Military service members often experience breathing problems (like chronic bronchitis, sleep apnea and bronchiolitis) that continue after leaving active duty. Exposure to airborne toxins during deployment means some veterans will develop severe respiratory illnesses with chronic symptoms after returning home.
Your Breathing Problems May Qualify You For Monthly VA Disability Benefits
And while breathing problems can make performing everyday tasks more difficult, many affected vets won’t file a disability benefits claim. Since breathing problems aren’t as visible as other service-related injuries, individuals may suffer in silence instead of claiming monthly benefits. However, it is possible to qualify for veterans disability benefits with breathing problems — provided you meet all other eligibility criteria.
How Military Service Can Cause Breathing Problems
Airborne toxins that cause long-term physical damage are not uncommon for service members to encounter while on active duty, including:
- Pollution (dust storm particles, particles released from industrial processing facilities)
- Smoke from fires
- Chemicals (sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, industrial pollutants)
- Other hazards (Agent Orange, sarin gas, other tactical herbicides and pesticides)
In addition, excessive radiation exposure is also likely, which can lead to various respiratory cancers. Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange are highly likely to develop breathing problems symptomatic of life-threatening health conditions, including:
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
- Small-cell lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL)
A 2015 study reviewing U.S. military respiratory infections found “ARDs (Acute respiratory diseases) have been particularly problematic in recruit and other military training environments, where close and crowded living conditions, physical and psychological stresses, environmental challenges, and demanding physical training lead to more intense exposure as well as a state of relative immune compromise.”
If you currently have breathing problems, several different respiratory illnesses may qualify you for monthly disability compensation from the VA. In order to qualify, you’ll need to establish a direct connection between your active military service and current respiratory illness.
Establishing A Direct Service Connection for Your Breathing Problems
When you apply for veterans disability benefits, you must prove that your active military service directly caused your respiratory illness. Since respiratory illness can also occur after you’re discharged from duty, that link is absolutely essential to your claim’s eligibility. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A current respiratory illness diagnosis from your treating physician
- Evidence that your illness developed due to an event that occurred while on duty
- Medical evidence linking your current respiratory condition to the active-duty event that occurred
Most often, the VA will require your doctor’s opinion about whether or not a service-related event caused your respiratory illness. Your doctor must submit documentation that explains why your breathing problems should make you eligible for service-related disability compensation.
The Department of Veterans Affairs then rates your respiratory illness according to the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities. (Respiratory illnesses are rated under Section 4.97, with diagnostic codes 6502 through 6847.)
Which Respiratory Illnesses Can Receive A VA Disability Rating?
Below are some common respiratory illnesses and other breathing problems listed in the VA disability rating schedule’s guidelines:
- Deviated septum
- Sleep apnea
- Aphonia (trouble talking above a whisper or speaking at all)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Pulmonary vascular disease (this condition causes shortness of breath)
- Bacterial lung infections
- Interstitial lung disease
Depending on what’s causing your breathing problems, the VA will rate your respiratory illness according to:
- Your medical diagnosis
- How seriously your breathing problems impact your quality of life and daily activities
Here’s an example: The VA assigns a disability rating for your chronic bronchitis after conducting air-flow tests on your lungs. You can receive a 10%, 30%, 60% or 100% disability rating from the VA, which determines your monthly benefit amount. The higher your VA disability rating, the bigger your monthly benefits payment. That’s because your disability rating indicates how much your condition affects your ability to complete work tasks and function socially.
The VA makes an exception to the disability rating rule for cancer patients with breathing problems. If you have cancer, the VA always assigns a 100% disability rating during treatment and for six months after completion. Once you’ve completed your cancer treatment, the VA will reexamine you and potentially assign you a lower VA disability rating. If your cancer resurges and you need additional treatment, the VA automatically reassigns your claim a 100% disability rating.
Getting a Presumptive Service Connection for Disability Benefits
In certain cases, you won’t need to provide actual proof that your active service directly caused your breathing problems. The VA calls this a “presumptive service connection,” and you need at least 90 days of continuous service to qualify. The VA lists several respiratory illnesses eligible for a presumptive service connection, such as tuberculosis, lung cancer, and bronchiectasis. (See a full list of diseases that qualify for a presumptive service connection.)
You’ll also get a presumptive service connection if excessive radiation exposure caused your cancer of the pharynx or bronchiolo-alveolar carcinoma. Veterans face higher radiation exposure risks than civilians do for several reasons, including:
- The military’s close proximity to nuclear weapons testing
- Exposure to depleted uranium
- Other chemical weapons that may disperse radioactive isotopes
Vietnam veterans who develop respiratory cancers after exposure to either Agent Orange or other herbicides don’t need proof. Instead, they should qualify for full VA health care and disability benefits automatically.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
If you have a respiratory illness you believe is service-connected, then you may qualify for VA disability benefits. You can also consult a VA-accredited attorney who’ll answer your claim questions for free.
Ready to see if you may qualify? Click the button below to start your free online benefits evaluation now!
Mandy Voisin is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Girls of the Ocean and Star of Deliverance. As an accomplished content marketing consultant, mom of four and doctor's wife, Mandy has written hundreds of articles about dangerous drugs and medical devices, medical issues that impact disabled Americans, veterans' healthcare and workers' compensation issues since 2016.