If you are a veteran and you are suffering from a disability that was caused or worsened while you were on active duty for the military, you may be eligible for VA's service-connected disability compensation (often abbreviated as SC). This article will discuss the four different ways veterans can qualify for disability compensation. For a series of additional articles on this subject, see Nolo's comprehensive section on Service-Connected Disability Compensation, which includes information on disability ratings and getting disability comp for many different types of illnesses and injuries.
You have a direct service connection if an incident that occurred in service directly caused a disability that you now suffer from. A direct service connection requires proof that the occurred, medical evidence of your disability, and medical evidence that the current disability was caused by the incident in service.
It’s easiest to prove this if the veteran was diagnosed with the condition during service or there is medical evidence in the service medical records of related symptoms. Without such evidence, a medical opinion from a doctor will often be critical to establishing direct service connection.
It is important to be able to show that the incident in service actually occurred. If the event was not recorded in the veteran’s records, statements from buddies the veteran served with will likely be needed to confirm the occurrence.
Examples of direct service connection include a veteran who served in combat who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, shrapnel wounds that led to physical problems, or heavy lifting that caused back pain.
Aggravated service connection can be established when a veteran suffered from a medical condition before entering service, the entrance medical exam records the existence of this condition, and there is evidence that an event during service worsened the condition.
If your pre-existing condition isn’t mentioned in the entrance medical exam, you will need to submit medical evidence of a pre-service diagnosis and treatment. Also, there must be proof of an incident or event in service that made the disability worse. The fact that the symptoms worsened will be assumed to be a natural progression of an illness or injury unless a veteran can link an in-service event to this progression. This may require a medical opinion from your doctor.
Certain medical conditions are established by law as being presumptively service-connected for veterans who have served at least 90 days. You will need to submit medical evidence that the medical condition has been diagnosed and that it appeared to a certain degree of severity within what is called the “presumptive time period.” The law establishes a time period after your service ends during which the disability must arise in order to qualify for presumptive service connection. This time period varies based on medical condition.
Presumptive service connection is available for certain illnesses to POWs confined more than 30 days, certain cancers caused by chemical and hazardous exposure (such as Agent Orange), and some chronic health issues, brain injuries and infectious diseases arising from service in the Gulf War.
If you are eligible for service-connected disability compensation for an illness or injury, and that illness or injury has caused another medical condition, you may be eligible for additional compensation based on the theory of "secondary service connection." Or, if you had a pre-existing condition and the service-connected disability made it worse, you can receive additional compensation for the aggravation of that condition.
You will need to have medical evidence of the existence of the secondary condition, as well as a medical opinion supporting your claim that the secondary condition was caused or worsened by the service-connected disability.
Examples of secondary service connection include depression caused by chronic pain, a leg injury that leads to problems with your knees, or diabetes leading to a heart condition.
To establish service connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), veterans will need to:
This rule is not just for combat veterans but for all veterans who were in fear of hostile or terrorist activity during service. As long as the stressor was consistent with the overall circumstances of the veteran’s service, and there is not any “clear and convincing” (meaning very strong) evidence to show the stressor didn’t occur, a veteran will be able to establish a service connection.
To learn how to apply for disability benefits, see our article on applying for veterans disability compensation.
To find out more about getting veterans' disability compensation, see Nolo's series of articles on Service-Connected Disability Compensation.