Eligibility for major VA benefits
I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma two years ago after suffering excruciating pain in my lower back for the entire summer of 2001. I couldn't figure out why I was having such pain and the X-rays and CAT scans revealed nothing significant. It wasn't until the doctor reviewed the blood test results 1/2 hour before surgery that he suspected I might have myeloma. Following surgery and a biopsy, the diagnosis was confirmed. I lived with it for the first year and a half always wondering how I might have been exposed to something that could have caused this, as I was relatively young (54) and was in reasonable physical health. I had worked in executive government positions since leaving the military without exposure to toxic substances.
In March of 2003, on the MM listserv (www.acor.org/myeloma.html), a wonderful woman, Taura King, wrote in stating that veterans with MM who were exposed to Agent Orange (AO) were potentially eligible for a vast array of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. I figured that since I was in Korea, and knew nothing about spraying of AO there, that I would not qualify and figured it would be a waste of time to apply. Boy, was I wrong – and thus begins the good news for many veterans with MM.
What might you be eligible for?
- Disability compensation up to $2,500 per month or more, tax free and separate & apart from Social Security Disability benefits!
- Free medical, dental, and vision at VA facilities
- Free prescriptions
- Free medical coverage for your spouse and dependents through CHAMPVA
- Free access to military BX, PX, and commissaries (with no sales tax)
- Waiver of vehicle licensing fee (varies by state)
- Reduction or elimination of property tax obligation (varies by state/county)
- Access to military recreation and lodging facilities at reduced charges
- Educational benefits for yourself (if not already used) and your dependents
- $10K life insurance if health issues limited to VA disability; possible paid premium
- Free burial in military graveyard with free headstone
- Waiver of 2% fee for VA home loan
- Special Disabled parking privileges (varies with state/county)
How/why might you be eligible?
For those stationed in Viet Nam, even if only there for one hour, the VA grants "presumptive eligibility"; that is, one does not have to demonstrate exposure or connection between AO and MM. If you fall into the following categories where the military has ADMITTED spraying or testing AO, there is a reasonably good chance you will qualify for up to a 100% disability rating from the VA. What is required frequently depends upon the regional office and/or the service officer involved in reviewing your claim.
- Soldiers who served on or near the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) from 1967 to 1971
- Soldiers stationed at Fort Drum, NY in 1959 (testing).
Other areas where veterans allege AO to have been sprayed include:
- Guam from 1955 through 1960s (spraying).
- Johnston Atoll (1972-1978) was used for unused AO storage.
- Panama Canal Zone from 1960s to early 1970s (spraying).
The military has NOT admitted AO use in the above three locations and thus filing a successful disability claim is much more problematic for those who were there. It is also noted that AO has a half-life of as much as several decades, as noted by the diseases still being experienced by Vietnamese citizens today who farm land sprayed with AO back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and who drank the water it was polluted with. Again, however, getting the VA to agree that you contracted MM due to the continued contamination of AO if you served in Korea in the ‘70s for example is problematic. I'm not sure anyone has been successful in that endeavor.
How to apply and what to expect
Get a rep from the Vietnam Veterans of America (yes, they WILL help other vets exposed to AO), American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, or Disabled American Vets to represent you. They know a lot more about this than most of us individually, and they don't charge a dime to help you. If you call and they DON'T know about this, call another group! The admission about spraying in Korea only came about a couple of years ago, and is not widely publicized. For more information on the disability compensation programs of the VA, go to www.va.gov and click on "Compensation."
The process can take up to 18 months. Mine took only 4 months, and you might be fortunate too. You can help speed the process by providing extensive documentation of your military assignments, your current medical condition and doctors' statements, and a list of your OTHER medical conditions that are a result of MM or the treatment for MM (e.g. peripheral neuropathy, erectile dysfunction, depression, anxiety, sleep apnea).
A list of resources to aid in this process can be found on my homepage at www.caringbridge.org/ca/tomcourbat.
I hope this is of help to our myelomic veterans.