Help for Veterans With Medical Issues Who Are Trying to Return to Civilian Work and Life

There are many legal protections for veterans who are struggling to return to civilian life and work.

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Service members coming home from military duty can often face challenges adjusting to civilian life, including work. Some veterans may return to jobs that were held for them while they were overseas, while others may face the task of seeking a civilian job for the first time. It can be difficult to adjust to civilian life after becoming used to military discipline and camaraderie and experiencing war. Many veterans return home and feel much different than when they enlisted, in particular those diagnosed with (or who remain undiagnosed for) depression, anxiety, PTSD, or brain injury.

How Post-War Medical Problems Cause Problems Returning to Work

In recent years, an increasing number of veterans are returning from overseas suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can significantly impact the ability to function and perform in a job. For example, veterans with PTSD may become alarmed and have flashbacks when they hear a car backfire, as the sound reminds them of gunshot.

An appalling number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer the lasting effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from roadside bombs, which can cause seizures, headache, fatigue, and the inability to concentrate.

Other veterans may have severe physical disabilities such as amputations, spinal cord injuries, and loss of vision, as well as other less visible injuries, that make them unable to perform prior work and/or that cause depression.

Still other veterans may feel that a life outside of the military seems less meaningful, or may suffer guilt over buddies who aren’t home yet and remain at risk. This can cause depression and difficulty focusing at work.

Veterans who are experiencing mental and physical difficulties that interfere with their ability to work should be aware of their rights related to employment, disability benefits, and health care.

Right to Return to Your Job After Service

If you left a job in order to serve in the military, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects your right to return to that job.

To be returned to your prior job, you must:

  • have notified your employer that you were going into the service
  • not have been in service for more than five continuous years while with the same employer
  • return to work promptly after your discharge, and
  • have been discharged under honorable conditions.

If you meet the above requirements, you have the right to be returned to the job you had when you left, or an equivalent job. You are also entitled to have your employment benefits, including health insurance, reinstated.

USERRA also prohibits employers from discriminating against former service members when making hiring or promotion decisions or allotting benefits. (Read Nolo's article on USERRA for more information.)

Right to Accommodations at Work

Many veterans prefer to continue working despite the obstacles posed by their disabilities. Whether you are returning to a prior job or seeking a new job, you have the right to receive certain accommodations due to your disabilities to help you perform your job. If you are having trouble working, you can ask your employer for help, and as long as your request is considered reasonable and it will allow you to do your job, you are legally entitled to receive the help as long as it doesn't create an "undue hardship" for your employer.

Undue hardship means that an accommodation that is too expensive and interferes with or disrupts the workforce. This is not an easy standard for an employer to prove, as cost alone will generally not be considered an undue hardship.

Your request for special accommodations can include extra rest breaks, a quieter area to work in with less distractions or triggers, modified work hours, or special training. Work with your employer to arrange your job so you can better perform it and continue to work. Be creative; for example, even taking leave to recover can be considered a reasonable accommodation. You can suggest any reasonable change that will help you do your job.

Right to Take a Leave of Absence

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides you with the right to take a leave of absence from your job under certain circumstances. This can give you the opportunity to get needed medical attention for serious mental or physical problems you may be having.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law, requires employers with 50 or more employers to provide up to 12 months of leave a year, with benefits. You are not entitled to receive pay during this leave, but it does protect your right to return to your job. Generally, you must have worked for your employer for at least a year preceding any leave. However, time you spent serving in the military counts as time "working for your employer," and the number of hours you would have worked will be calculated based on the schedule you had before going into service. Read Nolo's article about Family and Medical Leave for more information on FMLA leave.

Members of your family are also entitled to take FMLA family leave to help care for you. Family members are entitled to up to 26 weeks of leave to take care of you if you are seriously injured, mentally or physically, due to military duty. Read about how the new FMLA regulations expand your family's right to take leave.

Finding a New Job or Starting a Business

There is help available for veterans who can't return to their old job because of a medical condition or because they were in the service too long.

While USERRA is most well known for protecting a veteran's right to return to a job after service, USERRA also provides resources to help returning veterans with training and job placement. These services are coordinated by the U.S. Department of Labor through career centers throughout the country. Use the Job Center Locator to find a OneStop Career Center near you, or call 877-US-2JOBS or 877-872-5627.

The Career OneStop Veterans Reemployment website provides information about training, unemployment benefits for returning service members, and other resources. Your military training and work experience can qualify you for a civilian job. Use the Military to Civilian Occupation Translator to find out which civilian jobs your military experience qualifies you for. (The Army and Navy also have credentialing websites to help you see how your military experience can qualify you for a civilian job. Check out the Army website or the Navy website. On these sites you can compare your occupational specialty in the military with related civilian jobs, and find out what you need to do to satisfy the civilian credentials that are required.)

Some employers give preference to veterans when hiring for new jobs. Use the Veterans Job Bank database to locate available jobs with these employers in your location. In addition, most veterans are given preference for federal jobs, which can really help you get a job in a tough job market. You can also receive educational benefits to go back to school and get help starting a business.

Entitlement to VA Benefits

Even if you are able to work, you should be aware of, and take advantage of, your rights to VA benefits. You may not need these benefits now because you have an income and get health insurance through your job, but it is often in your best interest to go ahead and apply for benefits as soon as possible.

Service-Connected Disability Compensation

If you have a current disability that was caused or worsened by your military service and you were released under conditions other than dishonorable, you may be eligible to receive service-connected disability compensation. This is true even if you are able to work. Read Nolo's article about different ways to qualify for service-connected disability compensation. Also, learn about how to get compensation for these specific illnesses:

VA Health Care

If you are unable to work, it can be important to have access to VA health care. And even if you now have private health insurance, it is a good idea to apply for VA health care so you will have it in place in case you need it later on.

Read Nolo's article to learn more about VA Health Care, including whether you are eligible, how to apply, and how the VA prioritizes which veterans to provide care to.

VA Pension

If you are not entitled to disability compensation, you may be eligible for a VA pension if:

  • you served at least 90 continuous days on active duty
  • at least one of those days was during wartime
  • you have a very low income, and
  • you are totally and permanently disabled.

Learn more, including how to apply for a VA pension.

Social Security Disability Benefits

If you find you are unable to work due to your disability, you may be entitled to Social Security Disability Insurance if:

  • you have paid enough into the system through payroll taxes, and
  • your disability makes you unable to work for a year or more.

You can receive VA disability compensation and Social Security disability benefits at the same time, so it is a good idea to apply for both as soon as possible after you return from service unable to work or after you've made an unsuccessful work attempt. Learn more about your right to Social Security disability benefits.

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