When a veteran files a claim for PTSD, the VA stipulates that the basis of the claim be established by the verification of an in-service stressor. In order to clarify how this can be accomplished, the VA updated the pre-existing CFR regulation 3.304(f) by giving detailed instructions for specific situations. This regulation states that service connection for PTSD requires three elements:
- Medical evidence diagnosing the condition
- A link, or nexus, established by medical evidence , between current symptoms and an in-service stressor
- Credible supporting evidence that the claimed in-service stressor occurred.
What we are going to talk about in this post is this last conditions—specifically, the burden of the VA to verify a veteran’s involvement in Special Forces classified missions, or to obtain related classified documents.
The VA defines “Special Operations” as small-scale covert or overt military operations of an unorthodox and frequently high-risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy. Special Operations units are typically composed of relatively small groups of highly trained, armed personnel, and are often transported by helicopter, small boats, or submarines, or parachute from aircraft for stealthy infiltration by land.
Under the Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA) of 2000, and in particular under the new 38 U.S.C. § 5103A, the VA must make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate his/her claim. Such an obligation includes making “reasonable efforts” to obtain:
- relevant records (including private records)
- service treatment records
- other relevant records held by any Federal department or agency
In the case of Special Operations, the VA must make reasonable efforts to verify circumstances and the situation that the veteran claims to have been his stressor.
Combat exposure is most frequently established based on the receipt of certain military decorations verified within service personnel records. Such decorations include the Medal of Honor, Navy Combat Action Ribbon, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device, and Distinguished Service Cross.
However, many veterans were engaged in combat or in Special Operations and were not awarded the military decorations described above. In these cases, the VA will not establish combat exposure based on those criteria. Instead, the VA follows a procedure outlined in Fast Letter 09-52 to determine the combat-related stressor.
The VA will send the veteran a VCAA letter, requesting more information about the combat/Special Ops-related situations. The letter may have wording similar to the following:
Tell us more about your participation in a Special Operations unit by providing the following information on the attached VA Form 21-4138, Statement in Support of Claim:
- To which branch of service and component were you assigned?
- What were the dates of your Special Operations tour of duty?
- Provide the location (city/province and country) where the incident took place and the approximate date (within a 60-day range).
- If you were not assigned to a Special Operations unit but were attached to one, indicate to which unit and from what dates you were attached.
Please note that if you fail to respond or you provide an incomplete response, this may result in the denial of your claim.
Fast Letter 09-52 stipulates that the veteran is requested to respond to this letter within thirty (30) days. If the veteran fails to respond within that time frame, the VA will continue to process the claim according to standard procedures, and will make a decision based upon the evidence in the folder. It is important that claimants be as specific as possible with their response to this letter. If there is not enough information in the response, the VA will send a follow-up letter requesting what information is still needed. If the claimant does not respond within 10 days, or provide the necessary information, the VA will continue to process the claim as previously mentioned.
Once the VA has the information needed to verify the stressor, the folder will be taken to the Military Records Specialist (MRS). The MRS will:
- Complete the “Special Operations Forces Incident” report
- Send the report via encrypted mail to VAVBASPT/RO/SOCOM
The request will be processed by the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). It takes a minimum of sixty (60) to process this request. A response from the USSOCOM will provide a “sanitized” summary of the research on the incident, or a negative reply if no information can be found. For certain incidents, USSOCOM may report that it cannot release any information. Classified service records received from USSOCOM will often be from a casualty report, and may be limited to:
- the date of the injury
- the location where the injury occurred, and/or
- a brief description of the injury or illness, or
In some instances, the records may only confirm that the Veteran participated in Special Operations, because the operation is still considered classified.
Once the USSOCOM has completed the request, the VA will continue to process the claim and make a decision with the consideration of that new evidence.