Combat veterans are typically given a little more leeway when it comes to submitting a VA disability claim for veterans benefits and having to prove they were in combat. Although sometimes they may still be required to submit additional evidence to obtain service connection and be assigned a disability rating. It comes to proving that their disability was the result of an in-service occurrence or aggravation of a pre-existing disease or injury (the second element for service connection). The reason combat vets get a little more leeway with having to prove their claim is because military records were oftentimes NOT well-documented in combat situations. Also, even if records are made during a combat situation, often times they are NOT complete nor are they fully accurate. We saw this happen a lot with Vietnam veterans and other war veterans.
How To Get Free VA Healthcare and Medical Benefits as a Combat Veteran
Former military service members who served in a theater of combat operations may receive access to a number of VA benefits, including cost-free health care benefits and medical care. They may receive exemption from medical expenses like copays. However, they first need to prove their eligibility for health care services as a disabled veteran who was in combat.
This guide will outline how eligible veterans and former military service members can prove that they fall into this category and enrollment.
How To Qualify for Enhanced Eligibility as a Combat Veteran
Before you can prove your status as a combat veteran, it’s important to determine if qualify for enhanced eligibility for benefits. This eligibility lasts for five years after discharge.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, this eligibility comes back to Public Law 110-181. This law was called the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008. Through this act, the U.S. government extended enhanced eligibility to service members who served in active duty after November 11, 1998. This amendment extended enhanced eligibility to veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as these combat zones were active following that cutoff date.
Helpful evidence for Enhanced Eligibility
Combat Veteran Veterans can prove that they fall under this category through military service documentation that shows their service in a combat theater, proof that they received a combat service medal or campaign medal, and/or proof of receipt of imminent danger pay or hostile fire pay.
Keep in mind that veterans who enroll after their enhanced eligibility period will need to prove their status as a combat veteran through additional means and documentation. They may also be required to make additional copays if they miss the five-year window for application. You can get exact details on the official VA website –> va.gov.
How To Prove You Were in Combat
So how does a veteran go about proving they were in combat service? A veteran who is trying to prove that they were in combat, usually just needs to provide a statement that says the veteran suffered a disease, injury, or stressor event during combat. The VA must consider the veteran’s statement when determining whether the veteran engaged in combat.
Evidence to Show You Were in Combat
However, keep in mind that the VA is not required to accept the veteran’s statement as fact. Although there is no rule that says a veteran has to provide evidence that supports his statement, supporting evidence can help persuade the VA to accept the veteran’s statement that they were in combat. Examples of supporting evidence include:
- Combat military occupational specialty (MOS);
- the grant of certain awards such as the Combat Infantry Badge, Medal of Honor, and Purple Heart (among many other awards);
- Evidence that the veteran received hazardous duty pay;
- Buddy statements about combat.
What is VA’s duty to assist?
VA’s duty to assist requires Veterans Affairs to notify vets about the type of information that may help show combat experience for their VA claim.
Once a veteran has shown that they were engaged in combat, the fight isn’t over. The next hurdle is that the veteran’s statements must satisfy three requirements: (1) the statements must be satisfactory or credible; (2) the statements must be consistent with the conditions, circumstances, and hardships of service; and (3) there cannot be any clear and convincing evidence that shows the in-service disease, injury, or event did not occur during service.
Top 3 Requirements For Combat Veteran Statements
If the veteran’s statements meet these three requirements, then the VA must accept the statement.
Let’s look at each requirement a little closer:
- Statements must be satisfactory – The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) defines satisfactory as “credible, plausible, or capable of being believed.” In other words, the veteran’s statement must be reasonable, and it must be possible that the events described in the statement happened.
- Statements must be consistent with conditions of service – Here, the VA must give the veteran the benefit of the doubt if the evidence showing the statement is consistent with conditions of service is at least equal to any evidence that the statement is not consistent. So, as long as the unfavorable evidence does not outweigh the veteran’s evidence, the veteran will meet requirement #2.
- Clear and convincing evidence that shows the disability or event did not occur in-service: This is a very high standard of proof for the VA to meet. If the veteran meets requirement #1 and #2 above, the VA must accept the statement and the veteran doesn’t need to worry about requirement #3.
Special Service Connection Rules for Combat
The special service connection rule for combat veterans is found in 38 U.S.C. s. 1154(b). This statute requires that the VA accept any satisfactory lay or other evidence of an in-service incident that a combat veteran contends caused or aggravated a disability, even if there is no official record of the incident. Such evidence must show that the incident was “consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships” of service. This special rule for combat veterans also applies even if partial medical records exist about the incident, but the particular disability that the veteran contends was incurred or aggravated is not noted in those records. The VA must give the combat veteran the benefit of the doubt, but may rebut this element of service connection with clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
It is important to note that this lower burden of proof for combat veterans in relation to proving an in-service occurrence or aggravation of a disability does not affect the burden of proof for the other two elements of service connection. A combat veteran still must provide evidence of a current disability and establish a nexus between the current disability and the in-service incident. Competent medical evidence is the best method for attempting to prove these two elements in order for a veteran to be awarded service connection for his or her disability.
An example of how proving combat status helps a veteran’s claim would be when a veteran with a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) claim needs to prove that a stressor occurred. If a veteran can show they were engaged in combat and also that his evidence meets the three requirements discussed above, he will be able to more easily establish that an in-service stressor event occurred.
Also, it is important to note that if a combat veteran is trying to prove the occurrence of a noncombat incident, the special rule for service connection does not apply.
If you are a veteran who served in a combat zone and have questions about your VA disability claim for service connection, the team at Hill & Ponton are available to help. We work with veterans from all the United States armed forces branches, helping them navigate VA disability benefits. Whether you served in WWII or the Iraq War, contact us today to discuss your case.
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