Many vets have the misunderstanding that the various veterans service organizations (VSO) which represent veterans before the VA are responsible to the "grand design" of a claim for service connection.
While some VSOs may indeed offer that assistance, not all do, as in the case of Oregon's Department of Veterans Affairs. Oregon staffs their counties with state-affiliated, VA-authorized service officers as well as teams in Portland and the state capital, Salem. These officers offer a broad range of advice and interface with community-based services, but in Oregon veterans are responsible for submitting their own claims and creating, from their own resources, a basic strategy.
Oregon's role, as explained to me late last month by their Portland staff, is to focus on strategizing the vet's appeal only once the claim is denied. The service officers are notified by the VA shortly after the award or denial decision is made, and they then swing into action to help a veteran determine the next steps.
For many, the best approach will be a "notice of disagreement" (NOD) or alternately, a request for a local review by a senior VA rating officer not previously involved in the claim, a decision review officer (DRO.) That is the first important level of strategy where the service officer is able to help, because specifics of the claim can make one approach better than another.
After that, that, a vet's principal concern will be the amount of time required simply waiting in line, because appeals or DRO reviews can take years to be heard. When the big day finally rolls around, the service officer will present the VA with the facts of the case, the errors made by the VA, and the justification for an award in the vet's favor.
This entire process, and the inherent threat of years of delay working a denied claim, places a significant value in the veteran's initial claim being as complete, accurate, comprehensive, persuasive and error-free as possible. The veteran must hope for a positive response from the VA rather than a denied claim, wasting years and continuing to be denied VA medical care and other benefits. This means a vet needs to select a VSO carefully, especially if you feel unqualified to manage your own claim prior to the VA denial.
How to best approach this yourself with some hope of success if your VSO isn't set up to mange the initial claim for you? The very first step is to notify the VA in some form of your intent to file. All benefits are based on the date you first inform them of your wish to make a claim...and you can do this with a simple letter listing every possible boo-boo you have, or you can begin the process on-line at their web site.
Then, Attorney Katrina Eagle offers her "Dirty Dozen," thirteen tips of things NOT do do, and that's a great place to start– begin the process by not stepping on any minefields. Next, gather all your papers and have them scanned into digital form, because eventually you'll want to submit a "Fully Developed Claim" which is done on-line. Why? Because the VA processes those fastest, and because in many instances the VA even can back-date benefits a full year to motivate us to us that electronic process.
Next, file a a Freedom of Information Act request with the VA and with your military service to insure you've got all official documents on-hand. This may take months to get completed, so file early in your claims process. Then scan all those documents also, especially your DD214, any Line of Duty determinations, and medical records.
The VA will arrange a physical for you to address your claimed illnesses or injuries, but a faster route is the Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ) which your own physicians' can complete and submit. Your doctors can expand further in a letter, but you and they should be aware of phrases the VA is attuned to. For instance, "may" to the VA means "no" and "more likely to than not" means yes. A physician simply saying your broken back may be due to your airplane crash is dismissed by the VA. A physician saying your broken back "is more likely than not" due to your airplane crash is accepted by the VA (usually) as credible support for your claim. We've noticed that physicians' stating their qualifications, or medical references in their veterans letters are generally more useful to the vets.
Beyond this, one of the veterans' claims self-help books is probably of greater value to a veteran preparing a claim than anything which can be typed here. There are many Internet resources and many, many veterans' web sites offering excellent advice. The point is: Tell the truth, assert your interests firmly, if something hurts (range of motion, etc.) say so instead of toughing it out, and don't quit.