Requirement of an In-Service Stressor
PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a traumatic event. In terms of a VA disability claim involving PTSD, the traumatic event is referred to as the stressor. A successful PTSD claim requires three things: (1) a current PTSD diagnosis; (2) evidence of a stressor in service; and (3) medical evidence linking the current diagnosis to the in-service stressor. Today we will look at how to meet the second requirement of proving your in-service stressor. Without evidence of an in-service stressor, you will not be able to win your claim. Specifically, the VA requires “credible supporting evidence that the claimed in-service stressor occurred” in order to establish that the veteran did, in fact, experience a stressor during service.
Let’s start with the exception to the rule first. There are certain instances where the VA veteran does not always have to prove that a stressor occurred. These instances include:
- Receiving a diagnosis of PTSD in-service
- The stressor event occurred while the veteran was engaged in direct combat with the enemy
- The stressor event was related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity
It’s important to note that with the third instance listed above (stressor event related to a veteran’s fear of hostile military or terrorist activity), the veteran must have a VA psychiatrist or VA psychologist confirm that the stressor is sufficient to support a PTSD diagnosis. In cases involving an in-service diagnosis, or a combat stressor the veteran’s lay testimony alone establishes the occurrence of the stressor. In all other circumstances, the veteran must provide more than their lay testimony to prove that the claimed stressor occurred during service.
Evidence of the In-Service Stressor
The VA has a duty to “make reasonably efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit under a law administered by the Secretary.” This duty is called the duty to assist, and requires the VA to assist in obtaining relevant records and obtaining medical examinations or medical opinions.
Generally speaking, this requires the VA to get records such as service medical records, service personnel records, VA medical records, and even private medical records that are relevant to the veteran’s claim. If the VA is unable to get the relevant records, they must notify the veteran and describe the records they were unable to obtain, explain how they tried to obtain the records, and let the veteran know if any further action to be taken.
The VA has a greater duty to obtain relevant records when those records are federal records such as a veteran’s service medical records. This can be especially important when dealing with a PTSD claim in order to corroborate the occurrence of an in-service stressor. The VA’s assistance in getting evidence to corroborate an in-service stressor can be critical in winning a VA disability claim for PTSD.
If the VA receives a PTSD claim, but the evidence in the veteran’s claims file does not confirm the in-service stressor, the VA’s duty to assist kicks in. The exception to this rule is when there is “no reasonable possibility that assistance from the VA would aid in substantiating the veteran’s claim.” The VA will ask the veteran to provide details regarding the claimed stressor event such as:
- A stressor/incident that can be documented
- The location where the incident took place
- The approximate date (within a 2 month period) of the incident, and
- The unit of assignment at the time the stressor/incident occurred.
The more information a veteran can provide regarding the claimed stressor the better. However, a veteran might not know all of the information that was requested. A statement from the veteran discussing the circumstances of the traumatic incident/stressor should trigger the VA’s duty to assist. The VA will then have to obtain records relevant to the claim, which in turn, may provide the information needed to corroborate the stressor.
Under the VA’s duty to assist, they are also supposed obtain medical examinations or medical opinions for the veteran’s claim. The duty to obtain medical exams/opinions is triggered when there is evidence that the veteran has a current disability that may be associated with their active service, but the evidence does not contain sufficient medical evidence for the VA to make a decision on the claim. In claims for PTSD, the VA is not supposed to schedule an examination until they receive corroboration of the claimed stressor. This is just another reason why providing as much detail about your stressor as you can is important. The sooner the stressor can be corroborated, the sooner you can be scheduled for an exam to evaluate your current diagnosis and symptoms.
If there isn’t enough evidence to corroborate the claimed PTSD stressor, the VA will make a formal finding that there was a lack of sufficient information to document the occurrence of the stressful event. This formal finding must include the following information:
- The actions taken to obtain the required information
- All procedures for developing evidence of the claimed stressor were properly followed
- Evidence of all efforts to obtain the necessary evidence is in the claims file
- An explanation saying further efforts to obtain necessary evidence would be futile, and
- A statement that the information needed to document the stressor is unavailable.
If the VA does not fulfill their duty to assist (for example, failing to verify a claimed stressor even when the veteran provided enough information), don’t give up the battle for the benefits you’re entitled to. If your claim is later reopened and granted, you may be able to get benefits back to the initial claim that was denied based on lack of evidence of an in-service stressor.