Service Connection For PTSD Stressors: Witnessing Death

Witnessing loss of life in any context is a traumatic experience. For veterans, who often have a higher probability of witnessing death than those in the general population, the experience can be compounded further because of the context in which they witness death. 

In combat situations, veterans not only fear for their own life, but also for the lives of those around them. Witnessing a death under those circumstances can cause significant distress. According to one study, there is a positive correlation between a military service member witnessing someone being killed and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later on. In fact, the same study found that witnessing a death or injury of another individual was even more positively correlated with the development of PTSD than pre determinant factors were, such as family psychological history or early childhood trauma.

When filing a claim for service connection for PTSD with the VA, veterans must prove that their PTSD was caused by their service in order for the VA to approve their claim. This can be done by providing evidence showing that the veteran’s PTSD was:

  1. Diagnosed in service, or
  2. Caused by fear of hostile military activity in service, or
  3. Caused by being involved in combat situations, or
  4. Caused by personal assault, or 
  5. Caused by a prisoner of war experience

The most common situation in which a service member will witness death is when he or she is engaged in combat. For veterans who were involved in combat operations, showing their PTSD was caused by a death associated with those combat operations is usually quite simple. First, they will need the VA to gather their military personnel files and service medical records which show they were deployed and engaged in combat operations. Next, they should prepare a VA Form 21-0781 Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for PTSD. On this form, the veteran will need to provide more specific details about the death he or she witnessed, who died, and when the incident occurred. After that, the VA will request any additional evidence that may be necessary to process the claim and adjudicate the case.

For service members who witness death outside of combat operations, the process for gathering evidence for their PTSD claim can be a bit more complicated. If a veteran was never deployed or engaged in combat operations but witnessed a death during their time in the military, finding supporting evidence for the occurrence of that death may be difficult unless the deceased was a service member and the military kept a record of his or her passing. It is important that veterans provide as much information as possible to the VA when claiming their PTSD was caused by this type of incident because the VA has a duty to assist veterans in their VA disability claims. This means that the VA must make reasonable efforts to help a claimant obtain the evidence necessary to substantiate a claim, including taking actions like doing a records search to find any evidence that may support the occurrence of the veteran’s stressor event. The name of the deceased, date (or time period) the incident occurred, and any other information that could help the VA locate records regarding the service member’s death is important information to provide. 

However, if a veteran is claiming PTSD secondary to witnessing the death of someone who was not a service member, and the death occurred outside of combat operations, this process becomes even more difficult. In this case, the veteran should still provide the VA with information about the incident and who died in case there is a military incident report regarding what occurred, but veterans who witness a civilian death while in the service will likely need to find supporting evidence for the incident’s occurrence on their own. This evidence could be a newspaper article regarding the individual’s death, a letter written by the veteran to a family member around the time of the incident that details what happened, or any other documents that may provide support for the occurrence of the veteran’s stressor event. The VA tends to be more scrutinous of non-military materials supporting a stressor’s occurrence, so any evidence veterans can provide in support of their stressor event along with a statement of what occurred is crucial. Additionally, if a veteran is unsure about the exact date of the event because of memory loss or because the incident occurred a long time ago, he or she should not guess as to when the event occurred. It is better to provide the VA with a time period within which the event could have occurred rather than to put an exact date on a VA Form 21-0781 which may end up being incorrect later on as more information is found and submitted.

Get Help With Your PTSD Claim

If you are a veteran whose PTSD claim has been denied, and you are looking for assistance with evidence gathering to support your stressor incident, please contact our office today. Our experienced attorneys and support staff are ready to help you get service connection for your condition and make sure you receive the compensation you deserve.