Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mich. Gulf War Veteran Wins VA Claim After 15 Years

Written by Anthony Hardie, 91outcomes

(91outcomes.blogspot.com) -- Journalist Ted Roelofs had an excellent article in today's Grand Rapids Press about Michigan's state budget cuts to funding for claims service officers. Tucked down at the bottom was a reference to western Michigan Gulf War veteran Don Harp, for whom it took 15 years to "win" his disability claim from the VA.

According to the article, the Army veteran's claim was for "combat injuries, a closed-head injury, and Gulf War Syndrome."

For countless Gulf War veterans of the 1991 Gulf War and the service officers who have sought to assist them, VA's repeated denials of Gulf War veterans' claims has all too often been the norm rather than an exception.

The most current VA report on Gulf War veterans (Aug. 2007, pp. 7-8) shows that out of 696,842 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, an astronomical 40 percent (278,149) filed claims for VA service-connected disability -- highlighting just how many Gulf War veterans have been significantly affected by their military service.

Veterans claims service officers have long known that filing for undiagnosed illnesses for Gulf War veterans is next to impossible to have approved. Even still, VA shows 12,788 claims filed by 1991 Gulf War veterans for undiagnosed illnesses, with only 26 percent (3,280) of those approved -- meaning 74 percent were denied!

The Grand Rapids article noted that Harp was among the veterans planning to protest the State's budget cuts that included a $1 million cut to funding for the state's 11 veterans service organizations that provide assistance to Michigan's veterans filing disability claims with the VA.

While Michigan's cuts are deeply disappointing and politically questionable, some underlying questions remain for the federal government, including Congress and the new Obama Administration.

First, for veterans like Harp, where is the outreach been that VA repeatedly told Congress it has been conducting?

The U.S. Senate perenially introduces legislation (S. 315 in the current Congress) that would define outreach for the VA and require VA to fiscally account for what it spends on outreach as a line item -- only to have VA officials protest that such legislation is unneccesary, and that VA is already conducting it. Certainly that's not true for Mr. Harp and the other 74 percent of Gulf War veterans claiming undiagnosed illnesses following their Gulf War service.

Second, where is the claims assistance that VA supposedly provides, as required by law under the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000? Why did it take 15 years for this veteran to get his claim approved?

Third, what is VA doing to alleviate the fiscal burden on States and Counties that cause nearly every State and the Counties in about half the states to have to provide service officers to assist their veterans? Most veterans likely have no idea that with the exception of State Veterans Homes and Cemeteries, the benefits, programs, and services provided to them by their States, Counties, and veterans service organizations -- including assistance with VA claims -- is done without a dime of federal support.

Only the federal government creates veterans. So, why is it then left to the States, Counties, and innumerable Veterans Service Organizations to help veterans fight VA to get their claims approved (like the unnamed Catholic War Veterans service officer hometown hero who helped Harp)?

This valiant Vietnam and Gulf War veteran was given the final word in the Grand Rapids article: "Without these people, guys like me would have been shafted. If we have to hire attorneys, we are going to get shafted big time," Harp said.

Finally, the real story is that Gulf War veterans like Harp are still unable to receive effective treatments for Gulf War Syndrome. A November 2008 federal government report finally recognized that, "Gulf War illness is real, that it is the result of neurotoxic exposures during Gulf War deployment, and that few veterans have recovered or substantially improved with time." (p.17) Yet, despite years of effort by the Gulf War veteran community seeking effective treatment from VA, the report also noted:
who, the article noted, had to wait

"Substantial federal Gulf War research funding has been used for studies that have little or no relevance to the health of Gulf War veterans, and for research on stress and psychiatric illness....[and] overall federal funding for Gulf War research has declined dramatically since 2001....

"A renewed federal research commitment is needed to identify effective treatments for Gulf War illness and address other priority Gulf War health issues. Adequate funding is required to achieve the critical objectives of improving the health of Gulf War veterans and preventing similar problems in future deployments. This is a national obligation, made especially urgent by the many years that Gulf War veterans have waited for answers and assistance." (p.2)

Change is needed for our nation's Gulf War veterans -- desperately.

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