When a veteran files a claim for PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), the VA must make reasonable efforts to verify the occurrence of the event which caused the mental disorder. The event could range from terrorist attacks, car accidents, natural disasters, personal trauma, and others. Because not all stressors are the same, the VA has guidelines for different types of stressors. In a previous post, we discussed the circumstances under which the VA is and is not required to corroborate stressors. In this post, we will discuss another type of stressor: personal trauma.
How the VA Classifies Personal Trauma
Personal trauma for the purposes of VA MST claims refers to stressor events involving harm perpetrated by a person who is not considered part of an enemy force. This can include a traumatic event such as physical assault, battery, domestic violence, robbery, mugging, stalking, harassment, etc. Military sexual trauma (MST) is a subset of personal trauma and refers to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape that occurs in a military setting.
VA Requires Credible Evidence for Personal Trauma Claims
In order for the VA to consider a claim for service-connection for PTSD due to personal trauma, there must be credible evidence to support the veteran’s assertion that the stressful event occurred. This, however, does not mean that the veteran must be able to supply actual proof that the traumatic experience occurred. This just means that there needs to be at least a proximate balance of positive and negative evidence that the event occurred towards trauma symptoms.
Note: Personal trauma cases are a rare exception to the active/inactive duty rule. The VA has allowed that veterans whose stressor occurred during inactive duty for training are eligible to service connection in the same manner as those whose stressor occurred during active duty or active duty for training.
What qualifies as “credible evidence”?
In many cases of personal trauma, especially in MST cases, there are often coinciding factors which prevent the veteran from being able or willing to report a personal trauma incident. Therefore many incidents of personal trauma are not officially reported, and the victims of personal trauma may find it difficult to produce evidence to support the occurrence of the stressor.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized this reality and has determined that, in the absence of official reports, claim developers should look for alternative evidence that may demonstrate the presence of markers. These markers include signs, events, or circumstances indicating the possibility that the claimed stressor occurred. This would be considered secondary evidence.
According to the VA’s internal manual, secondary evidence may include the following:
- Lay statements
- Indicating increased use or abuse of leave without an apparent reason, such as family obligations or family illness, or
- Describing episodes of depression, panic attacks, or anxiety, but no identifiable reasons for the episodes, and
- Evidence of behavioral changes that occurred around the time of the incident, including
- Visits to a medical or counseling clinic or dispensary without a specific diagnosis or specific ailment
- Use of pregnancy tests or tests for sexually-transmitted diseases around the time of the incident
- Sudden requests that the veteran’s military occupational series or duty assignment be changed without other justification
- Changes in performance and performance evaluations
- Increased or decreased use of prescription medications
- Increased use of over-the-counter medications
- Evidence of substance use and substance abuse, such as alcohol or drugs
- Increased disregard for military or civilian authority
- Obsessive behavior such as overeating or undereating
- Increased interest in health care tests for HIV or sexually transmitted diseases
- Unexplained economic or social behavior changes
- Treatment for physical injuries around the time of the claimed trauma, but not reported as a result of the trauma, and/or
- The breakup of a primary relationship.
This is why it is very important to have a family member, spouse, significant other, or loved one write a statement about any behavior changes or emotional reactions that they might have noticed during or after the veteran’s period of service. These become valuable testimonials that can significantly help the veteran obtain compensation benefits for his or her mental health disorder.