Service-connected disability compensation is available for most injuries you incur while you are on active duty for the military, assuming they result in disabilities.
Type of Accidents Covered by Service-Connected Disability
When you are active duty, you are considered to be on active duty for 24 hours a day, whether you are technically on duty or off duty at the time, so you can be service-connected for disabilities resulting from almost any type of accident that occurs while you are on active duty. This includes accidents that occur:
- while travelling to or from leave
- while on leave, and
- while on base during off hours.
Accidents Occurring on Leave
If you are at home on leave and hurt yourself while lifting weights, have a car accident, or slip and fall on the ice, you are eligible for disability compensation if your injuries cause a disability. In short, you are on active duty between the time you enlist and the time you are discharged or separated, regardless of whether you are on leave, on base, in combat, or in a bar.
That said, if you are absent without leave (AWOL), you are not considered to be on active duty and will not be compensated for any injuries or illness you incur.
If You Were At Fault in the Accident
If your accident or injury was caused by your own willful misconduct, you will not be able to collect any benefits for the disability. Generally, alcohol and drug abuse is considered willful misconduct barring benefits for any resulting injuries, but in some cases, benefits will still be permitted if it is extremely clear that your use of substances did not cause the accident or injury. Read more about when alcohol and drug abuse keep you from getting veterans benefits.
How to Prove Service Connection for an Accident
To receive compensation, you will have to prove to the VA that the accident resulted in a disability. This will require:
proof that the accident occurred, such as:
- a police report about a car accident
- doctor or hospital records, or
- lay statements from witnesses (buddies, family members).
- a diagnosis or symptoms of a current disability, and
- evidence that your current disability stems from the accident. This will require medical evidence, preferably a medical opinion from a doctor accompanied by medical records.
You cannot receive any compensation for short-term injuries that heal and have no long lasting residual effects, only for long-term injuries.
Secondary Service Connection for Additional Disabilities
In addition to seeking disability compensation for your primary injury, you can also seek compensation for any additional disabilities that stem from it. For example, if your shoulder is injured when you are lifting weights and this later leads to problems with your neck, you can seek additional compensation for the neck injury. This will require medical evidence that the neck injury was caused by the service-connected shoulder injury.
Aggravated Service Connection for a Pre-existing Injury
If you had a pre-existing injury, and an accident while you were on leave or away from the base made it worse, you can seek compensation for the worsening of your condition. But you will not be compensated if the pre-existing injury got worse of its own accord and not due to your accident. A medical opinion from a doctor will often be needed to prove that the accident made your condition worse than it would have been had it had just continued progressing naturally.
Time Between Injury and Disability
You are eligible for disability compensation even if it took years for an injury to manifest more severely, as long as you can prove the injury resulted from the original accident. Perhaps you were young when the accident occurred, and the symptoms didn't begin bothering you until quite some time after your discharge from service. You are still eligible for veterans disability benefits.
Protect Your Rights to Benefits While Still on Active Duty
If you have an accident while on leave or at any time during your military service, seek medical attention. Do this even if your injuries seem minor. This will create a paper trail that will make it easier later on to show a future disability stemmed from your accident.
Even if you don't think you have been badly hurt in your accident, obtain all the records you can while you are still in service. This will help you later on if your injuries worsen and you, or your family, want to seek compensation from the VA. Read more about obtaining helpful records while still in the military.
How to Apply for Disability Benefits for Your Accident
You can apply for disability online, by filling out the Application for Veterans Compensation and/or Pension, or by contacting your local VA office. For more information, see our article on applying for VA disability benefits.