A service connection is a link between a veteran’s current illness or injury and their time in military service. This service connection is what makes former service members eligible for VA disability benefits.
- Direct Service Connection
- Presumptive Service Connection
- Secondary Service Connection
- Aggravated Service Connection
- Disabled or Injured by VA Health Care Treatment
The most common injuries and illnesses experienced by veterans are tinnitus, hearing loss, PTSD, scarring, and limited range of motion for the knee. But no matter the illness or injury, in order for a veteran to collect a monthly benefit payment, they need to prove that this chronic condition or injury was sustained during their service or somehow related to it. This is done during the benefits application process, when a veteran hoping for VA benefits will submit their claim and all its attendant relevant medical evidence. The VA will then give them a disability rating to determine the exact amount of benefits they can collect. But to do that, a service connection must be established.
Establishing a service connection is not just important for receiving benefits. It also allows the benefit recipient to receive medical treatment for said illness, injury, or chronic condition at no extra cost, at any VA hospital. This alone is a huge benefit because many of these conditions – whether they are physical or psychological – will require ongoing treatment. A veteran who is applying for VA benefits may be unable to retain gainful employment due to their injury or illness as it is. Saving thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on necessary medical treatment is an added bonus they will be able to leverage once a service connection is established by the VA. Veterans can also apply for life insurance through the Service-Disabled Veterans’ Insurance Program.
These are two examples – free treatment and life insurance – showing why a veteran should seek to establish a service connection, even if they do not get a disability rating and cannot collect any benefits. Moreover, if a veteran has two conditions that are non-compensable per their disability rating, and these conditions prevent normal, gainful employability, this veteran can collect benefits according to a 10% disability rating.
Keep in mind that conditions that develop later in life may be tied to a service connected condition. Veterans should always discuss with their primary care physician if any injury or illness can be possibly linked to a previous injury, illness, or exposure to hazards; this condition can become a VA claim that accrues a monthly benefit. Lastly, special monthly compensation may be paid to a veteran whose disability necessitates aid or attendance, such as if the disabled veteran is missing a limb.
The direct service connection shows that an injury, disability, or chronic condition began during service. This can usually be shown with service medical records. Alternatively, a direct service connection can show that a current illness or injury evolved out of something they were diagnosed with while serving. If there is doubt about the direct service condition, a letter from a doctor stating it is likely as not that said condition began during service (supported by reason and service medical records) must, by law, be taken by the VA into account for benefits.
The court case Saunders v. Wilkie established that veterans may also collect compensation for pain that is directly related to their military service, even if that pain does not specifically accompany an underlying medical condition. Finally, it’s important to note that even if it is quite evident that the current illness or injury occurred during service, a medical nexus must be established linking a disabled veteran’s current disability or illness to an event, injury, or illness that occurred while serving during active duty.
Sometimes a veteran will begin to experience an illness or develop an injury after their service, but there was no acute event to easily make a direct service connection. However, medical professionals presume that said condition was clearly service-connected. This type of service connection may have additional rules relating to where, when, and how long a veteran was serving.
There are additional rules for establishing a presumptive service connection due to the use of Agent Orange or participation in the Gulf War. Veterans in these cases may have been exposed to significant amounts of biological and chemical weapons, pesticides, air pollutants, and contaminated food and water (to name a few).
In some cases, a disabled veteran seeking service connected disability compensation may not even need to provide evidence that they were directly exposed to the underlying danger – such as the case of Veterans who served in Vietnam where Agent Orange was used. The PACT Act has noticeably added 20 presumptive conditions to the VA list of presumptive conditions, along with providing expanded toxic exposure screening for every veteran enrolled in the VA healthcare system.
If a service-connected disability causes an additional disability, or even if it aggravates a non-service-connected disability, a secondary service connection can be established. A medical opinion from a doctor clearly and convincingly linking the two conditions will be the best piece of evidence for establishing this type of service connection.
Many veterans are not aware of the possibility to collect benefits or at least establish a service connection because of a secondary injury, especially if the service-related aggravating condition worsens a condition that had or has nothing to do with service. Moreover, sometimes the second condition can actually carry a higher disability rating, which means more benefits.
A few common examples of this type of service connection for a disability claim are as follows: if a Veteran leaves active military service with a mental health condition or physical impairment that prevents gainful employment, depression can follow as a result. This depression would be a secondary service connection. Alternatively, a veteran may have come out of the service with back problems, which can in turn impact the mobility of their lower extremities (that is, issues with their knee having a full range of motion, etc.). In cases like these, compensation can be provided for the secondary illness or disability.
If a veteran had a certain injury or chronic condition prior to entering the service, and this was noted in their military entrance examination, veterans can establish a service connection through aggravation if their service exacerbated the disability. However, if the VA can prove that the condition is merely worsening because of its natural course, benefits will be denied – providing a great example of where it might be good to get a veterans disability attorney. By contrast, the veteran must prove that the aggravation of this disability is not temporary. A medical opinion from a doctor will be the best way to establish this type of service connection.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has outlined some additional points for those who are seeking disability compensation or at least a service connection. The Presumption of Soundness is a doctrine that essentially says service members enter active duty without any defect unless something is specifically noted in their entrance examination.
In terms of seeking disability compensation benefits, this doctrine does not come in so handy. But in terms of establishing some of the other types of service connections, it can be useful. In order to avoid issuing benefits for something like a direct service connection, the VA will have to show that the condition did indeed predate service and that it is evidently clear that service did not aggravate the condition. In any case, the Presumption of Soundness doctrine will also apply to applications seeking to establish an aggravated service connection.
The fifth and final way to establish a service connection is to show that it was caused or aggravated by VA healthcare. Whether it was a hospitalization, medical exam, or scheduled surgery, if the VA healthcare system caused an injury or aggravated an existing one, the veteran can collect benefits through a Section 1151 Claim.
Alternatively, they might recoup damages via the Federal Tort Claims Act. While this sounds like somewhat of a healthcare horror story, medical malpractice such as negligence and misdiagnosis is fairly common, and can sometimes have disastrous results – which make it only fair for the veteran impacted to collect benefits.
Another important point to note is that a veteran who was injured in a vocational rehabilitation program or work therapy program can also file a 1151 claim, even if it was not specifically the fault of the Veterans Administration. In other words, the veteran can file a claim if they were injured while just participating in rehab or therapy. Since claims of this nature can be hard to prove, it’s important to capture medical evidence right away. Finally, surviving spouses or dependents can also file a 1151 claim, provided they have the requisite evidence.
Establishing a service connection is the key that opens the door to many VA disability benefits. And not just disability compensation – veterans benefits include benefits like free healthcare and life insurance. As you have seen, a disabled veteran who was injured while on active duty is not the only type of veteran who can collect VA disability compensation. A medical condition that developed after service, a medical condition that existed before service but was aggravated by service, and a medical condition that is aggravated by another service related condition, are just a few of the cases where one can collect VA disability compensation benefits. There is also a VA benefit for those former service members who were injured at the hands of VA healthcare.
No matter what your service connected condition is, you will only be successful with your VA claim if you assemble the right paperwork, get doctors to use the right VA form, and present a convincing case to the Veterans Benefits Administration.
The process of obtaining disability compensation benefits can often seem like a maze. That’s why it’s best to consult with a veterans disability attorney because they will be able to discuss your condition and lay out which path is the best one forward for establishing a service condition. Whether you were stationed at Camp Lejeune and should pursue a presumptive service connection, or were injured in combat but then injured in a VA hospital and should seek damages in federal court. Most lawyers do not charge for consultations, so there is no harm in meeting to discuss your condition and get some free advice on how to move forward applying for VA benefits.