Do VA Disability Benefits apply only if I’m permanently disabled?
Find out if you’re eligible for VA disability benefits. Learn how disability is measured, and the common service-connected disabilities approved for benefits for both male and female veterans.
Many may think VA disability benefits only apply to someone whose injuries are so severe that they’re confined to a wheelchair or have lost a limb. However, disability compensation is available to any veteran who has a physical or mental illness or injury incurred during, or aggravated by, military service.
For each condition that is service-connected, the Veterans Benefits Administration measures the degree to which that condition interferes with your daily life functions. This “disability” is measured on a scale from 0% to 100%. Vets with ratings of 10% or higher are entitled to monthly tax-free compensation. One state estimates that the majority of its disabled veterans have a disability rating of 10%, 20%, or 30%. Vets with multiple conditions typically are rated at the highest levels.
Common service-connected disabilities
In 2009, the most common approved VA disability benefits for vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were for the following conditions:
- Tinnitus – 34%
- Neck and back strain (Lumbosacral or cervical strain) – 23%
- PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) – 17%
- Hearing problems – 14%
- Migraine headaches – 12%
For female veterans, the top five service-connected disabilities in 2009 were:
PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) – 6%
- Lower back injuries – 5%
- Migraine headaches – 5%
- Major depressive disorder – 5%
- Partial hysterectomy – 4%
If you’re wondering whether your condition qualifies as a “disability,” one point to consider is if there is “residual” effect from the injury or illness. If whatever occurred was completely resolved during your time in service, that may not qualify. But if, say, you broke your leg during active duty and you think it’s fine now – go ahead and make an application. You may be rated at a 0% disability today, but if you develop arthritis later in that leg, you’ll be glad you already had the service-connected condition documented. There’s no time limit on application, but the longer you wait, the harder it may be to find the medical records and prove that the condition is connected to your service.
Mental illness disabilities
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental disorder recognized from combat. The number of veterans applying for and receiving disability benefits for PTSD is increasing.
Many other mental health conditions can qualify for compensation, if they occurred or were aggravated during military service. These include: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders, among many others. Mental health conditions are also rated from 0% to 100% disability, based on the level of interference with your work and social life.
Depression was the fourth highest disability claim for female veterans in 2009. Women may feel more able to publicly seek help for depression, as there is more cultural stigma against men who suffer what are often considered “emotional” problems. But mental illness is serious and should receive appropriate medical and psychological treatment before it worsens.
If in doubt, vets should still apply
Many vets feel they were only doing their duty and that VA disability benefits are really for more “serious” cases. You may not even consider yourself disabled and are able to perform many of the normal functions in your life. But if you’re young and think you can shake off that bum ankle, it could turn into arthritis when you’re older and may seriously inhibit your ability to walk.
You don’t have to apply for disability benefits within a certain time from your service. If your military service was a while ago and you’re either still feeling effects from a condition or believe new symptoms may stem from your service, you can still apply.
It could be that your symptoms had a delayed onset, or – in the case of Vietnam era vets, the VA now recognizes some medical conditions that it denied back then. If you’ve been out of service for a while, it may be a more complex process to find all of the medical records and documents to show the injury or illness was service-connected, but if you’re entitled to these benefits, you should consider applying.
If your application is approved and you are officially designated, most vets receive some kind of assistance.