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Veteran Gastrointestinal Problems

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) have been linked to service-related exposure to contaminated drinking water, toxic burn pits, and combat-related stress. Veterans with gastrointestinal or digestive disorders resulting from their military service may qualify for compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

It’s been documented that gastrointestinal conditions are more prevalent in veterans than in the general population. Before modern technology allowed for remote warfare, doctors believed the psychological trauma and stress of war were the primary causes of poor gut health in service members since symptoms often surfaced during or after combat.

However, while the overall number of combat-related traumas has dropped with the advent of modern military tactics, digestive diseases have actually increased among veterans.

Possible explanations for the increase include exposure to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons that contaminated air, water, and soil, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), gastrointestinal tract infections, smoke from burn pits, and weakened immunity due to severe stress. The VA is currently researching new treatments for restoring veterans’ gut health.

Gastrointestinal Problems Resulting from Military Service

Some veterans who served in military operations have experienced chronic gastrointestinal issues long after returning to civilian life. Gulf War Syndrome has been used to describe unexplained symptoms in diseases and disorders of the digestive system, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Other gastrointestinal problems veterans may experience include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea/dysentery
  • Heartburn/indigestion
  • Hernias
  • Cancer
  • Gallbladder conditions
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Gastrointestinal dysmotility
  • Barrett’s esophagus
  • Celiac disease
  • Unexplained abdominal pain
  • Diverticulitis
  • Conditions of the mouth and tongue
  • Adhesions of the peritoneum
  • Gastritis
  • Stenosis of the stomach
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Injury to the spleen
  • Conditions of the pancreas

It’s not uncommon for veterans to report more than one digestive complaint at a time.

Why Do Veterans Experience Gastrointestinal Issues?

Several possible causes have been blamed for diseases and disorders of the digestive system in veterans.

A recent example of toxic exposure that resulted in health problems is Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. From 1953 until 1987, veterans stationed at Camp Lejeune were unknowingly exposed to drinking water believed to contain hazardous chemicals.

Many service members have since come forward with cancers of the digestive system and other gastrointestinal complaints that the government has linked to their time at Camp Lejeune.

Gastrointestinal Conditions & Eligibility for VA Disability

Veterans can file a claim with the VA and be assigned a disability rating based on their reported symptoms. Disability ratings already exist for some digestive disorders, and the VA recently updated its disability rating schedule for conditions related to the digestive system.

How Does a Veteran Qualify for Gastrointestinal Disability Benefits?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs requires supporting documentation of your disability and evidence that an event, injury, or illness occurred during your service to cause that disability.

Documents required to prove your need for disability benefits can include:

  • DD214 separation documents
  • Service treatment records
  • Civilian and VA medical records, x-rays, lab reports, and other diagnostic test results or supporting documentation
  • Any previous or new claims filed with the VA for the same condition
  • Records showing the locations you served that may have contributed to your disability
doctors examining an intestine

VA Gastrointestinal Disability Ratings

Your monthly payments are based on a VA disability rating for the digestive system that will be assigned to you based on the severity of your symptoms and the number of dependent family members in your household.

These ratings can range from zero to 100 percent. A minimum 10 percent disability rating is needed to qualify for disability payments. Disability claims with a less than 10 percent disability rating are called non-compensable disabilities, meaning you are not eligible for compensation for that illness.

If you think your condition merits a higher VA rating for a gastrointestinal disorder, you might consider using the services of a VA disability advocate who can help you navigate the system and file an appeal of your disability rating with the VA.

Total disability may be assigned if the VA determines you’re unemployable due to your disease or injury, with veterans being eligible for up to no more than 100 percent disability. You can consult the 2023 veterans disability compensation rates table to estimate what you can expect to receive in monthly payments.

What Happens if My Disability Isn't on the
Veterans Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD)?

The schedule doesn’t include every type of gastrointestinal illness or disease. When assigning a disability rating for disabilities not in the schedule, the VA compares your symptoms to those of the rating table’s most similar disability.

You will be assigned an analogous or equivalent code if your specific diagnosis isn’t listed. These codes are used to match your condition as closely as possible with one already recognized in the Veterans Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities.

For example, there is no rating schedule for the diagnosis of diverticulitis. This condition causes pockets of inflammation or infection in the digestive tract, leading to abdominal pain. Instead, the VA may use the rating schedule for irritable bowel syndrome or other similar conditions to determine your payments.

Applying for VA Disability Benefits

It’s estimated that more than 10 million eligible veterans never apply for their owed VA disability benefits, while others already receiving benefits may qualify for more.

If you entered the military with a pre-existing condition that has since worsened following your service, you might be eligible to apply based on the level of aggravation (how much worse your condition became due to service).

If you believe you are eligible for service-related disability payments, file a VA claim as soon as possible.

person doing paperwork

What if I Disagree With the Disability Rating Assigned to Me?

If you believe your disability rating should be higher, you can submit an appeal to the VA, which will be reviewed to determine whether you qualify for more disability. Supplemental claims require new evidence and documentation of a disability for which you previously applied and must be submitted within a year of the date you received the initial decision letter.

You can also request a higher-level review claim if you continue to disagree with the VA’s decision. A senior reviewer will look at the facts of your case and determine whether to change your disability rating.

A board appeal goes before a veterans law judge at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The judge will review your case and decide whether to grant a higher disability rating based on the appeal documentation. It can be helpful to consult a veterans advocate or attorney to help you navigate the appeals process.

Don’t miss out on the compensation owed to you. Apply for VA disability today.

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