There are many myths about having a Department of Veterans Affairs' disability rating and serving in the military. The most common is that, if you have a VA disability rating, you can never serve in the military again. Or if you do serve in the military, you have to waive your disability rating or all of your VA disability compensation. None of these statements is completely true.
The truth is, in some cases, it is possible to serve in the military with a VA disability rating.
Because you can file a VA disability claim only after leaving active duty, this article is making the assumption that the military member has left active duty and is either transitioning into the Guard or Reserves or trying to return to active duty after a break in service.
Can You Serve in the Military with a Disability Rating?
The answer is maybe. Simply having a VA disability rating does not prevent someone from joining the military. However, the underlying medical condition may prevent someone from medically qualifying to serve again.
For example, you can receive a VA disability rating for knee surgery that you had while on active duty. If your knee has otherwise healed and you can perform your military duties, remain deployable and pass your PT test, then you may be eligible for continued military service.
However, other underlying medical conditions may prevent you from joining the military again. For example, it may be difficult to join again if your VA disability rating stems from a serious medical condition that prevents you from being able to perform your military duties, maintain deployability status or pass your PT test.
If you had a break in service before trying to go back into the military, you may need to process through MEPS again. If you have a VA disability rating or certain other medical conditions, you may need to apply for a medical waiver to join the military.
Can You Serve on Active Duty with a VA Disability Rating?
Provided you have been medically cleared to serve, simply having a VA disability rating isn't enough to prohibit you from serving on active duty.
However, federal law prohibits members from receiving military compensation and VA disability compensation for the same day of service.
So, while you won't have to waive your actual VA disability rating, you would need to suspend your VA disability compensation payments until after your active-duty service ends. After that, you can contact the VA to resume your payments.
What About Serving in the Guard or Reserves with a Disability Rating?
The same rules apply to members of the Reserve Component as they do for active duty. However, there is one big difference: You don't have to suspend your VA disability compensation payments unless you are serving in a full-time capacity.
When you receive VA disability compensation, you receive it on a monthly basis.
When you serve in the Reserve Component, you receive military pay only on the days you serve (typically one weekend a month, and two weeks a year). You actually perform four drill periods on your weekend drill and receive pay for four days of work. You will receive only one day of pay for the other days you serve in the Reserve Component (Active Training, TDY, PME, etc.).
The typical Guard or Reserve member receives military pay for only a handful of days per month. They are in an inactive status and are not receiving compensation for the remaining days of the month.
Remember the rule above: "Federal law prohibits members from receiving military compensation and VA disability compensation for the same day of service."
The law requires members of the Reserve Component to waive either their military compensation or VA disability compensation for days in which they received both forms of compensation. Thankfully, it's easy to decide which pay to waive.
Deciding Which Pay to Waive
Simply compare your monthly VA disability compensation payment to the base military pay for your paygrade and years of service. Waive the lesser of the two (Spoiler: This will almost always be your VA disability compensation).
Keep in mind you have to waive your pay only on the days on which you receive both forms of compensation. In other words, the pay you waive is prorated -- you don't have to waive the full month of either of these payments, only the prorated amount for the days on which you received both.
Both the VA and Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) prorate the payments based on a 30-day month. This means each day of VA compensation is worth 1/30 of your monthly VA disability rate. Likewise, each day of military service is worth 1/30 of your base military pay.
So if you serve the traditional one weekend a month, two weeks a year, you would receive military compensation for 63 days of service (48 weekend drills and 15 AT days).
The VA sends members a copy of VA Form 21-8951 at the end of the year documenting the number of days on which they received military compensation and VA disability compensation for the same period of service.
You use this form to elect to either waive your VA disability compensation or your military pay. This article explains VA Form 21-8951 in more detail.
If you waive your VA disability compensation, the VA will simply withhold future payments based on the number of days for which you received compensation in the previous year. If you were paid for 63 days of military service, the VA would withhold a little more than two months' worth of disability compensation from future payments. You can even request that the VA withhold only a portion of your future payments until the full amount is withheld.
If you choose to waive your military compensation, you would need to repay the military in full. This would mean writing a large check to DFAS.
In most cases, you will have earned more military compensation than you received in VA disability compensation, so it would make much more sense to waive your VA compensation.
Yes, it may be possible to serve in the military with a VA disability rating, provided your underlying medical condition doesn't prevent you from meeting requirements. If you serve on active duty, in the full-time Guard/Reserves, or you have been activated, you may need to suspend your VA disability compensation payments to comply with federal law. Otherwise, members of the Reserve Component may need to waive either their military compensation or their disability compensation for the number of days on which they received both forms of compensation on the same day.