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Veterans Law

VA Disability – What Qualifies as a Disability for VA Benefits

Zachary Stolz

September 7, 2018

Updated: November 20, 2023

VA disability compensation mental disability physical disability

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” Veterans who developed a disability connected with their military service can receive monthly compensation from VA. What does VA consider a disability?


Conditions, Diseases, Injuries Due to Military Service

First and foremost, for a disability to be eligible for service connection, it must be connected to a veteran’s active duty military service. A disability can be a condition such as back strain or hearing loss, or it can be a disease such as cancer or diabetes.

Does a disability have to be physical?

Veterans can receive VA disability compensation for both mental and physical disabilities as long as they are related to military service. A common example of a service-connected psychological disability is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other non-physical disabilities include neurological conditions and headaches.

Does a disability have to be diagnosed?

Generally, a veteran does have to be diagnosed with a disability before they can receive VA disability compensation. However, there is one exception: veterans who fall under VA’s Persian Gulf War regulation can be service connected for an “undiagnosed illness.” An undiagnosed illness is a term VA uses to cover a wide range of symptoms and conditions that seem unrelated and do not conform to a formal diagnosis. Examples of an undiagnosed illness under VA’s regulation includes: abnormal weight loss, fatigue, skin conditions, and menstrual disorders.


What If I Was Injured in Service But Do Not Have Any Residuals?

In instances in which a veteran was injured in service, but the injury resolved, leaving no residuals or lasting disabilities, it is likely that VA will not award that veteran monthly compensation for that injury. Veterans can only receive VA disability compensation for a condition that has current symptoms or residuals associated with it.

For example, a veteran broke his arm in service and it healed while he was still in service. He did not have any pain or limitation in range of motion following the injury, and he has not treated for any symptom or condition linked to the injury after it healed. In this scenario, where the veteran’s injury was resolved and he does not experience any residuals of the injury, VA will not pay that veteran disability compensation.

However, if the veteran’s arm did not heal properly in service, and he experienced pain on motion when he moves his arm since the injury took place, he may be entitled to compensation for that residual.


Disabilities that Preexisted Service

In some cases, veterans can be service connected for diseases or conditions that preexisted service. There are certain rules that apply to this type of service connection. For instance, the veteran’s preexisting condition would have to have been aggravated, or worsened, beyond its natural progression, by their military service. The “beyond its natural progression” aspect can be difficult to prove in some situations. Common conditions that can be aggravated by military service are pes planus (flat feet) and back conditions.

In cases of service connection by aggravation, VA will attempt to establish a baseline severity of the veteran’s condition before it was aggravated, and then subtract that from the veteran’s current severity to determine the disability rating.

For example, if VA establishes a baseline of 10% for a veteran’s back condition, and determines that his back condition is currently 40% disabling, they will subtract the 10% from the 40%. This would result in the veteran receiving a 30% disability rating for his back condition.

Additionally, veterans can receive disability compensation for a condition that is aggravated by a service-connected condition. For instance, a veteran’s service-connected knee condition could aggravate a non-service-connected back disability. In this case, the veteran could be eligible for service connection for the non-service-connected back disability since it was made worse by the service-connected knee condition.

About the Author

Bio photo of Zachary Stolz

Zach is a Partner at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick. He joined CCK in 2007 and since that time, his law practice has focused on representing disabled veterans before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

See more about Zachary