anew, providing “new and material evidence” that shows a link between a service-related incident, illness or condition and a current or chronic condition. You have the right to be represented by a lawyer. Do not go it alone!