WASHINGTON – Some Maryland Gulf war veterans who were turned down for disability compensation for undiagnosed illnesses may get another chance to make their cases.
President Clinton and two members of Congress last week urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to act quickly to relax a time limit the veterans must now meet to have their claims considered. The move could result in the reversal of rejected claims.
In Maryland, 16 veterans have had claims rejected because they were unable to demonstrate their symptoms had surfaced within two years of returning from the Persian Gulf, said John Smith, director of the VA’s regional office in Maryland. Several pending claims could also be turned down for not meeting the VA’s two-year deadline.
Officials with the VA said they were already reviewing the matter with the intention of extending the deadline but would not relax the rule until they could support the move with a solid medical rationale.
Before making the decision, the VA will hold six town hall- like meetings around the country to gather information from veterans.
Nearly 90 percent of all Gulf war veterans who have filed claims for undiagnosed illnesses have been turned down for compensation, according to the VA. Some 11,161 claims have been processed nationally and several thousand more are pending, said Terry Jemison, VA spokesman.
Compensation for discharged veterans consists of monthly disability checks ranging from $90 to $1,800, depending on the degree of disability, vocational rehabilitation and health care for the ailment, Smith said.
The rejected claims contend the illnesses were caused by exposure to chemicals during or after the war. Veterans have complained of symptoms such as memory loss, concentration problems, skin rashes, low-grade fevers, joint and muscle pain, depression, asthma and chronic fatigue.
In June, the Department of Defense acknowledged that U.S. troops may have encountered chemical exposure after an Iraqi weapons depot was destroyed. But the DOD has not concluded the illnesses are linked to chemical exposure.
Staff Sgt. Beatrice Scott, a Baltimore nurse who served in the Gulf and cares for veterans at the Baltimore Veterans Hospital, is convinced there is a link between the illnesses and chemical exposure.
“Something drastic happened over there,” she said. “Too many are complaining of the same things. It’s so obvious.”
Scott, 37, said she has cared for at least 20 to 30 Maryland veterans at the VA hospital in Baltimore who went to the Gulf healthy and have since developed unexplained illnesses.
She herself began suffering from fatigue, headaches and nightmares about three to five months after her return in April 1991. She did not file a claim, though, because she did not think she would be able to document her ailments thoroughly enough to be successful.
Scott is not alone in her hesitancy, said Mike Gunter, head of the Persian Gulf Help Line in St. Louis. Gunter said the help line has received more than 200,000 calls. Many of those calling said they did not file claims because they did not meet the time restriction or because they did not understand the process.
Of the approximately 10,000 Gulf war veterans from Maryland, 504 have been screened for unexplained illnesses, said R. David Edwards, chief of public and community relations for the VA Maryland Health Care System. Ninety-nine disability claims from Maryland Gulf war vets have been processed; others are pending. Thirty-nine of those disability claims have been approved, at least seven of those for undiagnosed illnesses, Edwards said.
The 16 Maryland claims expressly turned down for not meeting the two-year deadline would be immediately pulled and reviewed again if the time limit is extended, Smith said.
Clinton asked VA Secretary Jesse Brown last week to submit a proposal within 60 days “with a view toward extending” the two- year limit. Two days later, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Sen. John Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., pressed Brown not to wait 60 days.
“Right now, Gulf war veterans who wish to receive compensation are being told that their complaints are too late,” Specter said. “Why don’t you send them a strong signal today that our government won’t let this go on any longer?”
Brown said the VA would work as quickly as possible to make the change but needed to do research before a new time limit could be set.
Many veterans groups heralded the congressmen’s demand, saying veterans lives were being adversely affected every day.
“The number of homeless Gulf war vets has gone way up,” said Charles Sheehan-Miles, of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a coalition of grassroots groups. “The number of people who have lost their homes and can’t support their families has gone up.” Veterans with questions about Gulf war illnesses can call the VA at 800/749-8387 for more information. The VA is offering free, extensive health screenings for any veterans who request them. -30-