If you're considering filing a claim with the VA, you should know that there are good three reasons why you should do it.

The first is that, if you were injured while in the military, you should have your medical problems determined to be “Service Connected.” This allows you to have the problem treated at no cost to you, and depending on your rating level, it may allow you access to higher levels of medical care within the VA healthcare system.

In my case, I decided to pull the trigger on filing a claim because my orthopedic surgeon told me that I would eventually need hip replacements due to service-connected injuries, and those are not cheap.

The second reason to file a claim is that guaranteed income greatly increases your credit worthiness. It could make the difference between getting a home loan or not. Lenders assign a higher value to disability compensation income than earned income because it is not taxed.

The third reason is that increased numbers of claims lead to an increased budget for the VA, which translates to better care for vets.

Before you file, please consider the following.

Never Go It Alone

The relationship between the VA claims department and the veteran is adversarial in nature. The claims process is analogous to a personal injury civil suit or a worker’s compensation claim.

The VA is under no obligation to help you with your claim. Oddly enough, the VA seems to be the only U.S. government agency that actively tries to spend less of their budget (by denying claims).

There’s no need to feel daunted. There are numerous Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) that have been established to help veterans with their needs, especially in filing a disability compensation claim. The best, in my opinion are the DAV, the VFW and the American Legion.

Your state of residence may also have a Department of Veterans Affairs, but I believe you will have a better result if you go with one the previously listed organizations. Of the big three, the DAV is the best at claims assistance, in my opinion.

The first step is to call a VSO office and make an appointment to speak to a VSO representative. There are local chapters in most cities. However, if you are within a reasonable driving distance, I recommend going to an office that is co-located with a VA Regional Office.

The VSO representatives who work in these offices know the VA raters personally. They have coffee and lunch and receive training from them. So, they are in a good position to stay on top of your claim.

When you go to your meeting with the VSO, you will want to take your medical records, a DD-214, and any civilian treatment records. Also, take photocopies of prescriptions for any medication that you are taking, or have taken in the past that pertain to your claim.

If you are married or have dependent children, take copies of your marriage certificate and birth certificates. The VA adjusts your monthly payment upward if you have a spouse or children.

You will also want to take buddy letters, as these are very important supporting documents. I will discuss buddy letters further in this article.

If you are filing a claim for a behavioral disorder, such as PTSD or depression, you should take any court records or employment records that pertain to the claim. Also, take any records of counseling that are relevant.

You will have to sign a special power of attorney authorizing the veterans’ organization to represent you with the VA. The VSO representative will review your files and fill out a claim for you.

At this point, you should start an account at ebenefits.va.gov. It's a website for tracking the progress of your claim. Using the website can be frustration because it has functionality problems.

Once you have completed these first steps, it’s time to hurry up and wait.

A Word about Buddy Letters

The term “buddy letter” is a nickname for VA form VA FORM 21-4138, Statement in Support of Claim. If you’re filing for PTSD, there is a different form, VBA-21-0781-ARE, Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These forms allow you and your unit members to explain what happened in your or their own words. When you are filling out these forms, be truthful and try to put down every detail about the incident that you can remember.

The Compensation and Pension (C&P) Exam

The VA contracts private healthcare providers to perform C&P exams. Within a few weeks or months of filing your claim you will receive a letter from either the VA or a contracting company informing you that you have an appointment.

Do everything humanly possible to make this appointment, because if you miss it, it will take "forever" to get another one. The only valid reasons to miss the C&P exam involve the loss of life, limb, or eyesight.

When you go to the C&P exam, they should have copies of your claim and records. But you can take copies if you like.

At the C&P exam, do not be a tough guy or tough gal. You were taught to "suck it up and drive on" in the military, but the C&P exam is the time to complain. If it hurts, be honest. If you can’t lift more than 20 pounds, be honest. Be yourself but complain like you've never complained before!

Playing the Waiting Game

After your C&P exams, it will be awhile until you hear from the VA again. You may be asked to submit to further examinations. Just be patient. If you are curious about the status of your claim, it’s best to call your VSO representative. You can check the status on the eBenefits website, but the information is often not up to date.

Whatever you do, do not contact the VA directly.

After much time has passed, you will one day open your mailbox and find the “Big White Envelope.” This will contain the VA’s determination regarding your claim.

If you are happy with the claim, then your journey is complete. If you are not happy with your rating, then you should definitely contact your VSO rep and submit an appeal.

In Summation

The three things that you must do are; get buddy letters, make all of your appointments, and ask for help from a Veterans Service Organization. There is a reason they exist.