September 25, 2017
ROANOKE, Va. — From his small home office more than 200 miles from Washington, Ronald Brown has a direct line to top Department of Veterans Affairs officials, including VA Secretary David Shulkin.
In the time between bouts of illness and his many doctors’ appointments, Brown — a veteran of Operation Desert Storm — can be found here, working at a laptop filled with scientific studies, written testimonies to Congress and veterans’ claims for VA benefits. He’s focused, sometimes working on multiple claims at the same time, pausing only to pat the two English bulldogs who lie at his feet or search through binders of documents on his overloaded bookcase.
In this room, Brown has become an expert on filing Persian Gulf War veterans’ claims for VA disability compensation and health care. He and the two other veterans who make up the National Gulf War Resource Center intervene in cases all over the country, and are almost always successful at getting the VA to reverse decisions on rejected claims.
The three-man operation holds seminars to educate veterans service officers with larger organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the trio is in constant communication with the VA.
Their work became more urgent this summer, after a Government Accountability Office report disclosed that the VA denies more than 80 percent of veterans’ claims for Gulf War-associated illnesses. That’s an approval rating three times lower than all other types of claims. Gulf War claims also make up 30 percent of the VA’s inventory of backlogged claims, which is more than those from any other era.
The GAO has issued reports critical of the government’s handling of Gulf War claims as far back as 1996.
After years of behind-the-scenes work, Brown is frustrated with the VA and Congress that not enough has changed.
“I figure the only way you can address the issue is if you’re actually being invited to the table,” Brown said. “But we feel what we’ve brought forth hasn’t been addressed. At some point, something has to change. At some point, the words have to stop and the actions have to start.”
His own battle
Brown was near Khamisiyah in southern Iraq in 1991, when engineers there destroyed ammunition containing nerve gas. He was an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division. He printed out a map showing his company’s location at the time; a green dot indicated he was just southeast of the demolition site.
Brown remembers debris falling from the sky, and finding parts of the munitions around his base. Researchers have estimated at least 100,000 American troops were exposed to chemical warfare agents from the munitions dump.
He returned to the United States in 1991, and by then his health had begun to decline. He was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and chronic fatigue.
By 2010, the VA accepted that his conditions were brought on by military service and started to pay for his health care.
It had taken him 13 years to prove his case.
“It was a slow, meticulous process. It was like getting water out of a rock,” Brown said. “I went through many denials. Many denials.”
Jim Bunker, president of the resource center based in Topeka, Kan., has been helping veterans with their Gulf War claims since 1994. He helped Brown get service-connected compensation for his conditions, and then recruited him to help other veterans.
“I finally decided I wanted to take some time to hopefully try to help other people, because it’s not an easy process,” Brown said.
Along with a third veteran —Mike Jarrett, who lives in Virginia — they work as volunteers and take on as many claims as they can.
While they’re mediating between the VA and individual veterans, they are fighting a larger institutional battle: to change how the VA handles Gulf War claims in order to get more approved.
Earlier this month, Brown and Jarrett made a rare trip to Washington to make their arguments. They met with members of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee to offer solutions for getting more claims approved, including better and more frequent training for VA staff and clearer language to define which veterans are eligible.
They also sought support for more medical conditions — including brain cancer — to be recognized by the government as resulting from service in the Persian Gulf War.
Too many denials
Brown compared the fight to the struggle of Vietnam War-era veterans trying to connect their medical conditions to the herbicide Agent Orange.
“You would have figured we learned our lesson from our Vietnam War veterans and how they’re treated by the VA,” he said.
In 1994, Congress passed legislation allowing a “presumption” for Gulf War veterans with undiagnosed illnesses — meaning they don’t have to prove their illnesses were caused by military service.
Undiagnosed illnesses are a group of undefined and unexplained symptoms found in veterans of that era — headaches, fatigue and joint pain and neurological, skin and respiratory issues.
One problem, Brown said, is that once a doctor makes a diagnosis — even if veterans have received different diagnoses for the same issue — they’re no longer eligible for the presumption. VA medical examiners find it difficult to identify something as undiagnosed or unexplainable, the GAO report says.
The majority of Gulf War claims between 2010 and 2015 were from veterans with undiagnosed illnesses, and that was the type of claim that was most-often rejected.
Overall, the VA approved only 13 percent of veterans claims for undiagnosed medical issues during that period, according to the GAO report. Of the 58 VA offices nationwide that decide the claims, eight offices approved fewer than 5 percent of those types of claims.
One office in Muskogee, Okla., approved 70 claims and denied more than 2,000.
The GAO reported the same phenomenon 20 years ago. Between 1994 and 1996 – the first two years the presumption existed — the VA denied 7,424 of 7,845 claims of undiagnosed illnesses in Gulf War veterans – an approval rate of 5 percent.
“It’s a hot topic for a moment, and then it fades away and you don’t hear anything about it until the next big report comes out,” Brown said. “Then we talk about the same things we’ve already been discussing, then that dies down and fades away again. It’s about as screwed up as a chicken-wire canoe.”
“The legislation was done with good intentions, but it’s not working. I think we need to scrap it and start over.”
There are other ways that Gulf War veterans can get compensation and health care, but those are often denied as well.
An amalgam of unexplained chronic illnesses among Gulf War veterans, including fibromyalgia, fatigue and gastrointestinal disorders, was added to the list of VA presumptions in 2001. Nine infectious diseases were added in 2010. To secure benefits, veterans must have served on active duty in Southwest Asia after Aug. 2, 1990, and have an illness that falls into one of those categories.
From 2010 to 2015, the VA approved 29 percent of claims for chronic multi-symptom illnesses and 14 percent for infectious diseases.
Combining both categories, Gulf War veterans saw a 17 percent approval rate – 18,000 out of 102,000 claims.
Lack of training
The VA attributes the low approval rating to the complexity of Gulf War Illness, which complicates the claims process.
Brown says veterans contribute to the confusion by filing for conditions that aren’t presumptive, and misinformation in the veteran community spreads rapidly.
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Disclaimer: This article was not written by Silent Soldier.