Gulf War Veterans Being Denied Disability

The numbers are astonishing. The VA estimates that 44 percent of the veterans who served in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and soldiers that have since been deployed to Southwest Asia are suffering from Gulf War Illness (GWI) which causes neurological disorders and respiratory diseases with symptoms including headaches, joint pain, fatigue, memory loss and skin problems. Because nearly 700,000 Americans served in the Persian Gulf War that means more than 300,000 vets are suffering from GWI—a staggering number. Yet when it comes processing their claims for disability benefits and obtaining treatment at VA health centers these veterans are facing considerably more difficulties than other vets, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The GAO—a government watchdog organization—says, “On average, GWI claims have twice as many medical issues per claim as other disability claims, and take 4 months longer to complete. During fiscal years 2010 through 2015, the most recent data available at the time of our review, approval rates for GWI claims were about three times lower than for all other claimed disabilities”. According to the GAO analysis, the approval rate for Gulf War illness medical issues between 2010 and 2015 was 17 percent – or about 18,000 of 102,000 issues rated. “Several factors may contribute to lower approval rates,” the report went on to say, “including that—according to VA—GWI claims are not always well understood by VA staff and veterans sometimes file for benefits without medical records to adequately support their claim.” In a July article in the Fiscal Times, reporter Eric Pianin pointed out that “perhaps the biggest problem is the sheer ignorance of doctors and other medical staff in diagnosing and treating illnesses whose exact causes are often difficult to discern.” The GAO report put it this way: “[The] VA’s ability to accurately process GWI claims is hampered by inadequate training, and its decision letters for denied claims do not communicate key information to veterans.” 

The Gulf War—code named Operation Desert Shield for the buildup of troops and defense of Saudi Arabia and Operation Desert Storm in its combat phase—was a war waged by a coalition forces from 35 nations (but the largest number of soldiers came from the United States, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein in response to that country’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Many of the troops who served in this desert war were exposed to a toxic array of chemicals, noxious smoke, and even nuclear radiation.

“Many people who served were exposed to things like pesticides, smoke from oil well fires, and even depleted uranium,” Melissa Emrey-Arras, director of the GAO’s Education Workforce and Income Security Team, said. “So there’s this whole range of exposures that they experienced. And it’s really unclear…what is exactly causing their particular illnesses.” The Fiscal Times reports that “VA medical examiners responsible for assessing a veteran’s disability and making a judgment on the merits of the application often are stumped by the range of symptoms that could qualify as Gulf War injuries. Moreover, only 10 percent of examiners have taken special training in order to better diagnose and treat the illnesses.”

The Military Times sums up this issue this way: “The VA gets an ‘F’ for Gulf War claims approvals.”

In a press release, the GAO says it “recommends that VA require GWI training for medical examiners, improve its decision letters, and develop a plan to establish a single GWI case definition. VA agreed with GAO’s recommendations.”

Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska
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