Veterans who became disabled due to an injury or illness caused by their military service ("service-connected") can get compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But you can't get VA disability for a pre-existing condition—unless your medical condition was aggravated (made worse) by your military service.
Proving your aggravated pre-existing condition is both disabling and service-connected can be more difficult than proving that your military duty caused a new service-connected injury. But it's not impossible. The only VA disability claims that can't be proven are those that can't be tied to your time in the military.
Read on to learn what it takes to make your case for VA disability benefits based on the aggravation of a preservice medical condition.
The VA generally won't pay disability compensation for any medical condition that isn't service-connected. But if you have a pre-existing condition that was made worse by your military service, the aggravation of your preservice disability can be considered service-related.
There are two steps to qualifying for service-connected disability compensation based on "aggravation of a preservice disability." To get your claim approved, you'll need to prove both the following:
The easiest way to prove you had a pre-existing condition is to show that the military noted this condition when you first went into service. The records from your entrance medical exam might include this information, but that's not the only way to show you had a preservice medical condition.
If your entrance medical exam mentions the existence of your pre-existing condition, this will prove to the VA that you did indeed have the medical condition before you went into the service. If you have records showing that your disability worsened while you were on active duty, the VA will generally presume service caused you to get worse.
If your entrance exam doesn't mention your preservice disability, the VA will consider that you were in sound physical and mental health when you entered military service. You can't get disability for aggravation of a pre-existing condition until you can prove that you had the problem before your military service. That's where your doctor can help.
To prove your medical condition was preservice, you'll need to gather medical records that show you had the condition before your military service began. Ask your doctor to write a letter to the VA and attach medical records showing that you had the impairment before you entered service.
Your doctor's letter won't carry much weight if no medical records are provided. The VA wants to see documented evidence that you were treated for the pre-existing condition before you joined the military.
What the doctor says in the letter is also important. It's best if your doctor can say that you definitely had the condition before being in the service. A doctor's statement that says you probably had the disability might not satisfy the VA.
If your pre-existing condition wasn't mentioned on your military entrance exam, and your doctor couldn't satisfy the VA that you had the condition prior to service, you'll face a difficult hurdle. You have to show by the legal standard of clear and unmistakable evidence that the injury or illness predated your service.
This is a difficult legal standard to meet without verification from your military entrance exam or your doctor. To prove your disability is service-connected in such a case, you might need a disability attorney to help you.
The VA defines aggravation as the worsening of a veteran's nonservice-related condition. The VA will consider an aggravation service-related when you've experienced "an increase in disability during such service."
Under this definition, for the aggravation of your pre-existing condition to be considered service-connected, it must qualify as one of the following:
If you were able to prove that you were disabled prior to service, the next step is to show that your condition increased in severity while you were on active duty. But you don't necessarily need to prove that any particular incident occurred to cause the aggravation. You need only prove that your disability got worse because of your military service.
The VA won't award benefits just because your pre-existing disability got worse. In either case above, you'd have to prove that the worsening of your right knee wasn't just the natural progression of your pre-service condition.
If the VA can prove that your disability would've worsened even if you weren't in service, the agency can deny your benefits. But the VA must have clear and unmistakable evidence to prove your military service didn't cause your condition to get worse—a high legal standard to meet.
If you merely had a flare-up of your disability or had only a temporary worsening of your symptoms, this won't be enough to prove that your disability worsened while you were in the service. Temporary symptoms aren't considered adequate legal proof.
You can get help from your doctor to prove that your underlying disability—and not just your symptoms—got permanently worse.
It's much easier to qualify for disability benefits if you served in combat or were a prisoner of war. Even temporary symptoms will be adequate to prove your condition got worse during service. The VA has this special rule to compensate for the difficulty of maintaining medical records in combat situations.
When military service aggravates a pre-existing medical condition, everyday activities like working and caring for your family become more difficult. In addition to the aggravated knee injury discussed above, many other conditions can be aggravated by military service. Some common conditions include the following:
There are a couple of ways you can apply for VA disability benefits for an aggravated pre-existing condition, including the following:
Learn more about how to file for disability benefits from the VA.
If the VA denied your benefits for a pre-existing condition aggravated by your military service, you have the right to appeal. If you've shown that your medical condition predated your service and that it got worse during service, and the VA still denied your benefits, then it might be time to contact a disability attorney.
Learn more about appealing a VA denial of benefits.
Updated June 26, 2023