Some individuals that experience a traumatic event develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This traumatic event is also referred to as a “stressor.” The VA states a stressor involves exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. The exposure can be:
- Direct exposure
- Witnessing in-person
- Indirect exposure, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the trauma involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
- Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to details of the trauma. This is usually in the course of professional duties.
Examples of stressors include, but aren’t limited to the following: participation in combat (combat veterans), military sexual trauma, witnessing a roadside bomb go off, learning that a family member was killed, or being part of a burial crew.
Stressors play a big role in VA disability claims for service connection for PTSD. In fact, a claim for service connection for PTSD can’t go forward without the stressor being verified. This is also referred to as corroboration of a claimed stressor. When dealing with PTSD claims involving service connection, there are different categories of stressors. Each category has its own requirements as to how much evidence, and what kind of evidence is needed to verify the stressor. The following categories of stressors have special rules that apply regarding the evidence needed for corroboration:
- In-Service PTSD Diagnosis: If you were diagnosed with PTSD during active duty military service, the burden of proof to verify your stressor is lower than with other stressors. If your claimed stressor is related to your military service, consistent with the circumstances of your military service, and no clear and convincing evidence to the contrary exists, then your own statement can be used as credible evidence that the stressor occurred.
- Fear of Hostile Military or Terrorist Activity: If your claimed stressor is related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, the only evidence needed to verify the stressor (in addition to your own statements) is a VA psychologist or psychiatrist (this can also be a psychologist or psychiatrist that has been contracted by the VA) says that the claimed stressor is related to the your fear of hostile military or terrorist activity. The claimed stressor must be adequate to support a diagnosis of PTSD, so it’s a good idea to also ask the psychologist/psychiatrist to comment on that.
- Combat: The evidence needed to verify a claimed stressor related to combat is similar to the evidence needed when there was an in-service PTSD diagnosis. Your own statements can establish the occurrence of your stressor as long as the stressor is related to combat, consistent with the circumstances of your service, and there is no clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
- In-Service Personal Assault or Trauma (including Military Sexual Trauma): There are special rules related to PTSD based on an assault or trauma due to the fact that there is often a lack of evidence surrounding the event. If military records don’t document the assault, the claimed stressor can be corroborated through alternative evidence (records from law enforcement, rape crisis centers, mental health counseling centers, buddy statements, or evidence of behavior changes).
For all other claimed stressors, there must be evidence that corroborates the occurrence of the stressor. This means there must be more evidence than the veteran’s own testimony. An example of a stressor that does not fit into the categories with special rules would be if a veteran was involved in a car accident during service. In order to corroborate this stressor, the veteran would need to provide evidence such as a police report, hospital records, or buddy statements of fellow service members involved in the accident.
Does the veteran have to come up with the evidence needed to corroborate their claimed stressor all on their own? No, as a part of their duty to assist, the VA is required to help a veteran verify a veteran’s claimed stressor. Before the VA is required to step in and help, VA regulations state the veteran “must provide information sufficient for the records custodian to conduct a search of the corroborative records.” There’s no clear rule as to what sufficient information is, but at a minimum the veteran must provide the following:
- Veteran’s full name
- Veteran’s social security number
- A description of the claimed stressor
- The month and year when the stressor occurred
- The units of assignment at the time the stressor occurred
- A geographic location of where the stressor occurred
Although the VA is required to assist in the stressor verification process, it’s in your best interest to provide as much information and evidence as possible. Also, it is important to know that if official records contradict a veteran’s account of their claimed stressor, the VA can reject the claimed stressor. However, as long as you provide evidence to back up your account of the claimed stressor, the benefit of the doubt rule applies (the VA is required to give you the benefit of the doubt that the stressor occurred).