VA Disability Compensation benefits are payable only to those veterans who have a “service-connected disability.” But what does that mean, and how do you establish service-connection?
What qualifies as a service-connected disability?
A service-connected disability is defined by the VA as a disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service.
Let’s break that down a bit.
A disease or injury
This could be almost anything from diabetes and asthma, to more traumatic injuries like amputation.
Active military service
Active military service encompasses active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training. However, if your injury occurred during inactive duty training, the disability must have resulted from injury, heart attack, or stroke.
Incurred during active military service
This is the most straight forward way to establish service connection. A basic example is when someone is shot during combat, or breaks an arm during active duty training.
Aggravated during military service
One common misconception is that veterans are ineligible for VA Disability Compensation benefits if they had a pre-existing condition when they entered the military. So long as the pre-existing condition was aggravated – made worse – by your active military service, it is service-connected.
For example, a veteran had asthma almost his entire childhood. However, due to exposure to certain chemicals during his military service, his asthma became worse. Because the military service aggravated his pre-existing condition, it will be considered service-connected.
There is one caveat to this, however. If the aggravation or injury was a result of something you did on purpose to injure yourself, your injury will not be considered to be serviced connected.
Veterans may also be eligible for VA Disability Compensation benefits for disabilities that arise after they leave the military if those disabilities are related or secondary to disabilities that occurred while they were in service.
For example, a veteran injures his right knee during active service. This is a service-connected disability. His left knee was uninjured. However, because his right knee caused him to put more pressure on his left knee when he walked, his left knee eventually needed surgery. Even though his left knee was not injured while he was on duty, it was a result of a service-connected disability. It will be considered a post-service disability, and he will be eligible to receive benefits for the left knee as well as the right knee.
Additionally, certain disabilities are presumed to be related to circumstances of military service, even though they may arise after service. The list of such disabilities is long, but one example is veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and later diagnosed with diabetes. In these instances, the VA typically requires the veteran to show that she was on active duty during a specific time period and/or in a specific location. Once that is established, however, no further evidence is needed to show that the disease or injury is service-connected.
Service Connection due to injury caused by treatment in the VA Health Care System
If a veteran is injured because of VA hospitalization, treatment, rehab or therapy, the injury is automatically treated as service-connected (38 U.S.C. 1151).
If you are wondering whether your health condition could qualify you for VA Disability Compensation, I urge you to contact a veterans’ attorney. You may be surprised what you hear.