Have you heard that you can’t service connect a Veterans drug and alcohol abuse?
If so, you have heard one of the great myths of VA Disability Compensation.
Before we tackle this myth, let’s talk about WHY a veteran might want or try to service a drug or alcohol abuse disorder. Part of the military culture is to “suck it up and drive on.” As soldiers, sailors and airmen, we are trained, from the first day of basic training, to push pain deep down, get through the mission, and deal with the rest of it later.
In the context of a military mission, this works great for physical pain. Pain is weakness leaving the body, after all, and when you have a fire mission and need to send rounds down-range, the team almost always requires us to put our physical pain way down the list of priorities.
This approach, however, is self-destructive for the veteran, however, particularly when it comes to mental health. The military simply doesn’t prepare us for dealing with the mental disabilities that can result from military service.
Hell, more than half of us will run off to the doctor at the first sign of back pain, but if there is mental pain, well, we ignore it.
Or, more precisely, we treat it. With something other than medicine. Maybe it’s alcohol that numbs the pain. Maybe its a needle or a pipe or opioids prescribed by the VA.
In these cases, we are generally not consuming drugs or alcohol for the intoxicating effect. We are consuming them to numb the mental pain (which sometimes manifests physically) we are feeling.
As a result, a good number of veterans don’t deal with conditions like PTSD or other mental health illnesses until well-after their self-medication with drugs and alcohol has become a dangerous addiction, abuse disorder, or, in human speak, an uncontrolled and uncontrollable addiction. It can often be difficult to separate symptoms you are experiencing due to an underlying mental health condition form symptoms you are experiencing due to an alcohol or drug abuse disorder.
By the way – if you are struggling with PTSD, anxiety or depression, I want you to check this podcast out. It’s called “PTSD Bunker Gear for your Brain,” a podcast, social media group and more for folks dealing with (or not dealing with) those conditions. The guy that put it together is a firefighter who shares what he has learned in his battle with PTSD, anxiety and depression. I listen weekly, and it’s been an incredible help in my own life.
The Source of the Myth that you can’t Service Connect a Veterans Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
In 1990, Congress enacted a law that said that the VA could not pay service connected disability compensation if the injury was the result of the Veterans alcohol and drug abuse – specifically willful abuse – during service.
This law is the source of the myth. The VA initially said “No” to any claim for service-connection that even tangentially involved drug or alcohol abuse.
In 2001, the Federal Circuit issued a decision in a case known as Allen v. Principi.
The Circuit Court’s holding was, specifically, this:
The law mentioned above “…does not preclude a Veteran from receiving compensation for alcohol or drug-related disabilities arising secondarily from a service-connected disability, or from using alcohol or drug-related disabilities as evidence of the increased severity of a service-connected disability.” Allen v. Principi, 237 F.3d 1368, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2001).
How does the Allen case affect your VA Claim?
There are 3 types of cases that will be affected:
Category 1: Alcohol or Drug Abuse disabilities that directly resulted from service, but were not caused by or resulting from another condition.
Category 2: Alcohol or Drug Abuse disabilities that arise as secondary to a service-connected condition
Category 3: Alcohol or Drug Abuse disabilities that are “aggravated by” a secondary serviced connected condition.
Category 1 cases will typically be denied outright, if the claim was filed after October 30, 1990. Category 2 and Category 3 claims are handled as any other type of secondary or aggravation claim.
An Explanation of the 3 Allen Categories.
In my experience, the utility of Allen is to use the drug or alcohol abuse as a “bridge” between a service-connected condition and a resulting condition.
What does that mean? Let’s use a scenario that is frighteningly common when it comes to Vietnam combat Veterans.
Let’s say that you are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is service-connected. To cope or self-medicate, you develop a heroin addiction. As a result of using contaminated needles, you are diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
Using Allen, the Post-Traumatic stress is directly connected. The heroin addiction is secondarily connected, but no compensation is paid. The Hepatitis C is then service-connected, upon proper proof with 5-Star Evidence, as aggravated by (or possibly secondary to) the heroin addiction.
The Allen case also protects survivors.
If the Veteran dies from the drug or alcohol abuse, the survivor will be eligible for DIC, Accrued Benefits, Dependant’s Educactional Assistance (DEA), loan guaranty benefits, and CHAMPVA medical care.
Conclusion: A Practical Note.
If you have a drug-alcohol abuse claim, I think it is imperative that you understand the 5 Paths to Service Connection.
If you have a case that involves drug and/or alcohol abuse, it will be very important that you have a good understanding of how secondary and aggravation theories of service connection work.
I also think it is imperative that you seek out legal counsel. Why?
I have handled a number of these cases, and I have never once seen the VA grant the claim even when the proof is there. In fact, the scenario I describe above is the precise story of more than one of my clients, and in at least one of those cases, the VA is still holding to the unlawful interpretation of Allen, even after the DRO hearing.
How do you pick an attorney that knows what the heck they are doing and that you can trust? Download my eBook: 8 Things Every Veteran Should Know Before Hiring an Attorney.
I will teach you not only the 8 things you need to research for any attorney, but give you 25+ questions that you should ask any attorney you are considering for representation. And more.
Bottom line: don’t let the VA get away with telling you a drug or alcohol abuse disorder cannot be service connected. Instead, learn how it can be service connected, then either put together the lay and medical evidence to prove it, or hire an attorney to help you do it.
And, if the BVA denies you service connection for a veterans drug or alcohol abuse disorder, definitely be sure to reach out to an attorney who is familiar with these types of claims at the CAVC.
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