Here’s an unfortunate fact: If you once served our country and are now dealing with physical or mental health issues, you might be leaving money on the table when you apply for veterans disability benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Maybe you don’t know about the resources available to help you file your claim. Maybe you do know about these resources but decide to go through the process alone out of convenience or pride.
You are not alone, and you probably need help in this process.
My name is Tara Fajardo Arteaga, and I’m a military veteran and mom of four. Throughout my time in the service, I have developed a passion for helping those who serve our country. That is why I am currently working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) as a Veterans Service Officer, helping veterans navigate the process of applying for benefits, including those applying for disability.
As a result of this service, the VFW has named me a #StillServing Hero as part of its national #StillServing campaign, which aims to bring to light the continued service of America’s veterans following active duty.
By following my top five tips below, I can help you get the benefits that you deserve.
1. Whenever possible, start by getting healthcare services at the VA.
When it’s time to seek health services, make the VA your first stop. While you could receive care at any hospital, seeing a doctor at the VA streamlines the process of applying for benefits since all records are within the same entity.
2. Get in contact with a Veterans Service Officer.
Too many veterans make the crucial mistake of filing their disability application alone because they don’t know where to go for help. In fact, you don’t even have to leave your home!
There are a number of ways to be connected with an accredited Veteran Service Officer (VSO). You can call the VFW National Headquarters at 1-833-VFW-VETS (1-833-839-8387) or the VA’s helpline at 1-800-MyVA411 (1-800-698-2411). Both can connect you to service officers in your area who will help you file an intent to file (ITF) form and to work with you on your application.
3. Utilize your Veteran Service Officer to complete your application.
While you could file your application alone, it would be easier and you have a greater chance of success if you ask for help. The disability application process is confusing and time consuming – don’t go through it alone out of pride or convenience. VSOs have seen hundreds of scenarios and can help you with yours.
For example, many people who file alone make the critical mistake of not connecting their injuries to their service. Even conditions that you don’t think are connected to your service might be. Your VSO is trained to help you think about your condition in a different way and help you make those connections.
Maybe you are suffering from depression and attributing it to work or family problems. Was there an event during your service that might have stayed with you and be the true cause?
Maybe you are dealing with respiratory conditions. Could you have served near a burn pit? Your military service records, which your VSO will also help you obtain, will indicate this. Since there are many presumptive conditions due to burn pit exposure and service in the Middle East, we can help you make connections that might otherwise be missed.
These are a just a few ways that a VSO can help you to maximize your benefits.
4. Be open and honest with your medical provider.
Past and current medical records might need to be filed with your disability claim. That is why it is crucial that you are open and honest with your doctor. Too many people tell their doctor they are feeling fine when they aren’t or leave out important information they don’t feel is related to the cause of their visit.
Your doctors are on your team. Be candid with them so your records will be an honest reflection of your health.
5. Be persistent.
Even if you filed your disability claim alone and were denied, there is still time to get in contact with a VSO and appeal the decision. A denial is not the end of the road!
All that is needed to start the appeal process is new and relevant evidence of a service-related injury or illness. In many instances, this may just mean you have to return to the doctor and provide more information. Continue to work with your VSO to appeal the decision. If warranted, your VFW VSO can even connect you with lawyers to review your appeal, at no cost to you.
Veterans who sacrificed for our country deserve compensation for their health issues caused by their military service.
Don’t let simple mistakes be the reason you don’t get your benefits. Whether you are thinking about filing an application or already have and were denied, follow the tips above to ensure you are granted your earned benefits.
Tara Fajardo Arteaga is a member of the 113th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. She enlisted into the Kansas Army National Guard in 2008 and served as a motor transport operator driving Heavy Equipment Transporters (HETs). In May 2010, Tara graduated from the University of Kansas with her bachelor’s degree in Speech Pathology and was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq later that same year, earning the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal for her efforts in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2013 she reclassified as a public affairs specialist and continues her service to this day.
She is currently pursuing her passion of helping our nation’s veterans by serving as the National Service Officer for the island of Puerto Rico, employed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. Tara lives with her husband and their four children in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico.