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Veterans Law

Proving VA Disability Without Service Treatment Records

April Donahower

November 8, 2020

Updated: February 16, 2024

Proving VA Disability Without Service Treatment Records

Whether a not a Veteran has service treatment records, in order for a VA disability claim for service connection to be successful, typically three main elements must be present.  Generally speaking, service connection means that a veteran’s disability or death was incurred during or aggravated by their military service.  In order to establish service connection on a direct basis, veterans must show evidence of:

  • A current, diagnosed disability;
  • An in-service event, injury, or illness; and
  • A medical nexus between the current disability and the in-service event, injury, or illness.

VA often denies claims for disability benefits because there is not enough evidence in the veteran’s file to issue a favorable decision.

Evidence for VA Claims: What you need and how to find it

Missing Service and Treatment Records

When applying for VA disability benefits, many veterans find that VA is missing important records that may help support their claims for compensation.  Oftentimes records are simply lost, or they may have been accidentally destroyed.  For example, on July 12, 1973, a fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  The fire destroyed service records for veterans of the Air Force and Army.

According to VA, 80 percent of the records for veterans discharged from the Army between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960 were destroyed in the fire.  Additionally, VA states that 75 percent of the records for veterans discharged from the Air Force between September 25, 1947 and January 1, 1964 were destroyed, from the last names beginning with Hubbard, all the way to Z.  Overall, the NPRC estimates that 16-18 million official military personnel files were destroyed.

Importantly, if the NPRC cannot find your records, it will attempt to reconstruct your military records by reaching out to other facilities that may have them.  Unfortunately, there were no copies of the records destroyed in the St. Louis fire of 1973, so veterans who were impacted will be unable to collect all of their service records.  For veterans who are looking to reconstruct their service records, they will need to fill out the “NA Form 13055, Request for Information Needed to Reconstruct Medical Data.”

VA’s Duty to Assist in Gathering Service Treatment Records

It is important to note that veterans are not alone in their efforts to obtain records and supporting evidence.  VA has a duty to assist, meaning it is required to gather information that may help support the veteran’s claim (e.g., service personnel records, service medical records, VA medical records).

If VA is not able to obtain records after making reasonable efforts, it has a duty to (1) notify the veteran that it was not able to obtain the records, and (2) notify the veteran that they are ultimately responsible for providing VA with those records.  If veterans are unable to obtain missing records, there are several other types of supporting evidence that may be beneficial to include.

Forms of Supporting Evidence Besides Service Treatment Records

Lay Evidence

A lay statement is a written statement from a veteran, family member, friend, or coworker that can be submitted to VA in support of a veteran’s claim.  Statements can be submitted directly to VA and are often beneficial for documenting and reporting the duration, frequency, and severity of symptoms a veteran is experiencing.  Buddy statements, those written by a fellow service member on behalf of the veteran filing the claim, can be useful to corroborate an in-service event or injury.  Lay statements can be very effective pieces of VA claim evidence.

VA Hearings

Hearings before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals can be used as evidence in support of a veteran’s claim.  They allow a veteran to speak with a Veterans Law Judge directly to explain their case.  All hearings are transcribed so VA has a written record of the conversation.  However, hearings do have drawbacks.  One disadvantage of requesting a hearing is that they can often take months, or even years, to schedule.  This can significantly delay a veteran in receiving a decision on their claim.

Employment Records

Employment records can become a necessary piece of evidence if a veteran is seeking entitlement to total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU).  TDIU is a VA disability benefit that compensates veterans at the 100% disability rate if they have a service-connected condition or conditions that render them unable to work.  Employment records can also be helpful in claims for increased ratings, as difficulty performing a job or receiving special accommodations at work due to a service-connected condition can highlight the level of severity of that disability.  Some employment records that can be helpful are:

  • VA Form 21-4192 – These forms are used by VA to gather information regarding a veteran’s past or current employment. The forms are sent to the veteran’s employers for them to fill out basic employment information such as dates of employment, as well as details regarding the veteran’s ability to perform the job or why the veteran left that job.
  • Record of disciplinary action or performance reports – These types of records can be useful to show how a veteran’s service-connected disability negatively impacted their work. If a veteran has a service-connected psychiatric condition that caused them to be violent at work or have angry outbursts, records of those incidents can be used to show entitlement to an increased rating.

Medical Records

Although veterans may not have in-service medical records, it is likely that they have obtained private medical records, VA medical records, or Compensation & Pension (C&P) examination reports over time.

  • Private Medical Records – To obtain these records, veterans can typically request them directly from their private provider. If a veteran notifies VA that they are treating with a private provider and signs a release form, VA can request the veteran’s medical records directly from the provider.  This can be a part of VA’s duty to assist.
  • VA Medical Records – VA can obtain these records directly from the VA medical center(s) where the veteran receives treatment. If a veteran wants to obtain these records themselves, they have the option to request them directly from the VA medical center.
  • C&P Examinations – In many cases, VA will schedule a veteran for a C&P exam to assess the merits of service connection or an increased rating for the veteran’s condition. If favorable, these examinations can be useful in substantiating a claim.
  • Medical Opinions – Veterans can request a medical opinion from their treating doctor to help substantiate their claim. Medical opinions can come in handy if the veteran had an unfavorable C&P examination and wants to argue against the examiner’s findings.

Additional Examples of Evidence

Finally, veterans who are missing treatment records can also utilize the following types of evidence:

  • Letters written during service
  • Photographs taken during service
  • Police reports
  • Private medical records from treatment during service

Although these types of evidence cannot fully recreate your military experiences, they can help to corroborate an in-service event or injury when seeking VA disability compensation.

About the Author

Bio photo of April Donahower

April joined Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick in August of 2016 as an Associate Attorney. She currently serves as the Appellate Supervisor in our Veterans Law practice. April’s practice focuses on representing disabled veterans before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

See more about April