The gulf war veterans have been fighting for help with their illnesses due to their service since Operation Desert Storm, and still today with Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Southwest Asia was and still is one of the most toxic places for a service member on deployment. We have been coming home from the gulf sick, and not getting any real help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
In 1993 many of us worked Congress to get the first bill passed to compensate veterans suffering from gulf war illness (GWI); but it was not until November 1994, when Iraq started to mass troops once again, that the bill was finally passed and signed into law. Veterans did not get any help with this new law because of the attitudes of those in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The VBA did not and still does not like to grant service connection for GWI. Some of the VA Regional Offices (RO) will go out of their way to deny these claims. In 1997, we worked to change the law in hopes it would help us. The changes did help some veterans, but not many. The last change came in 2002 when we added to the list ill-defined illness like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Fibromyalgia (FM), and or Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS). Even to this day veterans still have a hard time with their claims
Even to this day, I see many claims that are denied for reasons like, “your claim cannot be granted under the undiagnosed category as you have no diagnosis”. which is a contradiction in itself. Clearly, this is the rater’s personal feeling getting in the way, how else can the VA explain this outright mistake.
I worked with over 50 veterans this past month that, either have a diagnosis of CFS, FM, and/or IBS and the RO still denied the claim. Their reason you ask? The documented decision states that if it is diagnosed there must be signs of it in the veteran’s service record. The RO’s need to learn how to read the laws on these claims and follow the law. It is simple; if you have FM, CFS, and/or IBS and it meets the 10% rating level, the law states it is presumed to be from the veteran’s service in the gulf and that the veteran is to be given a service connected rating for the illness. The GWI claims are not hard to do if the VA would get the raters to follow the laws right and to get past their own personal feelings that “ if you can not diagnosed they we will not compensate for it”. There is a part in the VA law that states that cases can be reopened due to this with clear and unmistakable evidence (CUE).
If the VA really desires to lower the numbers of backed logged claims, one way to accomplish this is with better training and attitude adjustment. Why do I have the attitude adjustment? It goes to a few things over the years. One was when the VA placed members on a gulf war board that were to look into problems we had with our claims. The chairman remarked during a meeting I was at, that Congress over stepped their boundary in even passing the GWI law. This person was a former high-ranking VBA employee that worked at the VBAHQ. There are also many newspaper articles where past VBA employees have stated things like, GWI and PTSD claims are wrong; veterans should not be given money for these types of claims.
How do we change things? The VA needs to start by taking every Friday, for the next year, and using it as a training day. They will have to make sure everyone is there, since many do not go to the little bit of training done now. Each training day should cover a different part the M21-1MR and how to apply it to claims correctly. The best trainers for this are those sitting on the Board of veterans’ appeals and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (COA). There needs to be time for Q&A so that the raters can get things off their mind. With the video links the VA has, this can be done for very little money via teleconference.
The VA and VBA might think this would be a waste of time and that sending out training letters will work better. What they forget about is how they have placed a quota on the raters to increase output. This does two things; one is that it makes the rater work so fast that he can miss data in the veteran’s file and ask the veteran for information to put the claim in a holding pattern, two the raters are so over worked with claims, many do not have time to read the letters that come out. I know that many of the VSOs I have worked with all around the nation say they do not have the time either.
The RO’s might not like this training idea either. They have many claims that they need to do. Some are new claims and many are claims where the veterans are disagreeing with the decision sent to them. What they, as well as the VA Central Office (CO), needs to understand is that the poor training and attitudes are a big part of why there is such a backlog of claims.
The VA has a tracking system for claims that will let the VA and the CO know how well they are doing claims. I would like to point out that this system is rigged. When claims go before the Board of Veterans Appeals and are remanded to fix an error, the RO after fixing it, will call it a claim done right. If they approve a claim, but clearly rated the claim too low and fixed it later, they call it a claim done right. The only time this does not happen is when the VA, VBA, or COA rules for the veteran and assigns the rating. The other fact veterans need to know is that 80% of claims that enter the appeal channel past the RO gets resolved in favor of the veteran.
This should tell one a lot about why we need the VA to do all day training classes. As the training and the attitudes improve with the VA’s raters, the amount of notice of disagreements (NODs) will decrease. This will in turn help to decrease the backlog at the RO. In addition, dropping the NODs will decrease the workload on the VBA and COA while improving the appeals time line.