Thus far in our series on VA Disability, we’ve looked at two main points. First, a VA Disability rating is something the US Government expects to pay you because they plan to put a lot of wear and tear on your body during your service. Knowing this, we looked at the requirements for getting an FAA medical certificate later in life. There are only a few VA Disability conditions that are likely to get you in trouble with the FAA; however, it’s worth considering both sides when working through this process.
The next step for us is to examine the process of applying for a VA Disability Rating. It’s not a simple or easy thing, but the basics should make sense to anyone familiar with government bureaucracy. Here’s what we’ll cover today before putting this all together in an actionable strategy next week:
Table of Contents
- VA Website
- Basic Criteria
- VA Math
- Getting Application Help
- Application Process
- Up Next
Before we get into any specifics, you should take some time to familiarize yourself with the VA’s website, starting at ebenefits.va.gov. It’s a pretty convoluted system, but it has a lot of resources that you will want to be able to find in the future.
You may have already seen part of this website if you used or transferred any of your GI Bill benefits. If you’re like me, you probably used their CAC Login option to do that. I highly recommend establishing a username/password login, even if you still have CAC access, because you’ll still need access to this website long after you don’t have a CAC anymore.
The eligibility criteria for VA Disability are pretty straightforward. You must have served on:
- Active Duty, or
- Active Duty for training, or
- Inactive Duty training
And have a service-connected condition.
Service-connected can mean:
- Something that happened to you while you were serving
- A condition you had before entering service, that was made worse while you were serving
- A condition that showed up after you left full-time service that can be attributed to your service
In order to receive a rating, your condition must show either chronicity or continuity. Chronicity means a diagnosis of a chronic (long term) condition like arthritis or diabetes. If your condition isn’t considered chronic, showing continuity…that it has affected you frequently and over time is enough. These two principles are important and will play in later.
The VA designates specific percentages of disability to specific degrees of severity for any given condition. You can find the “schedules” for each specific type of disability rating on the VA website.
For example, under “Postural support of body; extension and lateral movements of spine. Spinal muscles: Sacrospinalis (erector spinae and its prolongations in thoracic and cervical regions)” you will find the following.
Cervical and thoracic region:
So, if you’ve acquired a bad back from years of pulling Gs, or even just riding in a terrible seat, you probably fall into one of these categories. Note that the VA only specifies certain percentages at certain levels. There is no level of severity for the lumbar region for which the VA will assign you a 50% Disability Rating. You get 40% or 60% and that’s it.
You receive a rating specific to each individual condition, and an overall rating. You’d think that your overall rating would just be the mathematical sum of all individual ratings. Up to 20% this is correct. However, beyond 20% we’re not so lucky.
The process of adding up disability ratings isn’t extremely complicated, but recommend you read about it on the website if you want more than a brief summary. The VA publishes a Combined Ratings Table used to add up individual ratings.
As an example, let’s say that you have 20% disability for back trouble and 10% disability for loss of an eyebrow. (Yes, it’s in there.)
We’d start on the left side of the Combined Ratings Table with your highest rating, 20%, then move right until we’re in the 10% column. The result in this case is 28%, which gets rounded to the nearest 10% for a total Disability Rating of 30%.
I recommend not getting too wrapped up about your percentages. Be honest about the long-term effects of your military service, make sure they’re documented and identified, and then take what you get. Although there are certain levels of benefits at certain overall Disability Ratings, I’m not sure it’s worth shooting for a specific percentage.
Getting Application Help
Like I mentioned in Part 2, when you attend the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), you’ll probably meet a volunteer from a veterans service organization willing to help you start your VA Disability application. These individuals specialize in this system and have a pretty good idea of what to look for.
They’ll set up an appointment to which you need to bring your entire military medical record. They’ll go through your record with you, page by page, looking for anything you could possibly claim on your Disability application. This is a valuable service and my volunteer found several items that would have never occurred to me. Remember though that this person is probably not a pilot. He or she has zero SA on your need to obtain an FAA medical certificate in the future. Your volunteer might note a headache or two in your distant past and try to convince you to claim TBI. Unless you actually suffer long-term effects of a likely TBI, pursuing a VA disability claim for this condition could cause more harm than good on your next FAA medical application.
Although the volunteers are great resources, they may not be enough to get you to the finish line in this process. They’ll be located at your last duty station, and chances are you’ll move somewhere else as soon as you leave full-time service. The volunteers will help you fill out and submit an initial application, but probably won’t be around to help you through the rest of the process.
There are several organizations that offer more detailed help in this process. One is the Disabled American Veterans, or DAV. As far as I know, they’re the biggest name in this arena. However, I’ve also spoken to reps from Strategic Veterans at a couple of airshows and think they could be able to help.
These organizations can do a lot more than just review your medical records for you. They can help you word your application to make sure it clearly lines up with criteria each individual disability rating schedule. If the VA docs don’t award you the rating you think you deserve, the DAV can help you find a second opinion and/or write an appeal.
These more detailed services aren’t necessarily free. However, they’re worth every penny. A 20% overall disability rating will pay you $3,375 each year. I’d gladly pay that year’s worth up front to then get that much per year for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know to use one of these services for my initial VA Disability claim, but I wish I had. If I were doing it over again, I would not even submit my initial application without having someone from the DAV looking over it first.
Sadly, the application process for a VA Disability rating is neither efficient nor speedy. The VA website proudly notes that it only took an average of 105 days to process claims in April 2020. My initial claim took much longer.
Record Review & Application
You’ll need to start by looking through your medical records and filling out an application. You can do a paper application, or apply in-person at a VA facility, but you may also be able to apply online. (Check the VA website for your options.)
At the very least, you need to have a volunteer review your records with you. Again though, I highly recommend going with an organization like the DAV.
At your TAP class, the veterans service volunteer will note that if you submit your application before you separate or retire, it gets processing priority in the cue. They’ll try to rush you to get that application in sooner rather than later. Don’t give in to that pressure though! Take the time to get someone to give your application a good, thorough look. Try to match the verbiage you give in there to that found in the individual disability rating schedules. I’d rather wait a few extra months and have a higher disability rating (and bigger monthly check) than start getting a smaller check sooner.
You should also note that you aren’t limited to submitting military medical records with your application. It’s perfectly acceptable with the VA for you to pay out of pocket to see a civilian doc for a given condition. (You should definitely let your military flight doc know if you’re doing this while you’re still on flying status.) You can and should submit any supporting civilian medical records with your application.
When the VA receives your application, their own docs will comb through your medical records to try and verify your claims. If they can find clear and/or repeated evidence of you suffering from a condition in those records, they may award you a rating on the spot.
However, my experience was that the VA docs wanted a specific exam to verify almost every claim. At some point, probably several weeks after you submitted your application, you’ll start getting random robo-calls from the VA alerting you of appointments they’ve scheduled on your behalf. They don’t ask you for any input whatsoever on the scheduling of these appointments, and they set them up at a provider closest to the address you use on your application. (That means you need to use an address you’ll be living near so you can actually get to those appointments.)
You don’t have to just accept the time and date of your appointments. You’ll either be able to call the VA, or the individual doctor doing the exam to reschedule. Don’t put that off to the last minute, because they can be booked months in advance. Don’t just skip your appointment either. The VA is perfectly happy to let your application sit in purgatory forever, waiting for you to get your exams done. Or worse, if you don’t complete your exams they’ll just rule that you have no disability or award a 0% rating when you deserve something higher.
At your exam, be honest with the doc about what you’re dealing with. However, realize that in an effort to be fair and consistent, they probably have numeric criteria for evaluating your injury. If you have a bad back, shoulder, or other joint, they’re looking for how far you can move it…at all or before you experience pain.
This is not the time to be a tough pilot who can handle everything. You’re not out to prove anything here. Be honest with your doc, but tell him or her as soon as your movement is limited by pain or absolute range of motion. We’re not out to scam the system, but I’ve heard the phrase “degrees equal dollars” to describe the mindset you should have at these exams.
Although we shouldn’t be going out of our way to prove anything, also remember that you’re going to be held to the FAA’s medical standards. If you have a VA Disability Rating for vision issues, yet you pass a Class 1 FAA medical, it could raise a red flag. This is the kind of thing that has gotten pilots in trouble in the past, so don’t go overboard. Personally, if I thought I might be borderline on anything, I’d consult both the DAV and an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner from a company like AMAS before filling out my application or attending any of these exams.
After you’ve completed your exams, the VA will issue an official determination. They’ll assign you individual Disability Ratings for each given condition, and an overall rating. You’ll get a letter about this in the mail, but you can always find that information on the VA website.
If you think they left something out, or awarded the wrong percentages, you can appeal your determination. You get one year to notify them, in writing, that you intend to appeal.
Even if you haven’t before now, this is absolutely the time to enlist the help of an organization like the DAV. They handle appeals like yours all day. They’re familiar with the process, the language to use, and the options for giving supporting justification. Do not skimp or waste time here. Get this done ASAP!
Remember, this isn’t you mooching off the system. This is you making sure that your family receives the benefits that the US Government contracted to give you when you initially signed up for military service. They signed that contract with every intention of breaking you and throwing you away. They had a plan in place to pay you, so don’t pass up anything you’re owed.
Thankfully, the VA understands that some conditions take a long time to develop. They fully expect you to discover new conditions over time and you’re welcome to submit subsequent applications to increase the percentage of an existing Disability Rating, or apply for a Rating for a new condition.
You can submit these applications just like your original one. Again, I highly recommend you ask an organization like the DAV for help.
We’ve just looked through a very convoluted and complicated process that will award you a disability rating as a percentage. But what does that actually get you?
The most tangible benefit is that your disability rating gets you a monthly check. Remember from Part 1: this check is not some entitlement program you’re using to mooch off the system. This is a very cold calculation on the government’s part that aims to account for the expenses and decreased Quality of Life you’ll suffer from your service connected conditions. If you’re still young and strong, you may not need to use all of that money right away. However, the government has every reason to expect that your conditions will cost you even more than they’re paying over the remainder of your life.
If you only end up with a 10% or 20% Disability rating, your monthly checks will be:
These values increase every year to match the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) determined for Social Security payouts.
For higher ratings, the tables get far more convoluted. (You can find them here.) If you were to end up with a 100% Disability rating, and you had a spouse, a kid, and two dependent parents, your monthly check would be $3,684. You can also receive up to $277.96 per month for each additional child over 18 in a qualifying educational program.
That represents the upper limit of a VA Disability payment. Although this amount is nothing to sneeze at, realize that $44,208 per year is chump change compared to major airline pilot pay. While there are relatively few things that would jeopardize your ability to obtain an FAA Class 1 medical certificate, it would be a shame to lose out on a career worth of major airline pay while chasing a few extra percentage points of VA Disability.
We’ve seen that not everyone understands our unique situation as pilots. There are parties in this process who will encourage you to cast the widest possible net – filing claims for any condition that your medical history could possibly support and leaving it to the VA docs to determine what you don’t have. While I always recommend obtaining proper medical treatment for any medical condition, I wouldn’t pursue VA Disability for any of the FAA’s disqualifying conditions.
This doesn’t mean you might not have that condition. It doesn’t mean you might not end up seeing a doctor for that condition later in life. (And if you do, you’ll need to report it to the FAA.) However, if you’re trying to cast a wide net on a VA Disability application, I say: when in doubt, leave it out.
You don’t need a VA Disability rating to use a VA loan to buy a home. However, this type of loan requires you to pay a hefty funding fee of up to 3.6%. That money doesn’t go toward the principal on your house, and it isn’t interest paid on your loan. It’s just money you pay to the government that disappears forever. On a $200,000 home, a 3.6% funding fee would cost you an extra $7,200. Ouch!
However, if you have a VA Disability rating, that funding fee is simply waived. All of a sudden, you can get a home loan, with little or no down payment, and you don’t have to waste any money on that funding fee or PMI. That’s a nice perk!
Another huge benefit for disabled veterans is the Vocational Rehab program. The Rotary to Airline Group, or RTAG, has mastered the process of using this benefit to obtain the flight training you need to transition from a military career to one in the airlines. Whether you just need to cover the cost of the ATP-CTP course and then finish up your ATP, or you’re a rotary-winged pilot who needs a lot of fixed-wing time to be competitive, Vocational Rehab can get you what you need without having to dig into your GI Bill benefits.
RTAG has positioned itself as a Veteran’s Charity organization. They exist to help you and I’ve found them to be very enthusiastic. Don’t hesitate to get in contact with them for questions, advice, or help setting up Vocational Rehab. If you’re not sure where to start, head to their Facebook page where they’re very responsive.
VA Health Care
The VA health care system provides many free services to qualifying veterans. You can even use your VA benefits as a supplement to Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance plans. Holding a VA Disability rating will help make you eligible for this care and give you access to higher levels of free care.
Your individual state might also offer some nice benefits based on your VA Disability Rating. Most states do cheap or free vehicle registration for disabled vets, which can be a big value. Some places have special parking spots, you might get free access to state (or national) parks, or additional educational benefits. It’s definitely worth looking up what your state offers.
The Veteran’s Administration offers a lot of other benefits for disabled veterans. You can find details on their website. Here’s a pamphlet with details on several.
We know why the VA Disability program exists and that it’s intended for you. We’ve looked at the FAA’s process for their medical certificates, and we’ve looked at the VA Disability process. Now that we finally have all the context we need, we can put this all together and discuss how to approach medical treatment while on Active Duty (including full-time Guard or Reserve service) to make your eventual VA Disability application a clear-cut and relatively painless process.
Tune in next week for the final part in this series.
The VA Doc is from their recruiting website: https://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/17219/why-work-for-va/.
The TAP class is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/2972890/transition-assistance-program.
The PT session used to illustrate a musculoskeletal exam is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/2041008/physical-therapy-arawa.
The Texan with the iPhone is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6222312/texas-state-guard-implements-emergency-tracking-network.