Claims for disability compensation based on service connection of PTSD are one of the most commonly filed claims, but such claims are not without pitfalls.
In general, a VA claim requires the following:
- (1) a current diagnosis;
- (2) an in-service occurrence; and
- (3) a medical link between the diagnosis and the in-service occurrence, otherwise known as a nexus.
For a diagnosis of PTSD, and therefore a viable claim for PTSD, there has to be evidence of a traumatic event. If there is no traumatic event, then the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD would not be met. If there is no in-service traumatic event, the VA will deny service connection for a claim related to PTSD.
Buddy Letter for PTSD Prior to 2010
Before 2010, the VA required veterans to corroborate the claimed in-service stressor. For someone who fought in Vietnam, being able to convince a VA employee that a particular mortar attack or ambush took place might seem a little peculiar, but the VA had often denied such claims. The VA expected veterans to provide information related to the places, types, and circumstances of their service, details of which were not readily accessible to the veteran.
A 2010 regulatory change, however, liberalized this policy, removing the requirement for corroboration of the in-service stressor where a veteran claimed PTSD due to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity1. This was done in response to an increasing number of claims being filed by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Use of a Buddy Letter for PTSD for Non-Combat PTSD Stressors
Although combat veterans might still benefit from a statement explaining their experience to help round out their claim and provide background, veterans whose trauma did not involve deploying to a war zone might have a harder time getting PTSD service connected and could therefore benefit from a lay statement.
Two common situations include:
- A veteran claims PTSD from an undocumented in-service sexual assault.
- A veteran claims PTSD from being assigned to Germany during the height of the Cold War or to Thailand during the Vietnam War.
There is a way to develop a claim where there is no reference to an in-service occurrence within the four corners of a veteran’s service treatment record, and alternative sources of evidence, such as a civilian medical report or police report, do not exist.
There are two important concepts to keep in mind. First, a layperson is competent to make observations2. Second, the VA looks for evidence of symptomatology (a big word for symptoms) where there are questions related to the chronic nature of a condition3. Symptomatology is, in short, a set of symptoms identified over a period of time associated with a condition and do not have to occur all at once. Indeed, a person writing a lay statement – whether a veteran, friend, family member or coworker – may describe observations of symptoms that, chronologically, following military service.
Writing a Good Buddy Letter (Lay Statement)
Where there is no in-service complaint or diagnosis, it’s helpful to (1) articulate what the in-service stressor was and (2) identify evidence of markers of personal trauma, which could be communicated in a PTSD stressor letter addressed to the VA or on VA Form 21-0781 Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for PTSD or, alternatively, a VA Form 21-4138 Statement in Support of Claim.
Markers of personal trauma may include but are not limited to, episodes of unexplainable depression or panic attacks, alcohol or drug abuse, changes in work performance, or obsessive behaviors. We cannot emphasize enough that these are only examples of markers of personal trauma and are not an exhaustive list.
A shortcoming with buddy letters or lay statements in claims for service connection is that the writer often states only what the current symptoms are today without articulating a more in-depth history of symptoms over time. Although a layperson is not competent to diagnose a condition or provide an opinion on what caused the condition, a layperson may still be competent to make observations.
Although this statement was created for the purposes of this article, this is an example of a brief declaration often made by veterans. It doesn’t discuss the in-service occurrence whatsoever and jumps ahead by two decades to today’s symptoms.
A good buddy letter for PTSD ought to show, not just tell, and, while it may be difficult, the buddy letter should include more detailed information.
Buddy Letter for PTSD Example
Now, consider this buddy letter for PTSD example related to a hypothetical in-service sexual assault:
This revised buddy letter for PTSD example provides more detail about the in-service stressor event and explains why it wasn’t reported. The statement also explains what happened to the veteran in the years that followed separation from the military, leading up to today. Alcohol abuse, which is evidence of a marker of trauma, is referenced.
The additional details, furthermore, help identify an appropriate rating. In this instance, there are references to difficulty adapting to stressful circumstances, panic attacks, and difficulty in establishing and maintaining effective work and social relationships, which can warrant a 50% rating, if not 70%.
As mentioned, another common non-combat-related in-service trauma relates to claims for PTSD by veterans stationed in areas where there was terrorist activity. PTSD can be service-connected based on a veteran’s fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, but terrorist activity can occur outside war zones. For example, during the Cold War, the Red Army Faction carried out terrorist attacks in West Germany that also targeted U.S. or other NATO personnel. In May 1972, this group attacked the V Corps headquarters in Frankfurt and detonated two car bombs inside the USAREUR headquarters compound in Heidelberg.
This statement, though brief, helps identify a specific relevant time and unit assignment. In particular, in this instance, we know that the 503rd MP Company was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division, which had a large presence in West Germany. Although this bit of information would be gleaned from a veteran’s records, highlighting his or her MOS as someone who provided base security during the height of the Cold War, when terrorist activity was a concern in West Germany, is material to the veteran’s claim. Like the other buddy letter for PTSD examples, this statement should be accompanied by information related to symptomatology.
On February 15, 2022, the VA published a proposed change to its General Rating Formula for Mental Disorders,4 which, if adopted, would use the World Health Organization Disability Assessment Schedule 2.0 as its framework for rating the severity of symptoms. One important aspect of this proposal is that the VA reported that “impairments that occur 25 percent or more of the time present a greater impact on social and occupational functioning than those that occur less frequently.”5 For the sake of brevity, we will refer to this as the temporality requirement.
If the VA adopts this proposal, buddy letters for PTSD should address this temporality requirement relative to at least one of five domains, namely: cognition; interpersonal interactions and relationships; task completion and life activities; navigating environments; self-care.
In short, a buddy letter can help provide additional information in PTSD cases related to an in-service trauma and a narrative related to post-military evidence of markers of trauma where an in-service trauma had gone unreported, such as a sexual assault.
At Gang & Associates, we have been helping veterans obtain service connections in complex PTSD cases involving military sexual trauma and personal assault. We have seen examples of both good and bad buddy letters for PTSD. If you or someone you know is experiencing challenges in obtaining service connection for PTSD or have questions about a buddy letter for PTSD, then we invite you to contact us online or by phone at 888.878.9350.