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VA Disability claims – paperwork, math and sometimes, confusion

Navigating the VA disability claim can be one of the trickiest parts of leaving the military.

Even the term “disability” is confusing. One of the first questions my two teenagers asked when we explained my husband’s disability rating was: “Can we park in handicapped spots now?” The answer: No. Having a VA disability rating does not necessarily make one “disabled” in the way that term is usually applied.

Anyone who is retiring or separating from the military can file a claim for VA disability, even if they don’t have any visible injuries or issues that affect them on a daily basis. The point of a VA disability rating is to compensate servicemembers for injuries or medical conditions that arose during military service, and to ensure those injuries and conditions are cared for in the future.

Some cases are obviously more complicated than others, and VA disability is one of those many things where it seems like you ask one question and get a dozen different answers. I’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions below, based on my own experience and extensive research. It should be a good jumping off point for your own (exhaustive and exhausting) research. And, as always, mine is not an expert opinion. Always seek official sources for your own situation.

What is a VA claim?

A VA claim is a detailed packet of paperwork submitted as part of leaving the military. It includes medical records, details of any injuries or chronic conditions, and other information. The VA takes that packet and then sets up any medical appointments it deems necessary to gather additional evidence and screen the servicemember for a disability rating. The results of those appointments are then reviewed to determine if a disability rating is warranted for any of the injuries or conditions. There are eight steps in the VA claim process. You can find out more about them at this link:

What should be done to to prepare?

Start as soon as possible to document every medical condition. All those things your spouse never went to the doctor for because he or she didn’t want a profile, or didn’t want to take time off duty, or didn’t want to bother the doc? Yeah, all those things need to be looked at. Many people start do this during the last two or three years before retirement, when a.) they aren’t as worried about “looking bad” in front of their command, and b.) they realize that their time on active duty is nearing an end these things aren’t going to go away.

How long does it take?

I’ve known people who had their VA rating a week after retirement, and others who waited a year or more. The VA recently launched a new system called Benefits Delivery at Discharge, or BDD. This allows most servicemembers to submit their VA claim before they leave active duty. Under the previous system, a VA claim couldn’t be filed until after retirement or separation. The VA says most servicemembers who use the BDD system should expect to receive the results of their disability claim the day after they leave active duty. The key is that the claim must be submitted between 180 and 90 days before separation.

What’s a VSO and why should I use one?

A VSO is a Veteran’s Services Organization – think Veterans of Foreign wars (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the American Legion, etc. Many of these groups are authorized by the VA to prepare and submit claims on behalf of servicemembers. They are experts, and they work for free. The VA has a list of such groups here:

Can a person who is rated 100 percent disabled by the VA still work?

Yes. There is a subset of VA disability called Individual Unemployability, or IU, but that is a separate rating that must be applied for in addition to the regular disability claim, and only a small number of veterans qualify.

How are disability percentages calculated?

This is the most complicated part of the process, and takes way more math brain power than I have. Here’s a link (scroll down to “Combined Ratings”) that might help you figure it Good luck, though!

How is disability pay calculated?

Disability is a flat rate paid monthly based on percentage rating, and has nothing to do with rank or time in service. A junior enlisted servicemember who served only a short time will be paid the same amount as a senior officer who served 35 years. VA pay is also tax-free. There are some nuances (see CRDP below).

What is CRDP?

CRDP stands for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay, and is also known as concurrent pay. It means the veteran is receiving both retirement pay and VA disability pay. The veteran must have a VA disability rating of 50 percent or more to receive concurrent pay. Below 50 percent, the amount of VA pay is deducted from the retirement pay and offset by the VA pay (but still tax free). You can read more about this also-complicated math here:

What do the terms permanent and total, and service connected mean?

Permanent and total means the VA doesn’t ever expect the condition to improve. People who are not rated permanent and total may be required to have their conditions reviewed after a certain number of years. Service connected means the injury or condition was as a result of serving in the military. These designations can qualify a person for additional benefits, although they do not change the amount of disability pay. A person can have a disability rating with both of these designations or neither of them.

Does a military retiree with VA disability have to get medical care at a VA facility? No.

Besides monetary compensation, what additional benefits are available for those with a VA disability rating?

Many benefits – but not all - require the veteran to have a specific minimum VA rating percentage. Any veteran with a 10 percent disability rating, for example, is exempt from paying the funding fee on a VA home loan. That benefit can potentially save thousands of dollars a year in mortgage payments. Those with a total and permanent, service connected disability have an education benefit available to their spouses and children that pays a monthly stipend while the family members are in college, vocational school and some other types of training. Disabled veterans are also eligible for job training and employment counseling. Many states also have their own benefits – such as lower property taxes (or none at all), free or reduced college tuition for family members, no vehicle registration fees … the list varies widely and is completely up to each state. Most states also have specific residency requirements to qualify.

Where do I find out about benefits?

You can google it all day long and find tons of information, but be sure to stick to official sources as there is a lot of misinformation floating around out there. The VA website is a great place to start: In addition, each state has a Department of Veterans Affairs to handle state-level benefits. But the best resource might be your county’s Veteran Services Offices. They are a one-stop shop for federal, state and local benefits.

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