In order to be granted direct service connection for a disability, that disability must not be the result of the veteran’s willful misconduct. Under VA regulations, alcohol and drug abuse constitute willful misconduct. Whether a particular disability or death was caused by alcohol or drug abuse is very fact specific. Because of this, it becomes very important to understand how the VA defines alcohol and drug abuse.
Simply having a drink or isolated and infrequent drug use is not considered willful misconduct. The VA defines alcohol abuse as “the use of alcoholic beverages over time, or such excessive use at any one time, sufficient to cause disability to or death of the use.” Generally, drinking is considered alcohol abuse and therefore constitutes willful misconduct when: (1) it continues for a long period of time; (2) it is excessive to the point that it causes injury or death; or (3) it is done for the purpose of enjoying intoxication and directly and immediately causes injury or death. An example of when drinking is willful misconduct would be when a veteran who drinks (for the purpose of getting drunk), drives, and then crashes his car into a tree. Upon discharge from the military, that veteran would not be able to obtain benefits for any of the injuries he suffered during that car accident.
The VA defines drug abuse as “the progressive and frequent use of a prescription drug illegally or illicitly obtained, the intentional use of a prescription or non-prescription drug for a purpose other than the medically intended use, or the use of a substance other than alcohol to enjoy its intoxicating effect.” The isolated and occasional use of drugs, by itself, is not considered drug abuse, however, if a veteran’s drug use meets any part of the above definition, then it is considered drug abuse. On the other hand, if a veteran’s drug use does not meet any part of the above definition, then it does not constitute drug abuse. For example, if a veteran becomes addicted to pain medication prescribed to them for an injury, it should not be considered drug abuse for the purpose of entitlement to VA benefits. Just like alcohol abuse, any disability or death that results from a veteran’s drug abuse will be considered a result of the veteran’s willful misconduct.
When drugs or alcohol are involved with a veteran’s disability, a determination must be made as to whether or not the disability can still be service-connected. When making this determination there are three categories of disabilities to look at. The first category is disabilities that will not be service-connected. These disabilities are those that were the result of voluntary and willful alcohol or drug abuse that developed during service. The second category is disabilities that are secondary to a service-connected disability but were caused by alcohol or drug abuse. These disabilities may be service-connected. An example of a disability that would fall in this second category would be a veteran who is service-connected for PTSD and then develops alcoholism secondary to his PTSD. If the veteran’s alcoholism causes cirrhosis of the liver, the veteran would be entitled to have the cirrhosis condition service-connected. The third category is disabilities secondary to a service-connected disability that is aggravated by alcohol or drug abuse. These disabilities may also be service-connected. For example, consider a veteran with service-connected PTSD suffers from alcoholism due to his PTSD. If that veteran also has Diabetes Mellitus II that is not service-connected, and the alcoholism aggravates his Diabetes Mellitus II, that veteran would now be entitled to service-connection for his Diabetes Mellitus II.
There is a presumption that willful misconduct, such as alcohol or drug abuse, was not the cause of a veteran’s disability or death. If the VA wants to deny benefits based on the willful misconduct of the veteran, the VA will have to prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the veteran’s disability or death was caused by his own willful misconduct. The preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not that the veteran’s disability was a result of willful misconduct.