Veterans of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guards who suffer injuries or acquire diseases related to active duty may receive tax-free disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. You also may be eligible for disability benefits if your military service made an existing disease or injury worse. Some veterans who fought during war times can claim benefits even if their disability isn’t service-related.
An experienced attorney can help you obtain the benefits you deserve as a result of your military service. The bureaucratic maze may involve several rounds of appeals and extensive documentation to back up your claim. Let an attorney deal with the often time-consuming and frustrating process of securing the VA disability benefits you deserve.
About South Carolina Veterans’ Disability Benefits
If you or a loved one has a service-related disability or is unable to work due to a service-related injury or disease, it’s important to understand your options and legal rights.
You may be eligible for veterans disability compensation if you have a service-related disability and you were discharged under terms other than dishonorable conditions. The amount of basic benefits depends on the extent of your disability. The VA assesses your disability on a scale of 0 to 100. A higher rating results in a larger benefits check. You could be entitled to more benefits if you have very severe disabilities or loss of a limb; if you have a spouse, child or dependent parent; or if you have a seriously disabled spouse.
There are two basic types of compensation for disabled veterans:
- Disability compensation – Veterans who have disabling injuries or physical or mental conditions that were caused by military service or were aggravated by active duty may qualify for disability compensation. Combat experience is not required to receive disability compensation. You may receive veterans disability benefits even if you are able to hold a job. In fact, many veterans on VA disability still work. There is no cap on your income to qualify for veterans’ disability compensation. Only if you have a high disability rating based in part on your unemployability would there be a problem with working.
- Non-service-connected pension — Veterans who were severely disabled after their military service and who now have low incomes may qualify for a non-service-connected pension. If you served during a period of war and meet these conditions, benefits may be available to you.
It is possible for a veteran to recover benefits under both programs if he or she meets the eligibility requirements for both.
One of the most difficult aspects of a veterans disability claim is establishing that the disability is related to an injury or illness that is connected to military service. There are some conditions that are presumed to be service-related for VA disability purposes. For example, Vietnam veterans who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange are presumed to have a service-related disability. There is also a presumption of service connection for Gulf War veterans who have an undiagnosed illness often called Gulf War syndrome.
Common Disabling Injuries for Veterans
Many injuries and illnesses that occur during military service can have a lasting impact on a veteran, often affecting the ability to work and maintain a normal life. Common disabilities for which veterans seek benefits include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder – This condition, also known as PTSD, is classified as an anxiety disorder as a result of traumatic events, such as war, assault or disaster. Many veterans, in particular for the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffer from PTSD as a result of the events they experienced or witnessed. Veterans have experienced PTSD for many years, even though it has gone by other names such as shell shock, combat fatigue and battle fatigue. Those with this serious medical condition can experience flashbacks and other debilitating symptoms. This type of claim can be difficult to prove, but a veterans disability lawyer can assist you in the process.
- Loss of limbs – Limbs lost during combat — often the result of roadside bombs and other explosives — require extensive rehabilitation and prostheses. This can result in a disability claim if the veteran can’t work because of the physical limitations.
- Traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injuries – These injuries, often found among veterans, can be devastating and have a huge impact on someone’s ability to work or even function in daily life. Protective gear is helping more soldiers survive wounds that may have killed them in the past, but many of these wounded veterans must live with the repercussions of traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries.
- Exposure to toxins and diseases – Veterans who served in the Iraq War, Persian Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan may have been exposed to diseases such as malaria, West Nile virus and tuberculosis, which might make them eligible for disability benefits. The VA allows for a presumption of service connection for certain illnesses. Gulf War veterans who suffer from a multi-symptom disorder often called Gulf War syndrome are presumed to suffer from a service-related illness. There is also a presumed service connection for Vietnam veterans who suffer the effects of Agent Orange, a 1960s method of herbicidal warfare.
- Hypertension – When a person suffers from high blood pressure, or hypertension, they are more likely to suffer a heart attack, heart failure, aneurysms and strokes. For veterans, causes of hypertension can include enduring high-stress situations such as completion of several combat tours or exposure to toxins such as Agent Orange.
- Eye injuries – Veterans frequently suffer from eye injuries during combat situations from such things as flying shrapnel. If the impaired vision affects a veteran’s ability to work, they may be eligible for disability benefits.
- Radiation – Exposure to radiation while serving in the military can result in radiation poisoning. Just one exposure can result in a disabling injury or death.
How to Apply for Veterans Disability Benefits
The application process begins with filling out a disability compensation claim. This can be done online. You can also print out and mail Form 21-256 to the VA or call the VA at 1-800-827-1000 to ask to have the form mailed to you.
Make sure to keep a copy of the completed form. If you are mailing the form, send it to the VA Regional Office (VARO) in the state where you live.
After the VA receives your claim, it will send you a letter explaining what records the VA needs to support the claim. It is important to fill out and send back any forms as soon as possible.
It is also helpful to send a copy of your medical records to the VA. It can be difficult to establish that your disability is related to military service. You can help yourself by gathering any evidence you think will help your case, in particular your Service Medical Record. The VA will be looking for documentation of the event that affected your health, the circumstances surrounding the event, treatment records of how the injury or illness was addressed at the time and any follow-up care or treatment.
The VA will also likely order a free medical examination. Once you have the exam, the completed evaluation will be documented and forwarded to the VA Regional Office.
The VA assesses disabilities on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher ratings resulting in a larger benefits check. Once the VA secures your evidence, a Rating Veterans Service Representative will review your file and make a decision, which you will receive by letter. The rating decision lists the evidence, the decision and the reasons for it. If benefits are granted, the letter provides the monthly payment amount and the effective date.
Sometimes, benefits are not granted, or you may feel the VA rated your disability unfairly. At this point, you can appeal the VA’s decision. A veterans benefits attorney can help you with the VA appeals process.
How Do I Appeal the VA’s Decision Regarding My Veterans’ Disability Benefits?
It’s important to act quickly. Generally, you have one year from the date of the VA’s decision to notify the VA that you intend to appeal.
The first step in the appeals process is to prepare a Notice of Disagreement (NOD), a written statement that will include the rating decision by date, a statement that you disagree with the VA’s decision and a statement of your desire to appeal the decision.
After receiving the NOD, the VA will create a Statement of the Case (SOC), a written document stating their position on your claim. This mailing, which may take a long time to arrive, will also include a VA Form 9 (Substantive Appeal form), the form used to request a review by the VA’s Board of Veteran Appeals.
It is vital that you fill out Form 9 completely and correctly. An attorney can help make sure that the Form 9 is filled out correctly and includes the best points of your case. A lawyer can also make sure you send the Form 9 in by the deadline, which is either 60 days from the time the VA sent you the SOC or one year after the VA sent the original decision, whichever is later.
At this time, you can also decide if you want to gather and present additional evidence, such as additional medical records or exams, with your appeal. You may want to see a doctor for a medical nexus exam, where the doctor will write an opinion on whether your disability is related to your military service. A veterans benefits attorney can help you navigate the process, decide what to present to the VA and help everything go more quickly and smoothly.
You will need to decide whether to seek an in-person hearing at this stage and whether this should be at your local VA office or at the Bureau of Veteran Appeals. This hearing can be either in person or by video conference.
If the Board of Veterans’ Appeals still denies your claim, you have a few choices. You and your attorney can decide whether to:
- Go back to your local VA and try to reopen the claim.
- File a motion asking the Board to reconsider the claim because of an error in the Board’s decision.
- Appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and later to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court.
Get Help from a South Carolina Veterans’ Disability Lawyer
If you’re disabled and have been denied appropriate benefits from the VA, call Joye Law Firm or fill out our online case evaluation form.