How to Prove Eligibility for Veterans Benefits - dummies

How to Prove Eligibility for Veterans Benefits

By Rod Powers

To qualify for a particular veterans benefit, you must prove your eligibility. Eligibility for veterans benefits typically depends on your length of service, where and when you served, and your discharge characterization.

Each and every VA benefit has different eligibility rules. Why? Each and every veterans benefit represents a different law, passed by Congress, at a different time.

Collect documents that prove your eligibility for veterans benefits

For most claims, you must prove two things:

  • That you meet the qualifications of military service and discharge characterization for that benefit. You prove your status as a veteran by providing a copy of your military discharge form, such as your DD Form 214.

    The form includes information about when you served in the military, where you served, medals and awards you earned, and your discharge characterization. If you don’t have a copy of this form, you can get a replacement.

  • For almost any benefit, you’ll need to provide a copy of DD Form 214, or its equivalent, to prove you meet the active-duty service and discharge requirements to be eligible for the benefit.

  • That you meet any other criteria required for that benefit (for example, a service-connected disability). This is where many veterans run into trouble. There’s no all-inclusive list of necessary supporting documentation because it differs for each situation, but common sense plays a large part. Remember that, for the most part, the burden of proof to show eligibility for a particular benefit lies with you.

Supply proof of your eligibility for veterans benefits

There is no all-inclusive list of possible documents you can use to support your benefit claim. It depends on your particular situation and the benefit you’re applying for.

Citations from military medals and decorations may help. For example, if you submit a citation for the award of the Purple Heart, which is a decoration awarded only to those who are wounded in combat, that makes a pretty clear case that you received an injury in the line of duty.

Sworn witness statements may also help your case, but be careful with those. If they’re not worded correctly and are vague, they may actually hurt your case.

Quality, not quantity, counts when qualifying for veterans benefits

It’s not the amount of supporting documentation that’s important, but whether that documentation supports your claim. The best supporting evidence is:

  • Specific: Your documentation and witness statements should relate directly to the benefit you’re claiming and contain as much specific information as possible. Exact dates and times are more persuasive than “sometime around March of 1976.”

    A doctor’s report that says, “The patient is suffering from a wound that was caused by shrapnel injury, consistent with wounds often received in combat zones,” is a whole lot better than, “The patient hurt his knee.”

  • Verifiable: Anyone can write something on a piece of paper and sign it. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. The evidence you provide should be verifiable. That means you should be able to support it from other sources.

    If you claim you were injured during a combat operation in Afghanistan, you should be able to provide evidence that you were actually deployed to Afghanistan (deployment orders, unit rosters, and so forth).

  • Authoritative: A witness statement signed by your commanding officer or platoon leader is going to carry more weight than a witness statement signed by your best combat buddy. Statements signed by medical corpsmen or doctors about treatment received in the combat zone are similarly effective.

    For example, if you submit a sworn statement from your former commanding officer that says, “On July 17, 2003, my unit was undergoing simulated combat training at Dicklehead Army Post. I personally witnessed a tank run over Private Hurtsalot’s foot. I immediately summoned medical care, and he was transported to the medical facility with a crushed foot,” that would be acceptable documentation.

    On the other hand, if you submit 20 sworn witness statements, which all state something along the lines of, “We were practicing war games a few years ago, and tanks were running around everywhere. I didn’t actually see his foot get run over, but I remember hearing him scream, and the next day I noticed a bandage on his foot,” that probably wouldn’t be very helpful to your case.

Asking the VA to assist in proving your eligibility

Under the law, the burden of proof for benefit eligibility falls directly on your shoulders. However, you don’t have to do it all alone. In the year 2000, the thoughtful folks who roam the halls of Capitol Hill got together and passed a new law, obligating the VA to assist you in gathering supporting documentation. This is referred to as the VA’s duty to assist.

First and foremost, the law requires the VA to tell you, in simple words, exactly what evidence is required to support your claim. That’s a big help in itself.

The law also requires the VA to make a “reasonable effort” to obtain the evidence for you. The standard by which the VA must apply this is slightly different depending on the sources of the records.

  • Federal records: The VA must make a continued reasonable effort to try to obtain those records. The VA can stop pursuing the records only after it is reasonably sure the records don’t exist or that a continued effort to get the records would be futile. If the VA comes to this determination, the law requires the agency to notify you and inform you of possible alternatives.

  • Nonfederal records: The VA must make a reasonable effort to get records such as private doctor records or sworn witness statements. The law requires the VA to send a request for such documents, and if it doesn’t receive them within two months, it must make another request.

    If there is still no response, the VA must continue to request the records, unless it has reason to believe that the records are unobtainable.

For nonfederal records, you should make every attempt to obtain them yourself, especially medical records. It’s not uncommon for medical facilities to ignore such requests unless they come from the patient. Additionally, some of these facilities charge a fee to copy the records, and the VA isn’t allowed to pay such fees.