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Our regular column on issues affecting retired military.
As such, it's in every veteran's interest to file as soon as possible after identifying a qualifying, service-connected health condition.
On your second question, there isn't any sort of "statute of limitations" for filing a claim. You can file a claim for VA disability benefits many years after retirement — or even before leaving active duty.
But once you file a claim, you need to be patient, because you won't get an answer overnight. Not even close.
VA's average response times for initial claims has improved somewhat in recent years, but can still stretch out for many months. And if an initial claim is denied and subsequently appealed by the veteran, the process can take years.
In fact, by VA's estimates, the expansion of presumption of service connection in Vietnam veterans with hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson's disease and ischemic heart disease will add more than 200,000 claims to the already large backlog — making it even more important to file as soon as possible.
If you feel you have a valid claim, the first thing you should do is gather a complete copy of your personnel and medical records. This is important, as many of the decisions related to your claim will come directly from both records.
During this process, you may be asked for additional information. As all retirees should know, the DD 214 (official discharge document) is the key to your disability benefits. Without it, you're virtually locked out until you receive an official copy from the National Records Center — also not a speedy process.
VA now allows veterans to file disability claims online. Go to www.vba.va.gov or call 800-827-1000 for more information.
If you are unable to file online or visit a VA center for assistance, local chapters of many well-known veterans service organizations are federally chartered and/or recognized by VA to help you with your claims, at no cost to you.
Retired Command Master Chief Alex Keenan served 28 years in the Coast Guard. E-mail him at email@example.com.