Military Sexual Trauma & VA Compensation Benefits


Military sexual trauma, often referred to as MST, is a bigger problem than a lot of people think. Many people are also surprised to learn that MST victims are both women and men.

Most of my clients say they felt mortified by the MST and some say they also stayed silent because they were told by the perpetrators that they’d be attacked again or killed if they said anything. A lot of MST victims often try to forget what happened and don’t tell anyone for many years after their military discharge. One of my clients said he felt too scared to say anything about his trauma for decades after his discharge because he worried his attackers might discover that he told someone about it and seek him out.

I have handled many cases involving veterans who have been sexually assaulted or attacked in service and their mental health is often damaged to the point where, understandably, they can never fully recover. Many of these veterans are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder or depression and most have problems with nightmares, flashbacks, isolation, having healthy relationships, and many other difficult issues. Some veterans have problems trusting others or don’t feel safe or comfortable in public, which can make working and having an income very difficult.

Veterans can apply for VA disability compensation benefits if the MST caused them to have mental health problems. What many don’t understand, even some people at the VA, is that claims for MST related mental health conditions are supposed to be treated differently than claims for other mental health conditions.

The veteran still needs a diagnosis and a “nexus” (meaning a doctor or medical professional must connect the diagnosis with the MST). However, the VA has made the third part of getting a VA compensation application approved – proving that the incident in service happened – easier for MST victims.

The VA made it less difficult for MST victims because the VA realized a soldier who has been sexually attacked or assaulted may be deeply embarrassed or ashamed by what happened and cannot bring themselves to report it.  That would mean there are no records of it.

The VA made it easier for MST victims by allowing them to use a wide variety of ways to prove the incident happened. Examples of acceptable evidence includes buddy statements from fellow soldiers who saw the victim during or after the attack or who the veteran confided in about it, family members who know about it, and military records that show the veteran requested a change of station or duty (in order to get away from the perpetrator).  The veteran can also point to medical records that document he or she sought treatment for a physical injury caused by the attack or for stress related issues like headaches or insomnia. Another good source of proof are disciplinary records that show a change in behavior after the attack, like drinking, fighting, or going AWOL.

Additionally, a court case determined that a mental health professional’s opinion that the sexual assault occurred can be used to establish that it did in fact happen. This case has been hugely helpful to veterans who suffered from MST and are seeking disability benefits.

For veterans who are trying to get disability benefits for MST, or for those who are trying to help veterans with this process, it helps to know how these claims are supposed to be handled by the VA. A lot of veterans contact me and say their claim was denied because they don’t have proof that the MST happened. But in most cases there IS proof it happened – you just need to know what the rules are for these claims and what evidence to look for.




How to Handle a VA C&P Examination

Many veterans are confused and nervous about the all too often dreaded “C&P exam.”  This is the Compensation and Pension exam the VA often schedules after a veteran applies for disability benefits.  There are several reasons the VA might schedule a C&P exam.  One reason might be so that the VA can confirm the veteran really does have the condition she claimed on the benefits application.  Another reason is to help the VA decide if the condition really did result from service.  Sometimes the VA agrees the veteran has the claimed condition and that it’s from service, but they need to know how severe the condition is, which is yet another purpose of the C&P exam.

The exam is normally with a medical professional at a VA hospital but could also be with an examiner outside of the VA.  The examiner can be a doctor, nurse, or nurse’s assistant and may not specialize in the condition under examination.

C&P exams are extremely important and can often be the deciding factor in whether the VA grants a veteran the sought-after benefit.  They can be very helpful to veterans but they must be taken seriously.  It’s beneficial to give them some thought ahead of time and keep some things in mind.

First, if it’s not clear what the examination is about the veteran should call the VA and ask.  It can be nerve wracking not to be clear about what the examiner will be, well, examining.  It can be especially helpful to know if the examination will cover a sensitive topic, like a traumatic incident.  Sometimes in-service trauma can be very difficult to talk about, especially with someone who’s not the veteran’s regular doctor or care provider.  If the veteran knows the examiner will be asking about an incident in service that’s hard to discuss, it can be helpful to know that ahead of time and even talk to a treating doctor or therapist about how best to handle it.

Second, veterans should bring helpful documents with them to give to the examiner.  If the veteran’s treatment provider has written a useful letter or filled out a form for the claim, that can help and even encourage the examiner to support the claim as well.  If the veteran doesn’t have a supportive letter from her doctor, if she finds out what the exam is about she might have time to get one.

Third, veterans should bring someone along who might be helpful to the examiner.  A person very close with the veteran, like a spouse or sibling, can tell the examiner what symptoms they see and explain how they know the condition is from service.  For example, that person might be able to confirm that the veteran had no issues with his back whatsoever before service but he’s had them ever since discharge and they have just gotten worse over time.  But here’s the rub on this one: the examiner can refuse to allow anyone other than the veteran into the examination.  So if the veteran does bring someone along, he has to be prepared to ask them to sit in the waiting room if the examiner does not allow them to come in.

Fourth, focus only on what the examination is about.  For example, if the examination is so the VA can determine if the veteran’s mental health condition is from service, the veteran should not spend time complaining about how much pain he’s in from a recent car accident that happened after service.  The veteran should also not argue about why an examination is necessary or vent about any frustration with the VA.

Fifth, veterans need to let their guards down.  This can be a really hard one for a lot of people but it’s necessary.  Unless veterans explain what happened in service, if that’s requested, or show the examiner how bad their symptoms are, the examiner won’t really know.  The examiners are supposed to review the VA records before every exam but really the best way for them to truly understand how serious the veteran’s condition is or what happened in service that caused the condition is to show and tell them.

Sixth, veterans should not blow off an exam.  Veterans should show up for the exam or the VA might deny a claim for that reason.  Examinations can be rescheduled if the day or time isn’t workable.  Veterans should be on time but be ready to wait if the examiner is running behind schedule.  Also, it’s helpful to think ahead about how best to present what happened in service and be ready to explain how the symptoms of a claimed condition affect daily life.

Seventh, and finally, veterans should remember that it’s normal be nervous about these exams.  Many of my clients say they’re anxious before a C&P exam because they don’t know what to expect or if they can explain everything well enough.  All veterans can do is be honest and do their best!



About The Veterans Practice, Ltd.

Thank you for visiting my website!  The Veterans Practice, Ltd. was founded by me, Catherine Cornell.  When I saw that there was no other law firm in the Chicagoland area focused exclusively on veterans benefits, specifically VA compensation and survivors benefits, I decided to establish one.

I have been concerned about the welfare of veterans since I did a college internship at CNN in Washington, DC.  That summer I worked on a piece about homeless veterans in our nation’s capitol.  It was eye opening and shocking to realize that so many veterans were living in poverty, without even a roof over their heads.  After college, when I was getting my master’s degree in journalism and working in that field, I tried to call attention to the many issues facing veterans.  I then obtained my law degree and, after working in civil legal aid for the poor and some other areas, I decided I wanted to focus only on the law as it applied to veterans.  I am so proud to own my own law firm and I feel honored to help veterans and their families, which sadly remain under-served even as the numbers of veterans advocates have gone up over time.

I have helped hundreds of veterans and their survivors obtain VA benefits over the years and I continue to work as hard as I possibly can to win more cases every day.  Make no mistake – VA cases can be extremely hard to win.  But I am nothing if not determined to win every single case I take on.  It’s an amazing feeling to see a veteran or their family member finally get the benefits they deserve.

In addition to owning my own law practice, I sit on the board of the Veterans Legal Aid Society and I am a sustaining member of the National Organization of Veterans Advocates.  I am also a member of the Illinois state and federal bars, and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.  My father served honorably in the Air Force.  Also, I love to write!  I recently had an article published in U.S. Veterans Magazine, which was really exciting.  To see that article, look for the blog on my website homepage called “How to Obtain VA Benefits.”

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.  And if you are a veteran, thank you for your military service!


How to Obtain VA Benefits

This piece, outlining tips for how to get VA benefits, originally appeared in U.S. Veterans Magazine.

j-kelly-brito-256889-unsplashLet’s take things back to basics: what makes a good VA disability compensation claim? VA disability is like worker’s compensation for veterans. When hurt on active duty, veterans can get VA compensation, just as a civilian worker could get worker’s compensation if hurt on the job.

This sounds simple, but the process can be trickier than you might think. If not handled correctly from the outset, a compensation claim could be denied, possibly leaving the veteran mired in the appeals process for years. Yes, that’s right. Years.

The following tips can help veterans avoid the delay and frustration of a denial and have a better chance of obtaining VA benefits from the outset.

  1. Understand what’s required for the claim. Basically, VA compensation requires the veteran to show he has the condition he is claiming, usually through a doctor’s diagnosis. The veteran must also prove an in-service incident or injury caused the condition or that it showed up for the first time in service. That’s usually done with the help of a medical professional. Finally, in most cases the veteran needs to prove the incident, injury, or the manifestation of the condition actually occurred by using service records, buddy statements, newspaper articles or other proof. Other VA benefits, such as unemployability, have different requirements. There can also be other proof required depending on the time period and location of service. Veterans should carefully research what’s needed for a specific benefit or get help from a veterans service officer. Many of those officers can be found in each state’s VA regional office.
  2. Don’t claim un-winnable conditions. After veterans nail down requirements for specific claims, they may realize a certain condition is not worth claiming. For example, a back injury from a car accident after service will not lead to VA compensation. Veterans should save time and possible frustration by not claiming disabilities that are clearly not service connected.
  3. Be proactive. The VA has a duty to assist veterans in obtaining information that might establish compensation claims. However, the reality is that the VA is overwhelmed, so it’s in the veteran’s best interests to gather as much evidence as possible for the claim herself.
  4. Use the correct forms. For example, the form for a new claim is different than the one needed to appeal a claim that was denied. The same goes for a veteran seeking
    unemployability benefits. The VA has forms for almost everything and they can generally be found on the Internet. If the correct form isn’t used, a claim can be delayed or rejected.
  5. Get military records. If a veteran doesn’t already have a complete copy of his Official Military Personnel File, he should request it, usually from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. The military file might contain helpful evidence to prove claims. Again, the VA has a duty to help obtain records to establish claims, but the veteran is best served by taking an active role in this process.
  6. Send in evidence with the claim. After a veteran gathers all the evidence and information possible, it should be sent in with the claim. Helpful evidence may include: service and medical records; witness statements; private doctor statements; and any additional information or documentation that might help the VA make a favorable decision faster.
  7. Show up to VA exams. If the claim has merit, the VA will likely schedule a
    Compensation and Pension exam. That’s when a VA examiner meets with the veteran and renders an opinion on the likelihood that the claimed condition did stem from service, and the degree to which the condition is disabling. If a veteran doesn’t show up for the exam without re-scheduling it, the VA may deny the claim.
  8. Know what the VA exam is about. Often veterans submit claims for many conditions but are then scheduled for just one exam. Don’t go in blind. Contact the VA to ask what the exam will cover. That way the veteran can be prepared to explain the condition and how it resulted from service.
  9. Don’t miss deadlines or fail to respond. After getting a claim, the VA might send additional forms for the veteran to fill out or ask for clarification of a claim and set a deadline to respond. If a veteran lets these forms go or misses a deadline the VA might issue a denial.
  10. Don’t give up. The VA process can be wildly confusing and frustrating. Despite best efforts to send in correct forms and supportive evidence, compensation claims are often still denied. Veterans shouldn’t be afraid to seek help from knowledgeable people if necessary and, above all, shouldn’t give up on the benefits they deserve.

Originally published in U.S. Veterans Magazine, Spring 2017