Ask the Chief: obtaining a VA Disability rating or upgrade

the back story

In 1995, while on Active Duty, I was a crewmember of a Navy ship in Portsmouth, Virginia. During the week leading up to the Labor Day weekend, I started to feel ill. Over the course of the following days, I was unable to get medically-screened for one reason or another. The sordid affair still bothers me if I think about that. Finally getting someone to take me to the base clinic, my appendix ruptured and I was recuperating for a month afterward.

For the next quarter-century, I had bowel issues requiring hospitalization about twice a year. I had left Active Duty for the Navy Reserve in 2000, but did not go to the VA for a disability review prior to leaving Active Duty. That proved to be a mistake that I am still regretting today. However, at the recommendation of a veteran, I submitted my Navy medical file to the VA for a disability review in 2017, and was awarded a Zero (0%) Service-Connected rating. It was actually the lesson that my son provided, before exiting his Army enlistment, where his extensive medical issues as a result of his Army service were recorded by the VA medical screener. He was awarded a 100% VA service-connected rating as a result. Since he had already signed papers to serve an additional year in the Army Reserve, there was no waiver or release from the Reserve contract, for a VA disability, unless the Army performed a disability-screening of their own.

All exiting military personnel should schedule a VA Disability review

Considering that I re-enlisted into the Navy Reserve later in that same year, 2000, I did not understand the necessity of seeking a VA Disability review. My delay until 2017 aged-out my two younger sons from benefits they might have gained from my rating. Obtaining a Disability Rating from the military branch, or from the VA, entitles a servicemember’s children to certain college tuition discount or waivers – as long as they are under age 23 (or 26 perhaps). Even a Rating of 0 (zero) Percent, meaning your condition does not debilitate you at present, qualifies.

A disability upgrade is not a simple exercise

It was a surgeon that I met with during the last few hospitalizations, I had employer-subsidized healthcare, who actually performed surgery the last time I was hospitalized, who linked my appendix rupture and scar tissue in the bowel, that prompted me to go back to the VA Disability board. However, I am beginning to understand how difficult it is to get the Government to recognize health issues that veterans suffer, long after their military service. While the most egregious treatment of Vietnam servicemembers attempting to get healthcare for Agent Orange and other herbicide exposure is well-known, only the symptoms that are legislatively-recognized allow for veterans to obtain assistance. For decades after the Gulf War and then Afghanistan and Iraq, exposure to burn pit fumes and other toxics in those regions were slow to be linked to veteran symptoms. In other regions and with other complications, veterans like me, whose ruptured appendix started twenty-five years of bowel issues and hospitalization, will not be quickly recognized.

For the last year of the COVID pandemic, all bureaucracies have been impacted by shutdowns and remote workforce initiatives. Though the VA has initiated a website for veterans to input their claims and supporting documentation, it has not functioned properly for the last several months. And when telephone support is not an hours-long waiting time, there seems to be no technical issues noted in their system, and no workaround (no staffed offices). But all those nasal-gastric tubes, barium /CAT scans, and morphine-drips, have made me determined to seek something more. Anything more from the VA.

More to come.……

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