The next step in the claims process is the Compensation and Pension (C&P) exams. Each year thousands of veterans are assisted in preparing for their C&P exams which is really the fundamental part of your disability claims. These exams are never any fun for any veteran, they are your best opportunity to state your case in person to a VA employee whose decision has huge impact on the outcome of your claims. Although they do not decide your claims personally, their assessment has a direct impact on how the rating decision team decides ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and if yes, at what percentage.
Prepare for C&P exams the examiner is not your friend. Tthe C&P examiners like to make simple, friendly conversation with veterans that can later be taken out of context to impact negatively on their claims. While I never endorse being hostile or angry towards the examiners, there is need to pay close attention to what you say to them, because it can and will be used against you. Seemingly innocuous questions like ‘How are you doing?’, ‘Did you catch the football game last evening?’ or ‘did you have a good ride here this morning?’ are all examples of questions that can easily be misinterpreted once you answer them. On answering these questions favorably, the doctor could notate that the veteran is doing well; enjoying sporting events, is in a good mood and is pleasant.
When it comes to newer veterans, I like to point out when you were on base you felt one way but when you were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and went outside the wire, you immediately put up your guard and were ready for anything. This should be the case with the C&P exam as well. You should not let your guard down.
The C&P exam starts from the very moment you drive into the parking lot of the exam center. In Orlando, the VA’s C&P exam center when you go inside there is a check in area and behind the secretary is a door on the left and one on the right. Once the examiner comes to get you, they take you through the door and down the hall. Now, I would like to point out that the hallway is approximately 25 yards long but then once you turn down the next hallway it’s another 25 yards, then another turn and another 25 yards long which creates a giant horseshoe. During a conversation with a friend of mine, he told me his very first exam, the examiner had him walk to the end of the first hallway, and then he told him the exam room was just around the next turn. By the time he got about halfway down the next hallway; he could barely take another step and was completely out of breath leaning up against the wall. He looked back at him and said it’s just around the next turn and they were almost there! He informed the examiner he needed to get a wheelchair; he protested and asked him to just continue. My friend informed the examiner they could have the exam in the hallway instead, and he sat down right there on the floor. He immediately went and got a wheelchair instead, once he finally wheeled him into the exam room, my friend realized he took him the longest route possible so he could document he could walk 75 yards. The exam room was the very first room next to the outer door. He took him the longest way instead of just walking through the other door to the very first exam room!
When it comes to C&P exams, the devil is often within the details. A great example of this would be how you dress for the examinations. There are two schools of thought when it comes to how you dress. One is to dress up for the occasion (which is not advisable), the other is to wear clothes that look pulled out of a dumpster (which I don’t buy into either) you should dress normal, but down a little. There is no reason to iron your clothes because you are not there to impress anyone. Wear basic clothes – nothing flashy, neutral colors, and no jewelry. Shower the night before. If you normally shave every 3 days, don’t shave on account of the exam, but if you are normally clean shaven, this is not to say you should grow a long beard on account of this exam either. Do not wear cologne or perfume, but also do not go in smelling like booze or cigarettes either. Smells are important, because they help to set the tone.
Many times, during C&P exams, examiners utilize tricks to get a measured response from the veteran. Examiners have dropped pens on the floor trying to measure if you would flinch to bend over because of a bad back. I have heard examiners went so far as to document “The veteran leaned forward, and had I not been here they would have as likely as not just picked it up off the floor.” Another example of these tricks would be when during Psychological appointments the examiners cut you off several times when you are answering questions just to try and get a reaction out of you, to see if you have anger issues associated with your PTSD or not.
When you prepare for C&P exams, ‘do not lie but do not tell the truth either. What you want is god’s honest truth. You know the truth that hurts to talk about. That painful truth you try to tuck away so nobody sees. That truth which keeps you up at night, and that truth you often hide from the outside world because you’re worried of how others would perceive you if they knew exactly what’s going on inside of you’.
There is a lot of gamesmanship involved when it comes to C&P exams on the VA’s part. For this reason, when you prepare for C&P exams you should know how to take away the VA’s advantage. Because the VA gets to decide the time and place of your examination and the doctors you get to see. This alone provides them with a serious advantage because you don’t get to pick exactly when and where you’re going to be at your absolute worst, both physically and mentally. This is where coaching comes into play.
Let’s assume you have a bad foot. Well someone who has had this issue knows the conditions that make it far worse than others. While at 9:00 AM your feet are not in very much pain, but by 5-6 PM they are shot, swollen and in pain and can barely stand. When the VA schedules you for a C&P exam at 9:00 AM, it can really help to factor in that in 8-9 hours ahead of time, your leg would be in that painful swollen condition. You could factor in that if you woke up at say midnight the night before—8-9 hours before the scheduled exam and then had your normal day, by 9:00 AM your feet will be exactly where they normally would have been come 5-6 PM.
I want to shed light on Hearing tests which are carried out for Tinnitus and bilateral hearing loss. These are done in a quiet room (which is not indicative of the outside noise), and then the person administering the exam will tell you to push the button/raise your hand anytime that you think you hear a noise. Now, allow me to point out the word “THINK”. Veterans are competitive by nature and so we always want to win. However, in this case, I simply ask you do it when you are sure you heard the noise, not when you think you heard it.
When you push the button without hearing a sound, you’re giving a false reading, trying to win but indirectly failing the test. The second version of the VA’s hearing test uses words such as ‘hammburrgaaa’ and ‘bassseballlll’. I intentionally misspelled these words because this is what they sound like when you have hearing problems during the test. Now, obviously these are words you learned in 2nd or 3rd grade and they are extremely easy, which is why they are the ones they use during the hearing exam. In this test, the examiner will tell you to say whatever word you hear once the test starts, and being competitive your critical thinking skills will help you to formulate what words are being said, based largely on the number of syllables in the word, which letter you hear first to start the word, and common sense which helps to string it together. This implies if they used the words “High Fructose” or “Riboflavin” the majority of veterans would get those words wrong. If you’re not sure, do not resort to guessing.
Sometimes examiners bring up topics that are not related to your injury or why you are being examined in the first place. This happened during one of my exams. During a C&P appointment the examiner asked me a very open ended question which had no bearing on why I was there. She then began asking dozens of questions strictly on that single topic and used up the entire appointment talking about this. One of the major keys to being successful in C&P exams is to not let the examiner sidetrack you. When you’re seeking a service connection from the VA, it means you’re seeking compensation for your injuries that are connected to your military service. Oftentimes however, they will try to talk about your childhood or things that have nothing to do with why you are there. In this case, it helps to retrain their line of questioning back to what caused your injuries and how it relates to your military service. For instance, the examiner asks ‘What was your childhood like?’ Your reply should be along the lines of ‘My childhood was fine, but that’s not my problem. My problem is the military had me kill “X” number of people, and I got blown up 5 times’ When they ask you about any old football injuries? ‘No, I never played football but I did hurt my back once when I fell 20 feet from a helicopter and landed on my back, then had to get seen in medical on June 23, 2005!’
There are resources that enable you prepare in advance for C&P exams. One of these is the Disability Benefits Questionnaire’s (DBQ’s). DBQs are forms doctors fill out to evaluate your injuries and the severity in which they impact you. These forms can be very useful when it comes to preparing for C&P exams because they provide you with somewhat of a blueprint of the types of questions you are likely to be asked during the C&P examination for that injury. Another beneficial tool is a personal journal. Personally, I keep a journal with notes in it I often refer to. Having a quick reference guide, I can refer back to has been extremely helpful over the years to remind me of specific dates, doctors’ names, surgeries, hospitalizations and other bits of information. This way, when I am preparing for exams, I can go back over the important highlights ahead of time, to remind myself of everything that is relevant to that particular examination’s injuries.
If you do not keep journals, I suggest going back through all your military and VA treatment records prior to your C&P appointments. You could as well have a family member in the C&P examination room with you as a second set of eyes and ears to help you remember everything in detail. Your case is better stated when you know the exact incident, treatment, surgery, and dates that are relevant to your claims. A C&P examiner insinuated a friend of mine they were lying, until they pulled out the exact medical records that proved beyond all doubts what they said was the absolute truth! They knew exactly where to look because they had looked at those treatment records and knew exactly where they were inside of their briefcase. Pulling out the exact record they needed so quickly completely caught the examiner off guard.
When you leave your exams, it is vital you write everything down in a journal so you can remember everything in as much detail as possible, for future reference. I have personally experienced occasions, although not necessarily in C&P exams, where I specifically had said one thing, while another was documented. For example, on being asked what my pain level was on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being no pain at all and 10 being excruciating pain, I specifically said it was an (8), but the nurse documented it as (2). Later when I requested the records and went back and challenged it the same day after pulling out my journal with every question, answers, staff members’ name, exact times that I was seen, a brief description of what each staff member looked like, and which witness I had present, they quickly changed it in their records.
During your exams there is always that moment just before your exam is finished where there is an awkward silence. I like to call that moment “The moment of Truth.” It typically comes when the examiner looks at their computer and begins to type or they are getting ready to fill out some paperwork. I like to use that moment to ask a simple question: “How long do I have to wait to file my VA Form 10-5345 to request copies of your examination notes?” I like to ask this because it lets them know point blank you will be reading exactly what they write down. It also implies you’re going to be watching carefully, so any mistakes which are made will be challenged.
Hosts Mike and Tricia Marino are a retired military family with three children. They retired from the Navy with just over 20 years of service in 2011 and returned from Japan serving as civilians on a Navy base.