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Former soldier concerned about VA letter

Concerns remain about intent and meaning of toxic fume announcement

U.S. Army of Engineers personnel constructed a $5.5 million trash disposal plant at Bagram Airfield in 2012. U.S. Army photo

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The Department of Veterans Administration recently mailed a letter to some veterans that begins by informing them that they may qualify for disability benefits but one local attorney who is also impacted as a former soldier expressed concerns.

The letter from the VA states the following:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently issued new regulations to address health conditions associated with particulate matters exposure during military service. These regulations establish a presumptive of service connections for three respiratory health conditions: chronic asthma, rhinitis and/or chronic sinusitis.

The letter then explains that some veterans may be eligible for disability compensation benefits and are encouraged to apply if they meet the following criteria:

Service in Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War beginning Aug. 2, 1990 to present and/or in Afghanistan, Syria, Djibouti, or Uzbekistan on or after Sept. 19, 2001, and you developed chronic asthma, chronic rhinitis and/or chronic sinusitis within 10 years of military separation.

The letter is in reaction to the federal rulemaking process that VA Secretary Denis McDonough began on May 27 to create a fast-track to health care disability compensation for some veterans suffering from these respiratory illnesses.

The VA says it will process disability claims for these conditions on a presumptive basis, meaning that a lower amount of evidence is required from veterans in order to receive benefits.

Veterans diagnosed with cancer, respiratory issues and lung diseases at young ages have blamed their conditions on exposure to toxic fumes. Many have sought VA benefits and health care; however, the VA has contended for years that there was not sufficient evidence to support their claims.

This apparent change by the VA signals the first time that it is allowing easier access to benefits for veterans who exposed to burn pits, despite the years of pleading from veterans and advocates. 

"Through this process, I determined that the evidence provided was sufficient to establish presumptions of service connection for these three respiratory conditions," explained McDonough in a recent article.

"This is the right decision, and the VA will continue to use a holistic approach in determining toxic exposure presumptives moving forward," McDonough added.

The VA indicated that it plans on reaching out to veterans who now qualify and tell them how to apply or reapply. Hence the letter dated Aug. 2, 2021.

But some concern has been expressed about the wording and intent of the letter.

"This is the real story," began Michael McNeil, an Army veteran and associate attorney with PCVA law firm in Tacoma. "The VA is intentionally misleading soldiers to minimize the number of soldiers who will bring forth claims," McNeil charged. 

"The letter never mentions burn pit exposure - instead it refers to it as ‘particulate matters exposure.' It is written in such a way to blow past the uninitiated; it informs soldiers of benefits they have available without really informing them."

McNeil said he will continue to dive deeper into the issue.

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