I received my fair share of bumps and bruises while I was in the Marine Corps, but to this day I still feel like I owe the Corps more than it owes me.
In late April 2006, I went to my first SEP/TAP class provided by Marine Corps Community Service. SEP and TAP are the Marine Corps’ separation and transition assistance classes and are important for Marines leaving the service.
I didn’t feel like I need anything else from the government, though. I thought I was good, so I essentially gaffed it off.
In the months leading up to being honorably discharged, I listened to Marines talk about filing their VA claim. Not me. Not interested, not worried about it.
I had a college fund waiting for me, I had experience that set me ahead of my peers, I had seen Mt. Sinai and crossed the equator. I had the lifelong friendships that came with being in combat (love you guys, you know who you are) and I didn’t want the moniker “disabled Veteran” at the age of 23. Effectively, I was a bull-headed Marine.
What I didn’t know then, and what I am learning now, is that a lot of those things that were bothersome when I was 23 would become major problems years down the road.
I never would have guessed that my chronic stomach issues in the Corps would eventually lead to surgery. My mid- and lower back are shot, my hearing shows the tell-tale signs of being used and abused, and then there are the headaches and brain-housing group issues.
Ten years ago, I thought I was invincible. Today, I understand that I was very wrong.
Thankfully, my issues were well documented and I was able to start my VA claim. And I am fortunate to be in a position to share that journey with other Veterans.
I started reading through the VA benefits website trying to get a vector and trying to figure out where I should start. I asked some friends who had been through the process and I read a few blogs.
One common theme emerged from my research: contact a national service officer (NSO) with one of the nationally known Veterans organizations like Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or American Legion.
NSOs work with VA every day and know the ins and outs of the system. Admittedly, VA is a bureaucracy, so navigating it with a guide is a good way to go.
My NSO is Paul Shook with the Washington, D.C., DAV office, and I felt immediately at ease when I sat down to talk to him about what I wanted to accomplish.
Even though I work for VA, I’m using the resources that are readily available to all Veterans to accomplish this process. That is why Paul is my NSO — he knows more about the process than I ever will and I trust him to have my best interest at heart.
What I have discovered so far is that the key in all this is to know what I want to accomplish ahead of time and know what direction I want to travel. Anyone who is putting a claim together should ask themselves what their expectations are and then work with a NSO to manage them from the outset of the claim.
There is a lot that goes into this process, which is why it takes time. Not to mention, the more a Veteran is seeking from VA the longer the process is going to be.
First, I had to gather my records for Paul, do the initial power of attorney and document all the issues I would be submitting to VA. This is a pretty painless step if all your records are intact.
Next, we submitted my claim. VA has to process the claim and then send a request to the National Archives for my official medical record. This is understandable because they want to make sure the records they go over are official and not tampered with. They’re being prudent.
This part of the process can take 1-3 months to complete. Between the volume of claims being submitted and the sensitivity of the information, the process just takes time.
Fortunately, I have substantial medical records for four medical issues that bothered me while I was on active duty. All four issues are still bothering me today and they are the things I submitted my claim to address.
I do not care what percentage of disability VA comes back with, I will accept whatever their decision is provided I get a fair shake in their review.
I know what you’re thinking, “Who determines whether or not I got a fair shake?”
That is a determination Paul and I will make. If he tells me I got a fair shake, I’m going to trust him in that, because he’s a Marine combat Veteran and a brother. I know he has my best interest at heart. If I thought otherwise, I would find a new NSO.
I suspect this is where many Veterans take issue with their claims. They go into the process with an expectation and if that expectation is not met they may become distressed.
That’s not to say some Veterans do not have a legitimate grievance with a VA decision— many do —but an NSO is going to be able to recognize a legitimate grievance and walk a Veteran through the appeals process.
I’m only just beginning the process and have a new perspective on this already. What has your experience been? Similar, different? Do you have questions about it? Share your thoughts here and I’ll talk with Paul about them and relay his thoughts. (Keep in mind, though, that we can’t answer case-specific questions and ask you not to share any of your case information. You’ll want to work with a NSO for those questions.)
For videos and more information about the VA claims process, visit the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Youtube channel.