Almost all veterans suffer from some form of physical or mental difficulties after years of hard living and combat. Unfortunately seeking financial compensation through the Department of Veterans Affairs by filing a VA claim for disability is a bureaucratic nightmare loaded with missteps and pitfalls. Vietnam veterans have waited lifetimes for their conditions to be correctly addressed.

To avoid that same fate, here are five key things you need to know when beginning the process.

1. Manage your expectations.

The best mindset a veteran can have before filing a VA claim is one of realistic expectations. You need an attitude that expects delays and setbacks. Unfortunately you should expect people to make mistakes; you should anticipate files getting lost; for staff to treat you less than fondly, for medical evidence to be flatly ignored, to have responses to your inquiries take weeks if not months, and then for the explanations to be substandard, thereby creating even more questions.

Related: 8 ways to improve your VA disability claim »

This also means having realistic expectations about how long your claim is going to take. Claim wait times can be as little as six months, or they can extend as long as two, three, or even four years. This difference in time depends on which VA regional office, or VARO, you are using, and how clogged the system is at the time of filing. Too many veterans stress themselves out waiting for their claims to come through. As one old Vietnam veteran told me: “Get your papers in order, do it right the first time, then get a hobby, you’ll live better.”

2. Get friendly with the VA claims Bible.

The Code of Federal Regulations Title 38 Chapter I, or CFR, contains everything you need to know about all VA benefits. This is your new Bible. It holds all the keys; it opens all the doors. Chapter I, Part 4 specifically relates to the “Schedule for Ratings Disabilities,” which reveals what the VA considers a ratable disability and the specific standards by which the Veterans Benefits Administration uses to rate these disabilities.

The regulations also contain a plethora of definitions and terminology you will need, as the administration only recognizes its own definitions when rating a disability. Keep in mind the definition the Veterans Benefits Administration uses for a medical term may not be the same as found in a dictionary. The importance of these differences cannot be understated. For example, when defining migraines, the use of the word “prostrating” rather than “lie down” is key.

3. Keep track of all your conditions.

A very important thing to note about filing claims for disability compensation is that within the first year of separating from the military, every medical condition you claim will be automatically attributed to your service and thus become “service connected.” The condition may be rated as “not disabling” at the 0% level, but adding it at this time would grant a connection between your service and the condition. While not resulting in any monetary compensation, this is important as those conditions may worsen with age, and then will fit the criteria and become compensable.

Therefore, it’s worthwhile to go through Section 39 Part 48 of the federal regulations, and look at the conditions listed to see what may apply to you. Many veterans have learned to live with their issues and may not recognize something as a condition. Common examples include scars, chipped teeth, joint pain, kidney damage, head trauma, etc.

The more conditions you list, the longer your initial claim will take to process. But it is infinitely easier to prove the worsening of symptoms than it is to come back years later, and prove a “nexus” between your condition and the service you performed that caused it.

Lastly, there is the issue of filing a regular claim versus a fully developed claim. In a standard claim process, there is a period of time to submit evidence after you start the claims process. Also the VA “has a duty to assist claimants in obtaining evidence.” Generally this adds a lot more time to the entire length of the claim. It is always preferable to submit a fully developed claim over a standard, as it expedites the process considerably.

When filing a fully developed claim, you are waiving the VA’s responsibility to gather evidence on your behalf. The burden of responsibility shifts to you. You must collect as much evidence as possible, and highlight the most important and pertinent data. Fortunately, the VBA has a series of forms called disability benefit questionnaires, or DBQs, for certain conditions that you can ask your doctors to fill out, to expedite the process. You must ensure the package of evidence you submit reflects the severity of your condition and is is easy to understand.

4. Record and save everything.

The long-term collection and cataloguing of your evidence is very important. This is a never-ending process. Do not expect anyone else to keep track of critical documents you will need. This is on you. I suggest you invest in some large thick binders and a few hundred plastic sheet protectors. Important evidence can be anything: statements from VA or private doctors, rulings from other government organizations such as the Social Security Administration, written “buddy” statements from family and friends, disability benefit questionnaires, (mentioned above) or even personal calendars/diaries that keep track of your symptoms.

As mentioned earlier, if a connection has not yet been created to show the relation between service and condition, you must develop it in your evidence and provide a “Nexus letter.” Witness “buddy” statements from service members where you were stationed with are ideal.

Additionally it can be very useful to keep a note of everything, such as phone conversations, e-mails, dates when you submitted evidence, doctor appointments etc. Make sure you also keep any letters that the VA mails you updating the status of your case.

5. Get some help submitting the claim.

There’s really two ways to go about this.

Either use one of the many veteran service organizations that have trained veteran service officers to help you, or file it yourself, either online or by mailing the claim documents and your evidence to your Regional Veteran Benefits Administration office. I recommend going through an organization. It’s just better to have another ally, another set of eyes, to go over your paperwork.

When choosing the organization you plan to work with, it is prudent to take your time. Look online, ask other veterans — you may be dealing with this person for a very long time.

Make sure you find an officer who is responsive; you wouldn’t believe the number of people even at nationally recognized organizations who still refuse to use e-mail. Expect these individuals to help you file the paperwork, and wait. They do not have special powers and they cannot make things happen for you. If they promise they can report them to their parent organization. There is an established system to the VA claims process for a reason.

The last piece I have for you is not a step of preparation but advice: Be your own advocate. No one is going to care about the success of your claim more than you.

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