If you are a Vietnam veteran, you are likely familiar with veterans benefits. Perhaps you have been through the long struggle with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and been awarded benefits, or perhaps you are still struggling through the system.
Did you know you can also receive disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA)? If it’s been too many years since you’ve worked, you might not be eligible for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). But you can always be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) based on your disability and your income regardless of your work history.
Qualifying for VA disability compensation does not automatically qualify you for SSDI or SSI. Likewise, being denied VA benefits does not prevent you from collecting benefits from the SSA. For a discussion of how the Social Security administration (SSA) defines disability differently from the VA and how they compare, see our articles on the differences between Veterans compensation and Social Security disability and whether a VA designation of totally disabled helps your SSA disability claim.
Common disabilities for Vietnam veterans include PTSD, Agent Orange-related issues, and alcohol and drug abuse. Unlike VA disability compensation, which will compensate you only for disabilities linked to your service, the SSA will consider all of your disabilities regardless of the cause. Basically, the SSA will compensate for any disabilities that make you unable to work.
Many Vietnam veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An inability to concentrate, insomnia, nightmares, and flashbacks can make it extremely difficult for some vets to accept supervision or work in an environment with other people.
To obtain Social Security benefits for PTSD, you will need to have your doctor provide medical evidence to the SSA. SSA does not have a specific disability category for PTSD, but you may be able to qualify under the impairment listing for anxiety to prove you are disabled.
Note for combat veterans: Unlike the VA, SSA does not lessen the standard of proof for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. SSA is concerned with whether your disability completely prevents you from working, not whether your condition was caused by your service.
Many Vietnam veterans have struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, not just from combat experiences but also from struggling with finding work and feeling unappreciated upon coming home from war. The SSA will no longer award disability benefits solely on the basis of alcohol and drug abuse.
However, Social Security may award you disability benefits for medical complications from drug and alcohol abuse, such as pancreatitis or chronic liver disease, even if you are still actively using. The SSA will award benefits only if you can show that even without the substance abuse, you would still be disabled and unable to work. This will typically require a period of sobriety.
If you are clean and sober. Even if you are sober only briefly, such as for a month, this will allow you to see a doctor and have your underlying mental health condition documented. Unlike with veteran benefits, showing you are using drugs and alcohol to treat PTSD is not enough to show you are disabled. You must be clean and sober long enough for a doctor to verify that you have PTSD and that it would not go away if you stayed sober.
If you are not clean and sober. A history of drug and alcohol abuse will not prohibit you from receiving benefits, but if you are actively drinking or using, it will be extremely unlikely that you will get benefits based on a mental disability. Even though you are most likely using drugs and alcohol to cope with PTSD, this will not be enough to get SSA benefits. You will need to stop long enough to be able to see your doctor and have your underlying mental conditions confirmed.
For an overview of the medical evidence you need to provide to show you are unable to work due to other mental disabilities, see the our various articles on getting disability for mental disorders.
Unlike with PTSD, it can be easier to get Social Security disability benefits for problems associated with Agent Orange exposure.
Easier standard of proof than VA. Getting SSDI or SSI based on physical ailments caused by Agent Orange is easier, and it’s a much simpler process than trying to get compensated by the VA. All you have to show is that you suffer from a disabling condition or illness that prevents you from working.
No need to prove exposure to Agent Orange. You don’t need to prove to the SSA that were exposed to Agent Orange; you only need to show that you are sick and unable to work. For example, if you are a Blue Water veteran who has struggled to get VA disability compensation, rest assured that you will not face similar obstacles with the Social Security Administration.
Don’t have to prove illness caused by Agent Orange. The Social Security Administration will not prohibit you from collecting benefits based on whether your condition is recognized as being caused by Agent Orange exposure. The standard for SSA is the fact that you suffer from an illness or condition that prohibits you from doing any work.
Listed below are some of the common illnesses stemming from Agent Orange (although there are many, many others). Click on the name of the illness to read our article about what medical proof you need to provide to Social Security to show that your condition is disabling.
For information on proving disability based on any other illnesses or conditions, see our section on getting disability for specific medical conditions.
It is fairly rare to receive Social Security benefits when you first submit an application, unless your illness is terminal or clearly and extremely severe. If you are denied benefits, file an appeals in a timely manner and seek the assistance of a disability attorney if you need it.