VA denials or delays of disability compensation claims are hardly news, but we decided to review recent appeals cases for lessons learned and any possible action steps veterans can proactively take. Read on.
One case involving open burn pits highlights the importance of documentation and consistency of facts as critical to a successful claim for disability compensation. This particular case went through multiple appeals over approximately six years.
According to medical records, while still in-service, the veteran reported experiencing symptoms after participation in physical training. However, the veteran’s pre-discharge assessment did not reflect these symptoms or a related diagnosis. Exam and test results were recorded as “normal.” No treatment was recorded. In follow-up visit about two years post-discharge, the veteran reported he had inhaled smoke from burn pits, and that his symptoms had been present since his deployment.
Forward to a VA Board of Veterans’ Appeals hearing where the veteran was appealing a VA denial of his disability compensation claim. The veteran testified that he had an undocumented injury while in-service that was causing his current symptoms. The Board accepted the veteran’s testimony as credible, and a VA examination was ordered to assess his current medical condition. During the examination, the veteran specifically denied multiple times as having sustained an injury during service. In addition, the VA examiner noted that the medical records did not reflect the same duration and symptoms that the veteran described. The combination of discrepancies caught the attention of both the examiner and the Board.
Why is this important?
In this case, the Board found that regardless of why there were contradictions in the veteran’s testimony (undocumented injury in-service, smoke inhalation during deployment, no injury sustained in service), those contradictions “lowered the probative value” of the veteran’s report of injury and statement of continuing symptoms. The lack of corroborating medical evidence and discrepancies in the veteran’s statements was sufficient for the Board to continue to deny a service connection, thus denying the claim for disability compensation.
Possible lesson to be learned from this case
The statement of facts needs to be consistent throughout the case, and those facts need to be documented, whether in medical records, personal statements, or supportive statements from others.
Proactive Action Steps
- Participate fully in pre-deployment health screenings. Get a copy of the medical documentation for all examinations, test results, immunizations, etc. for your personal record.
- If you experience symptoms, illness or sustain an injury during deployment(s) – go to sick call; get medical attention and get the situation documented. Get a copy of the medical documentation for all exams, test results; any documentation that shows you went to sick call or received treatment. If no official documentation is available, get a buddy statement or a statement from someone in your chain of command. A daily log may be available to show your medical status. Did you write home about symptoms, illness or injuries? Letters, cards, emails, and videos can also be used as evidence.
- Participate fully in post-deployment health screenings. Get a copy of the medical documentation for the examinations, test results, etc. for your personal records.
- Post-deployment, enroll in the VA health care available for five years. Seek medical treatment for continuing or new symptoms. If you received a diagnosis and/or treatment while in-service, make sure your current medical provider has full access to that information.
- Consider keeping your own journal for future reference. Time, events or health conditions can alter memories — written notes can jog your memory or serve as documentation if needed.
- Consider asking friends, family or a battle buddy to help you construct a journal of events if needed.
VetsHQ has created a list of recommended documents you should get before discharge or separation in preparation for submitting a claim for benefits to the VA. You can view that list here.