When a service member gets injured on active duty, their eligibility for disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is apparent. But what about former service members who develop illnesses years later? Can these individuals apply for VA disability benefits?
The answer is yes. For many service-connected disabilities, there is no deadline to apply. Indeed, the VA presumes that service decades ago might cause specific conditions. For example, Vietnam-era veterans who encountered Agent Orange and Gulf War service members exposed to burn pits are more likely to develop certain cancers. The VA processes these claims if and when veterans ultimately get sick.
Who Is Eligible for VA Disability Benefits?
To qualify for VA disability, you must have a current mental or physical illness or injury, have served on active duty or engaged in training, and been honorably discharged.
A VA disability claim filed years after service is called a post-service disability claim. To support such a claim, you must show that your past military service caused your recent injury or illness. The VA refers to this nexus as a service connection.
Sometimes you do not have to prove that your military service caused your condition. With these illnesses, the connection is clear, and the VA assumes your service made you ill.
If you develop a chronic disease such as arthritis, diabetes, peptic ulcers, or hypertension within one year of release from active duty, the VA presumes the condition is service-connected.
Prisoners of War (POWs)
Veterans who were taken as POWs for a certain length of time and develop a condition that is at least 10 percent disabling also benefit from this assumption. Disorders that qualify range from anxiety to vascular diseases to gastrointestinal issues.
Service Members Exposed to Hazardous Chemicals and Toxins
Sadly, veterans may have encountered dangerous substances in a range of places. Some working on base encountered asbestos. Service and family members stationed at Camp Lejeune may have consumed contaminated drinking water. And various overseas posts presented a range of threats. We list a few common ones below.
The VA has long acknowledged that those who served in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange often develop certain conditions years after discharge from active duty. Examples of these illnesses include:
- AL amyloidosis;
- B-cell or chronic lymphocytic leukemia;
- Multiple myeloma;
- Type 2 diabetes;
- Heart disease;
- Parkinson’s disease;
- Prostate, respiratory, or bladder cancers; and
- Various types of lymphoma and sarcoma.
For the presumption to apply, the veteran must have served between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975.
On August 10, 2022, Congress expanded the list of eligible conditions and service locations when it passed The Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. The VA now presumes exposure to Agent Orange causes hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). Moreover, the PACT Act added five locations (with corresponding service dates) where service members may have encountered Agent Orange:
- Bases in Thailand,
- Cambodia at Mimot or Krek, Kampong Cham Province,
- Guam or American Samoa, and
- Johnston Atoll.
The VA website lists specific dates and limitations.
Not surprisingly, the VA presumes that service exposure to radiation causes various cancers, leukemias, and lymphomas. Previously, the list covered those exposed at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, nuclear test sites, and diffusion plants. The PACT Act added three nuclear cleanup sites.
Gulf War and Post-9/11 Veterans
The PACT Act also greatly expanded benefits for brave military members who served in the Middle East. Many of these people have cancer or respiratory illnesses due to their service-time exposure to burn pits. Though you should consult the VA website or a lawyer regarding dates of service and other restrictions, the following service locations may qualify for presumptive exposure:
- Yemen, and
The list includes the airspace above these locations.
The VA also assumes exposure in the Southwest Asia Theater of Operations, which includes:
- Saudi Arabia;
- The neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia;
- The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.);
- The Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman;
- The waters of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea; and
- The airspace above these locations.
For these locations, the eligible conditions vary based on your date of diagnosis and time from separation.
Types of VA Disability Benefits Claims
Which VA disability claim you should file depends on your medical issue and your VA status.
If you have never filed for disability compensation, file an original claim with the VA. The process generally takes longer and requires more evidence for post-service claims, so consider consulting with an attorney for assistance.
If the VA already pays you for a disability, but your condition worsens, you can request an increased payment.
A new claim seeks added benefits for an existing service-connected disability.
Secondary Service-Connected Claim
Those who develop a new disability linked to a current service-connected disability may file a secondary service-connected claim.
If you already receive payments for a service-connected disability but require assistive devices (such as a specially-equipped vehicle), submit a special claim. Other examples include temporary payments while you are immobilized following surgery and compensation because your disability leaves you unable to work.
You may file a supplemental claim if:
- The VA denied your disability claim,
- You did not appeal, and
- You have new and relevant evidence.
The VA encourages you to submit a supplemental claim if your condition is newly presumptive under the PACT Act. Because Congress has not yet allocated funding, the VA anticipates that it will start processing PACT Act benefits in January 2023. However, it likely will backdate benefits to the date of the Act’s signing—August 10, 2022.
Help Applying for VA Disability Benefits Years After Service
If you have been out of the military for decades and have not previously dealt with the VA, filing a claim for the first time can be daunting. Even if you already receive disability benefits, it may be challenging to put together the evidence to support a supplemental claim at the same time you are dealing with a new illness.
The attorneys at Gerling Law are here to help. Our VA-accredited lawyers can determine whether you have a presumptive condition and aid in applying for the VA disability benefits you need. Our caring lawyers are so dedicated to veterans that we wrote a book on the subject—Gerling Law’s Guide to VA Disability Benefits. Download a free copy today. Gerling Law serves service members nationwide. Contact us today to speak with a knowledgeable attorney.