A claim for PTSD has three requirements: 1) a diagnosis of PTSD 2) an in-service stressor 3) a link between the diagnosis and in-service stressor. In our first post, we looked at what PTSD is and the first requirement of the medical diagnosis. Today we will be looking at the in-service stressor.
You’ve already established that you have PTSD with a medical diagnosis. Now the second requirement for getting service-connected for PTSD is establishing that your stressor (the traumatic event that caused PTSD) occurred in service. The general rule is that you need credible evidence to support that the stressor actually happened and that it happened in-service.
A stressor does not have to be associated to combat. Combat experience may provide the stressor that leads to PTSD, but the stressor does not necessarily have to have occurred while in combat. PTSD could be caused by experiencing or witnessing any of the following: rape, physical attack, torture, automobile accident, plane crash, ship sinking, explosion, or natural disasters. These are only a few examples to show that stressors could be any traumatic experience. It could also occur from being a prisoner-of-war, working in a grave registration unit or a burn care unit, or witnessing a dead body or body parts. It could also be from something that threatens to cause death or serious injury, and not just to yourself but witnessing it happen to someone else. A stressor could be experienced by you alone or by a group of people. It does not have to be just one specific traumatic event, it could be a group of experiences that causes PTSD. Any extreme traumatic event that satisfies the diagnostic criteria of DSM-V may be accepted as a stressor.
The first thing you will want to do is submit a statement to the VA explaining the circumstances surrounding the traumatic incident that you experienced in service. You can use VA Form 21-0781. Your statement is not enough to prove that your stressor happened. The VA is not going to take your word for it that what you are saying is true. There needs to be additional evidence to prove that the stressor actually occurred and that it occurred in service. This is called corroborating the stressor. The VA is supposed to help you in obtaining evidence to prove your stressor, triggered by the stressor statement you submit.
The VA has recognized that PTSD may appear many years after service or PTSD symptoms may appear immediately but not be diagnosed until much later. This can get tricky because the more time goes by, the more difficult it becomes to corroborate a stressor. Service records may be lost or destroyed, the incident could not have been documented at all, or other veterans who could serve as witnesses may die or become difficult to find. So the VA has created 4 exceptions that make it easier for veterans to prove their claims:
- When PTSD was diagnosed in service
- When the veteran was in combat
- When the stressor was related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity
- When the veteran was a prisoner of war
- When the stressor was an in-service personal assault
PTSD was diagnosed in service
The VA added a regulation to the law on PTSD to help make it a little easier for veterans to prove their claim. The veteran’s statement about his in-service stressor will be taken to be true if the veteran:
- was diagnosed with PTSD during service,
- the claimed stressor is related to the service,
- the stressor is consistent with the circumstances of the veteran’s service,
- and there is no other evidence showing otherwise.
One of the reasons the VA changed this law is because now more veterans are being diagnosed with PTSD in service while before the diagnosis didn’t come until much later. This rule, however, only applies to claims pending on or filed after October 29, 2008 (the date the law went into effect). This rule does not apply to other mental disorders diagnosed in service, or if the initial PTSD diagnosis occurred after service. It only applies when there was an in-service diagnosis of PTSD and the stressor relates to that service.
As previously mentioned, you might start showing symptoms of PTSD right after the traumatic event happens. This could lead to you being diagnosed with PTSD in-service and would facilitate the process of getting service-connected. However, PTSD symptoms could also show up years after the traumatic incident in service, so the diagnosis comes later. You can still get service-connected when PTSD is diagnosed later. But if you are released from service because of a mental disorder that developed as a result of a stressful event in service, you should be awarded a 50% rating and be scheduled for reevaluation within 6 months.
We will look at the remaining exceptions in blog posts to come.