With a whole world of opportunity on the horizon, transitioning out of the service can be an exciting time. If you’re anything like me, you were so hypnotized by the idea of trading in your uniform for some blue jeans that you probably threw together a loose transition plan at best. Maybe your plan was something like “go to school, get a job.” Enrolling in college and/or finding a job are universal steps for all transitioning service members, but for several reasons, applying for VA disability often falls to the bottom of the list, or off it entirely. That’s OK! It’s never too late to file a disability claim. Below you will find some critical information to help you get started with your claim.
“But wait! I’m not disabled”
Many transitioning service members are hesitant to file their claim because they don’t believe themselves to be “disabled.” That shouldn’t prevent you from filing. Sometimes the appointments associated with your claim can identify issues you didn’t even know you had (hip arthritis in my case). Furthermore, some states like California offer benefits to service members and their dependents even if they’re rated as 0 percent disabled.
How to Get Started
Filing your claim prior to discharge can dramatically speed up the timeline for you to begin receiving compensation. Service members still on active duty can begin filing their claim directly through the VA as early as 180 days before separation.
The VA offers three methods for service members aiming to get started early. Follow the links to find out more:
What You’ll Need
Before you begin the process of applying for VA disability, you’ll need to make sure you have all the appropriate documentation. Here is a list of what you’ll likely need.
- Service Medical Records – Find out how to request a copy here
- Private Physician Records – Good to have but not always needed
- A copy of your DD214
- Marriage Certificate
- Birth Certificates of Children
- Dependents’ Social Security Card/Numbers
- Bank Account Information
Who to Contact
Claims can be initiated and filed directly with the VA either online or in person. The VA’s website states that its online filing system is the “best way to file for disability compensation.” If you want to take advantage of this system, you’ll need to register for an eBenefits account here.
Conventional logic might suggest that the VA is the only place to help you initiate your claim. Fortunately, that’s not the case. If the closest VA office is too far away or you’d like to sit down with someone and discuss the process, there are several other organizations that will guide you through the claims process and serve as your liaison the whole way through.
Each of the organizations listed below is uniquely qualified to assist with your claim free of charge. *
- Disabled American Vets (DAV)
- Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
- American Legion
- Wounded Warriors Project
*This is not an exhaustive list. Search for Veteran Service Organizations near you and ask how they can assist you with your claim.
What to Expect
Once you have collected all your documentation and scheduled an appointment with either the VA or one of the above Veterans Service Organizations, you are all set to initiate your claim. On the scheduled date, you will meet with a representative and both of you will comb through your medical records. The representative will make a note of any medical procedures or incidents listed in your records, and ask if there is anything that is not explicitly stated in your records that you would like to claim. There are certain qualifiers that warrant a claim even if you have no medical history indicating a potential disability.
The VA or veterans service organization will take all your documentation and send off your claim. Over the next couple months, the VA will inform you of your upcoming appointments as they relate to your claim. You may also receive requests for supporting information to help expedite your claim. After you have completed your appointments, you’ll move to the decision/wait phase. The decision process occurs at the regional VA level, and wait times are dependent on whether your claim has been expedited and how backlogged that VA office is with claims. Once the VA has decided on your claim, you will receive a notification in the mail explaining what percentage of disability you have been awarded and when you can expect compensation.
Why It’s Important
Finding a job and going to school can be more challenging than you anticipate when you begin your transition. You might find yourself avoiding job opportunities that your disability prevents you from doing. Disability compensation grants you the financial freedom to focus your job search on the career that works best for you. It may seem like a headache and a lot of steps, but once the ball is rolling, you’ll be glad you took advantage of this great program.