This article lays out the type of evidence veterans can use to prove the three prongs for a successful claim. As a brief recap, recall that for a successful claim, a veteran must have 1) a current disability which is 2) as likely as not related to an 3) injury, condition, or event which happened while in service. You can read about each prong here:
- A Current Disability
- The In-Service Event, Injury or Condition
- A Nexus Between the Current Disability and In-Service Injury
What Evidence Will VA Obtain On Its Own?
The VA has what is called a “duty to assist” the veteran in procuring evidence to support the veteran’s claim. There are limits to the VA’s obligation, though, and in the end it’s up to the veteran to provide evidence to support the claim. In this section we’ll discuss the evidence VA should assist the veteran in gathering.
First, the VA should gather all records in the federal government’s possession which could be relevant to the veteran’s claim. This includes the veteran’s service treatment records, personnel file, and unit records.
Second, VA should also gather private treatment records from providers identified by the veteran. The veteran must sign a form which identifies each private facility where the veteran sought treatment. The form is downloadable here.
Third, VA has a duty to provide a medical examination or obtain a medical opinion if one is necessary for VA to make a decision on the claim. The veteran can trigger VA’s obligation to provide a medical examination by providing the following information:
- Competent evidence of a current disability or persistent and recurring symptoms of a disability. What this means is the veteran must either already have a diagnosis of the disability or be able to report current symptoms of a disability. If the veteran hasn’t seen a doctor or sought treatment for the symptoms (in other words, if no medical record exists to show the disability), we recommend the veteran submit with his or her claim a thorough explanation of the symptoms the veteran’s experiencing. We typically ask our clients to begin keeping a daily log of their symptoms. And if the veteran’s been toughing it out, maybe it’s time to see a doctor for a formal diagnosis of the issue.
- Evidence establishing that some event, injury or disease occurred in service. For purposes of triggering VA’s duty to provide an exam, this requirement may be satisfied by a veteran’s lay description of the event or injury. Remember, though, to win the claim the veteran may need to provide evidence which corroborates the veteran’s statement (though see below regarding the combat exception).
- Evidence which indicates that the disability or persistent or recurrent symptoms of a disability may be associated with the veteran’s service or with another service-connected disability. This requirement has a low threshold. The veteran is not expected to submit a medical opinion that proves the claim. To trigger VA’s duty to provide an exam, the veteran just has to show there is some plausible connection between the two.
VA should gather the veteran’s medical and service records before making a determination on the need for a medical exam. If VA denies the claim without obtaining these records, that is a basis to appeal the decision.
What Evidence Can I Submit To Prove The Three Elements?
Perhaps the most valuable evidence a veteran can provide to VA are detailed lay statements (also know as buddy statements) and medical evidence showing a diagnosis or nexus. Buddy statements can come from the veteran, a spouse, family members, friends, or anyone else who observed the veteran’s symptoms or in-service event. They should provide as much detail as possible and give the context of the injury or medical condition. Give detail and answer the 5 W’s as best you can. For example, “While assigned to the 1-503, 173rd ABCT in September 2018, our unit participated in a training exercise called Saber Junction. During a jump my equipment did not drop properly and I landed on my rifle which jabbed me on my left side.” This is much better than “I hurt my back on a jump.” Friends or family writing a statement about a veteran’s symptoms should state how and when they observed the symptoms, the situation in which they observed the symptoms, and describe how often and how severe the symptoms are.
Medical evidence is not limited to your treatment records, be they from a military branch, VA, or a private facility. Although VA is often obligated to provide a medical exam of the claimed condition, a veteran has the option to provide his or her own opinion. The form used by VA in a C&P exam is called a Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ). A veteran can have a private provider fill out the same DBQ used by the VA’s own examiner. Every DBQ form used by VA can be downloaded here.
VA should obtain your military service and health records (see above), but you can also request them from the National Personnel Records Center here. Similarly, if a private medical facility (other than a VA clinic or a service branch) treated one of your disabilities, you can obtain them directly from the private facility and provide them yourself to VA.
Especially for an in-service injury, event, or condition, other contemporaneous pieces of evidence can help establish the event actually occurred. For example, did you write an e-mail to someone telling them you twisted your ankle? Did you confide in someone that you were assaulted? Do you have an invoice for the knee brace you ordered to wear under your uniform?
The Combat Exception
Combat veterans enjoy a special advantage when proving the second prong (that of an in-service event, injury, or condition). Congress recognized that in a combat situation military record keeping may be deficient and thus there would be no record to corroborate the veteran’s testimony. For example, it is unlikely there would be a record of a specific instance of incoming mortar rounds a veteran points to as the stressor which caused the veteran’s PTSD. The rule lessens the veteran’s burden to provide evidence which helps confirm or verify the veteran’s lay testimony.
The rule states that “in the case of any veteran who engaged in combat with the enemy . . . the Secretary shall accept as sufficient proof of service-connection of any disease or injury alleged to have been incurred in or aggravated by such service satisfactory lay or other evidence of service incurrence or aggravation of such injury or disease, if consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships of such service, notwithstanding the fact that there is no official record of such incurrence or aggravation in such service, and, to that end, shall resolve every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran.”
Thus, the evidence provided (usually the veteran’s own statement or buddy statements) must be “consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardship” of the veteran’s service. In other words, the testimony must be plausible and fit the veteran’s service.
Have Questions About Your Evidence?
If VA denied your claim because you lack certain evidence, please contact us for a free evaluation of your claim. Within about 45 days we can obtain your claim file from the VA and perform a free review of VA’s denial and the evidence needed to win.