There are three steps to proving service connection for a disability: evidence of a current disability, an in-service incident that could have caused or aggravated the disability, and a nexus between the current disability and the in-service incident. If a veteran was in combat, he or she has an advantage when attempting to prove the second element of service connection. This is due to the fact that in combat situations, recordkeeping may be insufficient. During combat, incidents that would normally be recorded may not be, or records could be destroyed. As a result, if a combat veteran contends that he or she was injured or suffered from a disease or stressor event during combat, the VA must generally accept his or her statement as fact, despite the fact that there may not be any service records to support the veteran’s claim. On the other hand, a veteran who is attempting to establish service connection for a disability relating to an incident that did not occur in combat must provide at least enough evidence to show that it is as likely as not that there was an in-service incident that could have caused or aggravated his or her disability.
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.
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