Do Non-Combat PTSD Stressors Qualify for VA Disability?
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by experiencing a distressing, shocking, or otherwise traumatic event. Many veterans experience PTSD stemming from events they witnessed or experienced during their military service. PTSD can be diagnosed by a medical professional, whether it be a therapist, psychiatrist, or general practitioner. It is important to note that the symptoms and severity of PTSD vary from person to person. However, the most common symptoms include the following:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive, distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares
- Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma
- Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered
Veterans may be able to receive VA disability benefits for PTSD if they experienced a traumatic event during service and now have the above-mentioned symptoms as a result. This traumatic event or incident that caused the veteran’s PTSD is known as a stressor. Veterans can have multiple stressors, which can come in various forms.
Direct Service Connection for PTSD
To obtain direct service connection for PTSD, veterans must demonstrate the following to VA:
- A current diagnosis of PTSD
- A statement from the veteran about the stressor that occurred during service
- The occurrence of the stressor being consistent with the circumstances of the veteran’s service
- No strong evidence that the stressor didn’t occur; and
- A medical opinion that the stressor was sufficient to cause PTSD either from a VA psychologist/psychiatrist, or a psychologist/psychiatrist under contract with VA
Once a veteran’s PTSD is service connected, VA rates this condition under 38 CFR § 4.130, Diagnostic Code 9411. Specifically, VA assigns a disability rating ranging from 0 to 100 percent based on the level of social and occupational impairment a veteran experiences, and the frequency, duration, and severity of symptoms it uses to characterize that impairment.
Combat PTSD Stressors
If a veteran’s stressor is related to combat, VA has specific regulations for how it adjudicates the veteran’s claim. Specifically, if a veteran was in combat during his or her military service and the reported stressor stems from that time in combat, VA should presume that his or her PTSD is a result of that combat service. Here, a veteran’s lay statement is usually enough to establish that the in-service stressor occurred. VA will typically verify this by checking the veteran’s DD-214 to confirm that he or she was in combat, either by looking for medals or awards, or some other reference to combat action. Importantly, combat stressors can result from many different events and does not require actual injury to the veteran. Examples of combat PTSD stressors can include experiencing an IED explosion or witnessing a fellow servicemember’s death.
Non-Combat PTSD Stressors
As mentioned above, combat PTSD stressors typically do not require corroborating evidence. On the other hand, non-combat PTSD stressors (e.g. serious car accidents, training accidents) must be corroborated to establish service connection. In order to corroborate a stressor, VA will look for credible supporting evidence of the veteran’s account of the in-service stressor. Specifically, VA will require VA Form 21-0781, Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for PTSD, which serves to outline the in-service source of a non-combat PTSD stressor. The form asks for the approximate date, location, and a brief description of the incident. If a veteran does not have documentation or is unsure of how to go about proving a stressor to VA, sometimes doing research can help him or her find newspaper articles, Navy deck logs, obituaries, or pictures that verify the stressor. Veterans can also look online to see what public records are available to corroborate the non-combat PTSD stressor. Lay statements from fellow veterans who witnessed the non-combat stressor event or knew the veteran during service can also support the veteran’s claim.
VA is required to help corroborate a non-combat PTSD stressor as part of its duty to assist. Veterans must provide information sufficient for the records center to conduct a search of potential corroborative records. There is no clear-cut definition for what constitutes “sufficient information”, but at a minimum, the veteran should provide the following:
- Full name
- Social security number
- Description of the claimed stressor
- Month and year when the stressor occurred
- Units of assignment at the time the stressor occurred
- Geographic location of where the stressor occurred
Overall, veterans with non-combat PTSD stressors can still qualify for VA disability benefits if they are able to prove that their current diagnosis of PTSD is related to their in-service stressor.
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