Recent court decisions pave easier path to disability benefits

Two recent court cases have made it easier for military veterans to gain access to disability benefits

By Douglas G. Jackson
Military1 Columnist

The Court of Veterans Appeals has once again paved the way to helping veterans more easily obtain deserved disability benefits. In just the past two months, the court has issued two decisions that greatly clarify, if not redefine, the law in favor of veterans.

Landmark decision for sufferers of psychological disabilities

The decision in the case of Bankhead v. Shulkin has officially expanded how the VA considers one symptom that could help the veteran get a 70 percent rating for a mental claim. One of the factors that the VA looks at when they are deciding if the veteran qualifies for a 70 percent rating is if the veteran has “suicidal ideation.” Before this court's recent decision, the VA did not define how far a veteran had to go to meet this standard. This led to confusion and variance in the awards to veterans. One veteran might meet the standard of suicidal ideation for only wishing he or she did not wake up in the morning, while other veterans might need to prove that they actually had a plan to commit suicide to meet this same standard.

Luckily, the court cleared this up for veterans. Now, suicidal ideation can range from merely wishing you do not wake up in the morning, to thinking about how it would be nice to die, to thinking about suicide without an actual plan, to actually planning suicide and everything in between. Additionally, the court indicated that an actual suicidal attempt or even a strong plan may meet the 100 percent factor of “persistent danger of hurting self or others.”

With this new court decision, the VA should have more consistency when administering ratings to veterans. At the very least, veterans now know that if they have even thoughts about not waking up in the morning, they have a strong argument that they meet at least one of the factors for a 70 percent rating.

Evidence assistance in military sexual trauma cases

Military sexual trauma (MST) happens more often than many would like to admit to both men and women. Many times, victims do not admit what happened to them, and, if they do, they might not admit it until many years have passed.

MST can cause both physical and psychological problems. While the physical symptoms may subside, it is usually the psychological problems that plague veterans for years into the future. Through the VA, victims of sexual assault may be able to receive disability benefits if they have ongoing injuries or have psychological problems as a result of the sexual trauma.

However, many veterans have problems proving the sexual trauma occurred, especially for those veterans who initially kept it a secret. Luckily, the court's recent decision in Molitor v. Shulkin, says that if the veteran identifies the possible existence of evidence that could help prove sexual trauma, the VA must help obtain that evidence.

Possible evidence might include medical records of the assailant or disciplinary records of the assailant. Disciplinary records would likely be helpful if the assailant was disciplined for the conduct, which would probably not be the case if the person who was victimized kept this a secret for many years. However, medical records might show some evidence, such as injuries that occurred to the assailant during the trauma. Additionally, if the assailant said something about the incident to a doctor, this might also be reflected in the medical records. While there is no perfect solution, this court ruling makes it more likely that victims of military sexual trauma can receive some financial help and treatment through the VA.

The court cannot fix many of the problems for the veterans who suffered physical and psychological disabilities as a result of something that happened during service, but its recent decisions do help to hold the VA more accountable to taking care of veterans who are suffering.