A misconception about having a VA service-connected disability rating is that it closes the door to you ever serving in the military again. Some injuries or disabilities may indeed prevent you from serving, but the service-connected disability rating isn’t the barrier, it’s the injury.
How to Join the Guard or Reserves with a VA Disability Rating
If you have an injury or medical condition severe enough to warrant a VA disability rating, the chance that you need a medical waiver to join the military again are high. It may be possible to transition directly from active duty into the Guard or Reserves without a waiver. But if you have been off active duty for a while, you will likely need to process through MEPS again. This will almost certainly require a medical waiver if you have a VA service-connected disability rating.
Medical waivers are processed independently from your VA disability rating. There is no magic number too high to prevent you from joining the military – it all comes down to the type of medical condition and its severity. The primary factors the military considers are whether or not you are physically fit enough to serve and whether or not your medical condition(s) will prevent you from serving or cause potential harm to you or the members of your unit. This article covers getting a medical waiver to join the military.
In short, the process starts by contacting a recruiter and expressing your interest to join the military. Provided you meet all other criteria (such as the right reenlistment code or RE code, age, weight and other factors), the recruiter will process your application and submit it to MEPS for a medical review. The article linked above includes more detailed information about this process and what to do if/when your medical application is denied and requires waivers.
For now, let’s take a look at how having a VA service-connected disability rating affects your ability to join the Guard or Reserves and how it affects your pay and compensation.
Dual Compensation from the VA and the Military is Prohibited
There is a law on the books, often referred to as “concurrent receipt,” which prohibits service members from being paid for active duty or active or inactive training concurrently with VA disability compensation or pension benefits.* You can find these laws written in 10 U.S. Code § 12316 – Payment of certain Reserves while on duty, and 38 U.S. Code § 5304 – Prohibition against duplication of benefits.
You can read the full sections linked above, or check out these two excerpts, which give you the gist of the law:
- 10 U.S. Code § 12316: Under section (b) Unless the payments because of his earlier military service are greater than the compensation prescribed by subsection (a)(2), a Reserve of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard who because of his earlier military service is entitled to a pension, retired or retainer pay or disability compensation, and who upon being ordered to active duty for a period of more than 30 days in time of war or national emergency is found physically qualified to perform that duty, ceases to be entitled to the payments because of his earlier military service until the period of active duty ends.
- 38 U.S. Code § 5304: Under section (c) Pension, compensation or retirement pay on account of any person’s own service shall not be paid to such person for any period for which such person receives active service pay.
In short, the law states you can collect a pension, retainer pay, disability compensation or other earned pay. However, you must choose to suspend that benefit if you are called up for training or to active duty if you want to receive active duty or training pay.
*Note: There is a similar law, often referred to as concurrent receipt, which applies to receiving disability compensation while receiving retirement pay. This is a separate application of these laws, which you can read about here.
Typical Guard / Reserve Training Schedule and How it Impacts Your Compensation
Let’s look at the numbers in a real-world application, based on the typical number of days served in drill status.
Most traditional reservists and Guard members receive pay for 63 training days per fiscal year. This accounts for the standard 48 Unit Training Assemblies (UTAs) and 15 days of Annual Training (AT) time. The 48 UTAs typically consist of four drill periods per month for 12 months. For our purposes in this article, we will consider 63 paid service days as a baseline. This doesn’t account for further training, deployments, mobilizations or other active time. So you may end up with more than 63 days for the calculations we will do later in this article.
Verifying Your Time with Dual Payments
Because you can’t be paid by the military and the VA on the same day, you must choose which pay you wish to receive, and which you wish to waive. You can do this at the end of the year with VA Form 21-8951, Notice of Waiver of VA Compensation or Pension to Receive Military Pay and Allowances (PDF). You must fill out this form each year you receive VA service-connected disability compensation or pension benefits and you serve on paid status in the Guard or Reserves.
The VA should send you this form during the first quarter of the year for the previous fiscal year. If you haven’t received a copy, you should request one from the VA. It is up to you to complete and return it. If you do not receive a form from the VA, then you should initiate completing the form on your own.*
Completing the form: Once you have your form, you will need to verify how many days of paid military service you had in the previous year. If there are no errors on your form, then you can sign it and send it in. If there are any errors or omissions, then you will need to submit it to your commander or his representative for correction or approval. The unit will keep a copy, a copy will be forwarded to the State if you are in the National Guard and a copy is submitted to the VA. You should also keep a copy for your records, including the date it was submitted.
*Note: This is the law, and you cannot claim ignorance. You were informed by the VA when you received your VA Disability Rating Decision, found on VA Form 21-8764 – Disability Compensation Award Attachment. This form states your payments may be affected by receipt of active duty or drill pay as a reservist or member of the federally recognized National Guard. It is important to inform your Guard or Reserve unit when you join that you also have a VA disability compensation rating. Your recruiter or personnel office will help you get this information into the system so it doesn’t catch anyone off guard.
Service Members Choose Which Pay to Waive
You should always run the numbers before signing and submitting the document. In most cases, it will be best to waive the VA Disability Compensation. Here is how it works.
You must choose to waive either your VA benefits for the number of days you served in the military or the military pay and allowances you received during your training days. The latter will almost always give the veteran less money.
Remember the number 63 above? That represents the standard number of training days for most members of the Guard or Reserves. If you waive your VA disability compensation payments, you choose to waive 63 days of VA disability compensation. If you choose to waive your military pay from the training days you served, you waive everything you earned from the military from the previous year (basic pay, BAH, BAS and other types of pay). Waiving your military compensation is rarely the correct choice.
Example of Waiving VA Disability Pay
Let’s look at an E-5 with eight years and a 30% disability and no dependents. (This example uses 2014 rates for both drill pay and disability compensation.)
The disability payments would equal $400.93 per month. $400.93 ÷ 30 days in a month = $13.36 a day in VA disability compensation.
The same E-5 would earn $385.80 per drill weekend (4 drill periods at $96.45 each). So 1 UTA = $96.45.
The E-5 can waive the VA disability compensation of $841.68 ($13.36 * 63 UTAs). Or he can choose to waive approximately $6,076.35 of military compensation ($96.45 per drill period * 63 UTAs & AT days).
It’s clear from this example that waiving the roughly two months of VA disability compensation is the right way to go.
Run your own calculations: Here are the current VA service-connected disability compensation rates, and a current drill pay calculator. Simply plug in the numbers for your situation and run the numbers. It should be quick and easy to determine which pay is better to waive. Don’t just use 63 days – verify how many days of paid military service you had in the previous year.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Which Pay to Waive: VA disability compensation is tax-free. Most drill pay will be considered taxable income. So if it’s close, you may come out ahead if you choose to keep the VA service-connected disability payment. But you would need to bring in a lot of VA compensation pay to offset a year’s worth of drill pay. In most cases, it is best to waive the disability compensation. Be sure to run the numbers, just in case.
How Does the Government Collect What You Owe?
In most cases, the VA will not ask for the money back. They will simply withhold your future payments until they have collected the funds you owe. So if you had a standard year with 63 paid days, the VA would withhold your future earnings at a rate equal to 63 days of compensation pay. This equals just a little more than two months, so you can expect to miss those payments after you submit your form. Be sure to verify the total number of paid military days you had in the previous year so you will know how long you will be without your disability compensation payments. You will want this information so you can work it into your budget and don’t cause yourself any financial hardship!
You Can Suspend Your VA Compensation if You Return to Active Duty
You should contact the VA to suspend your VA service-connected disability compensation if you return to active duty for an extended period of time, including mobilizations, deployments, long TDYs, taking an AGR slot and long training assignments, such as technical training, Officer Candidate School and so on. Failure to do so will force you to incur a large debt to the VA and could cause problems down the road.
The easiest — and correct — thing to do is to suspend your compensation payment, then request its reactivation when you go off active-duty orders. That said, the VA won’t penalize you if you don’t suspend your compensation. You will simply accrue a debt that will be recouped from future disability compensation payments.
Can You Join Active Duty Again if You Have a VA Disability Rating?
Yes, it may be possible to join active duty again even if you have a VA service-connected disability rating. The process is largely the same as described above. We focused on joining the National Guard and Reserves, primarily because that is the most common situation. Not all branches take veterans back to active duty (it all depends on current policies and needs at the time of application). So many veterans choose to continue their service in the National Guard, Air National Guard or Reserve Component.
If you do join active duty, you should be prepared to waive all VA disability compensation for the duration of the time you are activated, whether you join the regular Air Force, Army, Marines or Navy. This also includes Active Guard Reserve (AGR) status.
Will Serving on Active Duty Impact My Disability Rating?
First, you must suspend VA disability compensation payments if you return to permanent active-duty status. This is required by law. Whether serving on full-time active-duty status will impact your disability rating is another story. Each situation is unique and is handled on a case-by-case basis.
VA disability ratings can be temporary or permanent, so it is possible for the ratings to change over time. This can include ratings increasing if the condition worsens or decreasing if the condition improves. Some VA ratings can become protected after a certain amount of time, and the VA will no longer decrease the rating.
In some cases, the VA may determine that your condition has improved because you are well enough to serve on active duty. This could impact your rating. In other cases, the rating may already be permanent, and the VA will not change the rating. You will need to contact the VA once your active-duty service time ends, and they will resume compensation payments or reexamine your ratings to determine what they should be.
Here is more information on VA disability reexaminations and potential rating decreases.
You can join the National Guard or Reserves with a VA service-connected disability rating – if you are medically cleared. But it does affect your pay and benefits. Make sure you keep this in mind if you have a VA disability rating and you are considering joining the Guard, Reserves or even active duty.
Note about individual applications to join the military with a VA disability rating: We are happy to answer questions in the comments about the overall process, but we cannot comment on individual medical conditions or the likelihood of a veteran being able to join with Guard or Reserves with their specific medical condition. Each application and medical waiver is handled on a case-by-case basis by MEPS and, if it gets far enough, the Surgeon Generals’ office of the respective branch the veteran is applying to join. It is recommended that you contact a recruiter and work closely with them on the process. Be prepared to do a lot of leg work on your own, as much of the work can only be done by you (such as getting medical notes from your doctor stating you are fit to serve in the military and coordinating appointments).