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What is "Service Connection" For a VA Disability Claims?

Turning from my recent estate planning focus, I will now discuss Veteran’s Benefits Claims. Last month I outlined the general VA claims process. As noted in that blog entry, one of the key elements in a VA claim is the veteran’s ability to establish that the disability is service-connected.

There are generally two ways to establish the service connection of a claimed disability.

The most obvious and most common method is to establish the veteran’s disability was directly caused by their service (Causal Connection). The connection is usually proven by submitting personnel files, medical files, or testimony as to an in-service event (e.g., physical accident/injury, toxic exposure, or psychological trauma) that resulted in the permanent disability they are claiming. Based on this showing, the disability is deemed service-connected/service-related.

It is important to note that the disability need not result immediately from the event. After the incident, the onset of symptoms may be delayed by years or even decades. Therefore, the disability itself need not show up during the period of service so long as there is an in-service incident to which the disability is attributed. The most obvious example is that many Vietnam War veterans were exposed to Agent Orange. The health consequences of that exposure took years to become apparent. In fact, many exposed veterans are only now receiving their first medical diagnosis of a related disability.

The second way focuses on the timing of the manifestation of the disability (Temporal Service Connection). This method ignores whether the veteran can point to a specific event as a cause of the disability and instead deems a disability the manifests during service as service connection.

Therefore, if a disability first appears during the veteran’s period of service even though the cause is not service-related, the disability will be considered service-connected. These disabilities are often the result of hereditary diseases or diseases having no identifiable cause. For instance, a cancer diagnosis during service is service-connected, whether the veteran can point to their exposure to cancer-causing agents or not.

Additionally, if a veteran first manifests symptoms of certain psychiatric illnesses during service, they will be deemed service-connected. For example, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have no known causes, and many psychiatrists speculate that they may have a strong genetic component. Although there is no known environmental factor to which the patient was subjected during service, if the symptoms of these disorders first manifest during service, they will be considered service-connected by the VA. The veteran will therefore be eligible for full benefits resulting from those disorders.

In a future entry, I will discuss what evidence best supports the veteran’s claim of service connection.

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