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VA Disability Benefits – A Primer

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Everyone in the military, or in a military family, knows someone who got a disability rating when they got out of the service.  I know several – and not all of them are guys who have even deployed, much less seen combat.

Working as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is plain dangerous – in training or in theater.  We court danger; we too often operate on too little sleep, with too little experience, with too little equipment or food.  Half of our plans are made up as we go along, because nothing ever goes according to plan.  We train hard, we work hard and we play hard.  It’s the life; you love it, or you leave it.  But for many of us, the love of this life has taken a toll on our bodies that’s too great.  In these cases, the Veterans’ Administration awards a disability rating.

Truth be told, your faithful author is one of those who is permanently injured: I fell off a mountainside while humping the Anklebreaker at Camp Pendleton and slid for a hundred feet, tumbling head over pack over heels.  My back has never been the same.  Four years later, a friendly company PT session of ultimate Frisbee resulted in a broken ankle that didn’t have time to heal because I took a platoon sergeant billet and had to lead the morning runs just a month and a half after the fact.

And I’ve never even deployed anywhere!

Any injury that resulted from service, and which leaves a veteran in chronic pain, or without the full use of a part of his or her body, can be rated by the VA for disability – so long as the veteran has an honorable discharge or a general under other than honorable circumstances.

The thinking behind this, to use an example, is that you may have made a great carpenter if Seaman Schmuckatelli hadn’t backed up over your wrists with that 7-ton truck; since your hands just don’t work like they used to, the government will pay you a stipend each month for the money you could have made as a carpenter. Now, I joke about this, but disability payments are a very serious business, especially for those who were wounded in combat, and those who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Many men and women come back from the theater in a condition that will prevent them from having a lucrative career, and the VA ensures that they receive a stipend that they can live on, on their own if possible, for the rest of their lives.

There are a lot of myths and rumors swirling around in the active ranks about VA disability and how it works; some say it’s rated by body part – 20% per limb, for instance, or a maximum of %30 for PTSD, or any of another number of arbitrary figures.  I’ve heard a thousand different metrics.  But the truth is, there is no hard and fast set of rules that says how much a veteran gets for his or her disability.  Here’s how it works:

If your injury prevents you from working, you will get 100%.  It doesn’t matter if that’s your back, your legs or your head.  But if you have an injury, or a few injuries that will make it difficult but not impossible for you to work, you’ll get a combined rating.  The doctor will evaluate your injuries, and check it up against a manual written for this purpose.  (Click the link at your own peril; for those of you who are not accustomed to the government’s numerous technical publications and their endless walls of textual gobbledygook, it’s nigh unreadable.)

After the doctor checks how the injury affects you physically – the range of motion in your joints, the amount of pain caused by movement in one direction or another, chronic pain, or how often you’re debilitated per year – they’ll ask you about your experiences with the injury. How does it affect your quality of life?  Are you comfortable moving around the house, or with limited movement?  That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily able to work.  They dig deep, because they want to find the best way to help each individual rating.  Despite what you may have heard, the doctors always err on the side of the veterans’ story.  They’re not there to “save the government’s money.”

After they’ve completed the evaluation, they’ll determine a rating for you.  If you have more than one injury, you’ll get a combined rating – which is a highly misunderstood process that I’ll explain here:  Let’s say that you, like me, injured your back and your ankle, and have constant problems from both injuries.  They see that your back keeps you in bed about two weeks a year, and your ankle only has about 50% range of motion, and hurts when you walk and run.  First they determine that you should receive 30% for your back.  Then, they determine that you should receive 20% for your ankle.  That should equal 50%, right?

Wrong.  First, you get 30%.  Which means you’re 70% able to work if they’re only counting your back.  Then, out of the remaining 70%, they award 20% for your ankle.  20% of 70 is 14.  So your ankle plus your back makes you 44% disabled, which they round down to 40% (if you’d gotten to 45%, they’d have rounded up to 50%.)  If that didn’t sound quite right to you, there’s a great explanation here that goes into much more detail, and also has the table of combined rates for you to look up.

When you have your final rating, they’ll take into account your dependents.  If you’re supporting children, a spouse or a parent, it’ll change your disability rating, and how much your paid per month.  For instance, if you’re single and 30% disabled, you’ll receive a stipend of $389 per month.  But if you’re married with a baby, your payment shoots up to $469 per month.  Hey, kids are expensive.  The rates for 2012 can be found here.

Despite the fact that disability benefits are available for all veterans with service-connected injuries, many vets don’t end up getting their payments.  The reasons are many:  The application process is quite complicated and tedious, the process of being evaluated takes months, a lot of waiting, and a lot of frustration, and most crucially, too many military members want to “be tough” and not admit that they have problems.  PTSD is a major problem that fighting men and women all too often don’t deal with; other chronic pains are too often chalked up to “old age” (as though anyone should be walking crooked at 35!)  But it’s a right that all veterans have.

If you have an injury that’s still bothering you, which you received as a result of service to the military, and you’re not receiving disability benefits, it’s time to look into it.  If one of your loved ones struggles with an injury, or more crucially, with PTSD, the VA offers not only payments, but ongoing treatment and help.  To get started on an application for disability benefits, visit this web site.  To really get in depth on disability benefits, you can also visit the VA here.  And for one of the best sites (in my opinion) that’s out there that deals with disability benefits, I can’t recommend the Veterans’ Benefits Group any more highly.  They have a great blog with easy, accessible explanations, and an active forum with receptive and helpful members.

What are your experiences with VA disability ratings?  Have you had difficulty in getting them?  Was it easier than you expected?  I’d like to hear your stories in the comments.