Overcoming Common VA Errors to Win Your Claim
by Thom Stoddert
I have come across many veterans who have been denied service connection for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), not to mention other issues, because they did not have a confirmed stressor, in particular a combat award. The VA does list combat awards, but fails to understand the significance of that someone who had a non-combat, non-flying job, receiving an Air Medal. They fail to recognize why a veteran would get that medal.
As recently as this weekend, I met with a vet who was denied service connection for PTSD, though he had been in treatment for years. He did several tours of duty in a combat zone as a supply clerk. His job was to fly out to the forward bases and bring in supplies and bring back cargo nets and such. His DD-214 clearly shows he was a supply specialist; it also shows him in receipt of an Air Medal. Someone at the VA who was reviewing his claim should have seen his records and asked why a supply clerk would get a flying award.
Often the VA rater fails to understand that engineers, communications people, and/or logistics folks do accompany the infantry. Often the infantry base is attacked along with the cooks, clerks and support personnel that are attached. Many times support troops are fighting alongside those with a combat MOS.
The VA raters are overworked and have little time to spend looking up the criteria for the award of an Air Medal on the Internet. They must rely on the information some bureaucrat in DC provides in the official publications. Therefore, it is your responsibility, that’s right, your responsibility to get the information to them in first place.
Why? Simple, it’s your claim, your issue, and your problem if the VA doesn’t get it right. The problem falls right back into your lap, not someone else’s. So, take a little extra care and preparation; anticipate screw-ups. So what is the solution?
On the Internet there are several sites that list all the medals and awards the military gives out. They also list the reasons why they are given out. The Air Medal can be awarded to military members not on flight status or a member of a flight crew, but when the service member has been in some sort of combat event while flying.
The situation is usually like this: An artillery forward observer while flying over a potential target is shot at. The chopper returns to the base camp well ventilated with bullet holes. The crew gets an Air Medal with a “V” device, which the VA recognizes as a combat award/stressor. However, the forward observer passenger only gets an Air Medal not seen by the VA as a combat stressor because Air Medals are routinely given out, particularly to air crews for flying. So send in a copy of the criteria for the award as it pertains to you. It has worked every time for me, for the supply clerk and for the forward observer.
The next error frequently made by the VA is that a veteran is denied service connection for some issue, usually PTSD, because there is no VERIFIABLE stressor. The veteran did send in a twenty page stressor letter, like so many individuals and organizations recommend, and it still failed.
The reason is that no Rating Specialist has the time to read a book long “John Wayne war story.” They will overlook the facts that can be verified and focus on the part about a village smelling worse than a dozen dead camels. That’s how humans are, even VA raters. As a rater I would often see stressor letters 10 to 15 pages long all hand written on school book paper. They almost always included details such as the smell of the jungle, the terrifying noise of near hits, or their best friend getting a “Dear John letter” that day. These are all poetic facts for building a story, but are useless to the VA. They prove nothing and are meaningless to the rater who is working under a production quota.
So keep the stressor letter short, simple, and easy to work with. It should be supported by your military records. It should also be collaborated by any buddy statements, historical records, and/or documented details that are objective in nature. Leave the poetry behind and focus only on dry facts. However do explain any inconsistencies that can be anticipated. As an example: why a cook was at a forward when it got hit.
Remember, the VA, just like all federal agencies, is staffed by veterans, non-veterans, and bureaucrats. Leave little to be assumed when it is your claim, your benefits, and your life.