Getting a VA Disability Rating – How to Do It & What It Means

This is not the end-all, be-all guide to applying for VA Benefits. It is merely one no-bullshit article about applying for a disability rating at the end of active service. I am speaking from personal experience only, not in-depth research, which is why the one thing I’ll say about reservists is merely hearsay.

This is not an article about gaming the system, or stealing from the government. If you’re lucky enough to leave the service with everything as it was when you went in, then you shouldn’t risk buying a 1-way ticket to ShitsVille on the Karma Train. The benefits may not be worth the cost.

In this article I will discuss:

  • What a VA Rating Is & What It Will Mean to Your Future
  • When to Apply for a VA Rating
  • How to Behave at Your Claims Appointment
  • Going to the VA After Discharge
  • Applying for Re-Eval of Rating

What Is a VA Disability Rating?

A VA rating is the percentage rating (10%, 20%, etc.) you will receive based on your injuries and illnesses while in service.

Members of the LCpl Underground will tell you that if you have a certain rating, you can’t get a job. I found this particularly troubling when I met a former sniper who was crippled from having been shot in Iraq. He was a parking attendant at a hotel, and was glad to have gotten only 20%, “because” he said, “if you get 30% or more, you’re not allowed to make any money.” Here I was, intact, and this poor bastard was fucked up for life, and getting a pittance for it. Thankfully, I was able to tell him just how untrue it was, and we spent a few minutes researching who he had to call in his city to get a re-eval.

Just to stress how untrue this 30% myth is, a marine who got out before me was rated at 40% while training in MMA. The doctor specifically told him that even if he became a famous MMA fighter, he’d retain his rating, including healthcare, which would come in handy after a night of being kicked in the face. I got out with a 60% rating, and now have a 70% rating. Since getting out, I’ve worked private sector jobs, government jobs, and have had my own business. I’ve done physical labor and sat at a desk. In my best year I grossed $90,000, and it never threatened my VA rating or pension. I once trained for an amateur boxing match (came in 2nd!), and had no fear that engaging in a contact sport would disqualify me from receiving these benefits any more than would recreational skydiving, a terrible diet, or choosing a career where I sit all day long and drink coffee.

The pension is tax-free money you receive for the injuries you sustained while in service. If you end up being forced into medical retirement, you will be given the choice of a military pension (taxable income) or a VA pension (not taxable income). Choose the latter. No sense paying taxes when you can have it all.

What these benefits mean to your future can be the difference in poverty and prosperity. Medical costs, especially prescriptions, can crush any household’s budget. But not yours if you go to the VA.

The pension could, in theory, be put away for the future. I’d love to say that’s what I’ve done, but I’ve never done it once. Supporting a family of 6, my wife and I have always needed that money, especially after we moved to Long Island. But the pension has given me CHOICES. My second job out of the military was a terrible one. I stuck it out for a year, and then left. When the job I’d been looking forward to fell through, it was a letdown, but not a catastrophe. I was able to work weekends and enjoy time with my family for 3 months before another full-time position came through – right in time, too. Most people are less than 1 month from being in financial trouble, meaning that they’ll miss payments, be in collections, etc. For me, even with little savings, it was 3 months, and I never once considered taking money from the Roth IRA that could have gotten me through another month, if needed.

When I left the next job, it was with a 6-week gap. This wasn’t saved sick or vacation time; it was unpaid. While I wasn’t rich, I had the stability of a guaranteed payment on the 1st of each month. Again, I didn’t touch my Roth IRA, which now had enough to get me through 2 months.

In spite of having had many times that I’d been stretched for money, I’ve never been desperate. I’ve never missed a bill, never missed a meal, and never missed a payment – even for the little rental house I kept in Jacksonville, NC, which once had a 4-month vacancy while my rent in New York was $2,100.

When to Apply for Benefits

The LCpl Underground will say you can’t PT after applying for benefits, which for some marines is simply untenable, so they wait. This isn’t true. If you severely injure yourself while working out, which would leave you on Scooters and Wheelchairs, you may want it added to your claims, which would be inconvenient, but I PT’d until my last day before terminal leave, and it was while on terminal that I got my VA rating, meaning I EAS’d on April 20, 2008, and received that first payment on May 1, 2008.

Step 1 of this process is to go to SEPS and TAPS. These mandatory classes take about a week, and are held at the base theater. You have to go. Some of what you hear will be complete bullshit. For example, there was a Sgt whose billet was actually to help separating marines get jobs on base. This dickhead got in front of us and threw out huge numbers for how much money we could make, like $50k for driving a bus. A month later I went up to him at a job fair where he was standing with 2 higher ranking marines, and after I asked a few questions he said, “well, what do you want, exactly?” and I said, “I want to make fifty grand,” and he laughed like I had just said the dumbest shit he’d ever heard.

So take what valuable information you can, but approach these classes like they are checks-in-the-box, with the major benefit of helping you get mentally ready to leave the military.

If you have some idea that your job is too important for you to make claims while in, you need to disabuse yourself of that notion. I don’t care if you drive the Base Commander around, are in charge of the S-4 working party, or if you’re personally planning the death of Kim Jong Un. You can’t tell me that you’re not allowed to go to an appointment, especially since a scheduled medical appointment, per military orders, cannot be missed.

I had this mentality. I was bogged down in making sure that the paperwork for the platoon I was in charge of was all squared away, and that the safety office would be ahead of schedule for the quarter. Thankfully, the SSgt I worked for, and the CWO who was the Co. CO, told me that waiting until I was on terminal leave was the wrong thing to do – that I needed to (A) go to medical to get anything not-yet-documented in my record, and (B) make my claims.

So that week I had neck pain and back pain added to my medical record, and also went to a pulmonologist to address an asbestos exposure, as well as all that crap I breathed in while deployed.

The next week I was at the VA claims office on base.

How to Behave at the Claims Appointment

First and foremost, be normal. If you’re not crippled, don’t act like you are. As I said, they rated me at 60%, and I walked in and out of that place like a guy who ran 6-minute miles and did 20 pull-ups. You don’t have to put on a show, like one liar I heard about.

Story of a Liar: While I was going through the Pulmonary Function Test (PFT), I started asking about the kinds of people they see there – specifically, I wanted to know what tipped them off that someone was faking it. They told me about a marine who was saying his back pain was so bad that he actually could not blow into the PFT machine, which requires a full measurement of one’s lungs. He kept insisting that he couldn’t take a deep breath, nor could he exhale vigorously. And then as he left the building, they saw him, through the window facing the parking lot, run and jump into his Jeep that had oversize tires.

“What can you do about that?” I asked. She said that they made a note of it in his medical record, stating that he claimed he couldn’t breathe because of back pain, but seemed to have no problem leaping into his vehicle.

Having said that, if “normal” for you is being a tough guy, you need to drop the pretense. You wouldn’t be making a claim if you never went to medical for anything. And if you are legitimately a tough guy, then you’ve had some pain over the years.

This is the most important thing: for everything you have been to medical for, you can make a legitimate claim. For what you haven’t, you can’t, and may be denied treatment for at the VA hospital in later years, according to a person I spoke to at the VA. For each claim the doctor will say, “do you feel pain in your [body part]?” Your answer should be, “yes” with no qualifiers.

For example, you don’t say, “yes, I have pain in my right knee when I carry a SAW ten miles.” The answer is just “yes,” because that right knee of yours likely hurts, also, when you’re watching TV, washing your car, or playing with your kids. Just answer the question in as few words as possible.

I claimed, and got percentages for, my right knee (10%), left knee (10%), right hip (10%), left hip (10%), back (10%), neck (10%), and right ankle (0%). I also made claims for PTSD (10%), COPD (10%), and eczema (0%).

If you’re adding up the ten-percents and finding they make up more than 60%, it’s because the VA has its own system for adding, and it’s unimportant right now.

What is important is that you need to:

  • Schedule & Attend SEPS/TAPS
  • Go to Sick Call for Anything Not Documented
  • Schedule Claims Appointments

Then when you get out, you need to check in to your local VA Hospital.

Check in to the VA Near You

When I got out, my wife went from reserve to active duty, and was then stationed in Louisiana. Being a military spouse, I didn’t need the VA; I could go to the base hospital, which was much more convenient since the drive from DeRidder, LA to the nearest VA was about 2 hours.

However, I heard that if I didn’t check in within 2 years of my EAS I’d never be able to go. Is this true? I actually don’t know, and couldn’t find an answer in a search that led to this VA Myth Busting Article. The 2-year thing is probably false, but it’s best to be in the system, especially when prescriptions for bronchitis can cost over $100, leading you to make choices between which one is most necessary, and which you can live without.

Among the reasons you’ll want to check in at a VA is because you may find that you should have a higher rating.

Getting a Benefit Re-Eval

I have been re-eval’d twice since getting out in 2008. Once for my lungs (COPD), and another for PTSD. The COPD test concluded that my lung capacity is continuing to diminish, but not yet enough to raise my benefits rating. The PTSD re-eval led to a test for Attention Deficit Disorder. What had happened was that I was working as an accountant and found that I just couldn’t sit still. Now, I’ve experienced more commonly known PTSD symptoms, but getting up every 20 minutes wasn’t normal, and was completely counter-intuitive to the work. As an accountant, you really have to just sit there all day, staring into the glowing box of death while monkeying away into a spreadsheet like a good little drone. With a Red Bull or coffee I could maybe go 45 minutes, which is a great solution if I was cool with crushing my adrenal glands and saying goodbye to erections in middle age. I wasn’t.

Seeing the results, the doctor said, “You didn’t have ADD as a kid.” I hadn’t. “I can tell because of the way the test results came in,” and then he explained that someone can actually get ADD as a result of trauma. “I’m going to submit for your benefits to be raised based on PTSD,” he explained. “The VA is going to deny it, and then you have to appeal. During the appeal, it will get approved.” In my case, it was raised from 10% to 30% without having to appeal, and my overall rating went from 60% to 70%.

Last Notes

I mentioned in the beginning I’d say something about reservists. I have no idea about any benefits for reservists.

A marine I worked with was married to a former reservist who was rated 30% when he got out, and was receiving the standard rate noted in the chart above. She speculated he got that because it was sustained while activated and deployed. I have no idea if that’s true.

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On How Much You’ll Really Get: I got out when I was 26. As a veteran rated at 70% with a wife and 4 children, I am currently receiving $1,702. As the kids age out, the amount will drop, so to keep it simple, let’s say it’ll average out at $1,500 per month, and that I’ll live to be 86-years-old. That means I’ll have received $1,500 every month ($18k/year) for 60 years, or $1,080,000. Would it be better to be so healthy and strong – without even the slightest bit of knee pain – that I didn’t rate a pension? I think so. But since I’m not, I ought to recognize that I am looking forward to receiving about one-million dollars post-USMC in cash. This doesn’t account for possibly $1,000,000 in medical care, the $50k in tuition from the GI Bill, and the roughly $3,000 I received in BAH the month it ran out in 2015, not to mention that when I was first going to college I qualified for the Pell Grant since I had such a low taxable income, and that New York State has a scholarship, even for graduate students.

Most people won’t get a rating like mine, but even a 10% rating can make a big difference over the course of a lifetime?

A family friend of mine has a 10% rating. During the Vietnam era he was on the rifle range as a coach, and has tinnitus. He is now about 65-years-old, and has received $180/month ($2,160) for about 40 years, or $86,400. Would he prefer to not have a slight ringing in his ears until he meets a sweet, quiet death as the final bell tolls? I imagine he would. But that’s how it went down, and he’s receiving benefits as such.

On Waiting to Make Claims: Don’t. Every day you wait is money you are denying your family. If you have no family, would you be better or worse off without this money? If you’re denying yourself out of some sense of nobility, perhaps you’re right to do so. After all, if you’re sitting on a trust fund, then maybe it’s best to let it go. But if you fucked up your knee, shoulder, back, or mind as a result of having served your country, then you deserve to be compensated. I’d have likely incurred some of the damage in my knees, hips, back and neck simply from being active had I not joined, but instead of running marathons or dancing the night away in an attempt to be someone’s last call, I trained for war. In the course of such zeal and fidelity, I was injured. And for that, there is a means of remuneration.

Don’t waste it by denying yourself and your family. It’s not like the government has any better use for it than you do. After all, if you put it all away, it’ll grow, which is good for everyone. If you use it to make house payments, you’ll gain equity, which is good for everyone. If you use it all to buy groceries, you’ll support local jobs, which is good for everyone. If you don’t get it, it won’t even be a drop in the ocean. If you do, it will change your life for the better with positive results that extend beyond your lifetime.

Author: Chris Pascale

Christopher Pascale is the author of War Poems: A Marine's Tour 2003-2008. He served in the Marine Corps as a combat engineer.