The Elements of a Service-Connection Claim
Perhaps one of the most significant and important benefits available to veterans
of the United States military is that of a service-connected disability. Simply
put, it is recognition by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that a chronic
medical disability is the result of a disease or injury incurred in or
aggravated by active military service. The purpose of this article is to provide
a guideline to the basic rules of establishing service connection. It is not
intended to be an exhaustive list, as many such claims involve complex legal
and medical issues, much of which is beyond the scope of this article. Moreover,
the specific facts of each individual case are unique, and it is these facts
that will determine whether service connection is warranted.
The simplest case of establishing service connection is when a chronic
disability is originally diagnosed while on active duty, as it is usually clear,
under such circumstances, that the disability was incurred while on active duty.
However, service connection is not limited to such circumstances, as it may also
be granted for any disability diagnosed after discharge, when all the evidence,
including that pertinent to service, establishes that the disability was
incurred in service. Evidence of continuity of symptomatology from the time of
service until the present is required where the chronicity of a condition
manifested during service either has not been established or might reasonably be
In general, there is a three-part test for claims of direct service connection.
First, there must be competent medical evidence of a current disability. If
there is no such medical diagnosis, the claim ends at that point. Simply put,
without evidence of a current disability there can be no valid claim. Second,
there must be lay or medical evidence of an in-service disease or injury.
Usually, such evidence will be documented in a veteranís service medical
records, but is not limited to this evidence. The third and final element is
competent medical evidence establishing a link/nexus between the current
disability and the events of military service.
Service connection can also be established for pre-existing medical condition(s)
on the basis of aggravation. The law provides that every veteran shall be taken
to have been in sound condition when examined, accepted and enrolled for
service. However, there is an exception for defects, infirmities or disorders
noted at the time of the entrance or enlistment examination, or where clear and
unmistakable evidence demonstrates that the injury or disease existed before
acceptance and enrollment and was not aggravated by such service.
In such claims, a pre-existing condition will be considered to have been
aggravated by active military service, where there is an increase in disability
during such service, unless there is specific finding that the increase in
disability is due to the natural progress of the disease. Temporary flare-ups
will not be considered to be an increase in severity, and aggravation may not be
conceded where the disability underwent no increase in severity during service.
Moreover, for disorders not noted on the entrance or enlistment examination, the
law mandates that in order to rebut the presumption of sound condition, there
must be clear and unmistakable evidence both that the disease or injury existed
prior to service and that the disease or injury was not aggravated by service.
In addition to the foregoing, service connection may be established on a
secondary basis for a disability which is proximately due to or the result of
service-connected disease or injury. Establishing service connection on a
secondary basis requires evidence sufficient to show that a current disability
exists and that the current disability was either proximately caused by or
proximately aggravated by a service-connected disability.
Finally, the law provides that there is a presumption of service connection for
various disabilities based upon certain circumstances. Moreover, these
disabilities must generally be manifested to a compensable degree within a
specified presumptive period. For example, certain chronic disabilities are
presumed to have been incurred during active service when they are present to a
compensable degree within one year after separation from service. Other
presumptions apply to disabilities associated with veterans who were held as
prisoners-of-war; disabilities associated with in-service radiation exposure;
disabilities associated with in-service herbicide/Agent Orange exposure; as well
as disabilities resulting from an undiagnosed illness which became manifest
either during active service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during
the Persian Gulf War or within a presumptive period.
As already stated, all of the aforementioned bases for service connection
contain their specific and oftentimes complex rules, and it is important to be
aware of them if one desires to file a service connection claim. If one desires
to obtain more information on these claims, they can contact their local VA
John Kitlas is Counsel, Board of Veteransí Appeals,
for the Department of Veterans Affairs.