Will the New Congress and the Biden Administration Take the Necessary Steps to Restore the Faith of Veterans in the VA?

By Treven Pyles

The toxic, often carcinogenic, effects of exposure to chemical substances and agents have injured thousands of veterans during their active-duty regardless of which military branch they served in. The most commonly discussed exposures are to naturally-occurring minerals like asbestos, man-made chemicals such as PFOA, PFOS, and several other PFAS found in aqueous film-forming foam, industrial solvents, and benzene among many others. But for those affected veterans the path to compensation can be a rocky one.

Wounded soldiers have always been a legacy of war, and the image of the wounded veteran since World War I has been of a man who suffers from a traumatic limb amputation. Exposure to toxicants is different, though, because the wounds that it caused are not immediately visible, and – especially important – veterans who served on military installations contaminated with toxic chemicals asserted their exposure had caused miscarriages, birth defects, and disabilities in their children.

Most injured veterans have to rely on legal claims to seek financial assistance. The claim process can be difficult and cumbersome without the involvement of a legal expert. Veterans, despite their service and sacrifice, too often fall through the cracks, due in part to those slow processing times in approval and streamlining the benefits they deserve.

Veterans that have been diagnosed with an illness that is associated with active duty and caused by toxic exposure, shouldn’t have to stand at the back of any line for their rightful benefits, especially when they face health risks because of their service. We feel that there is a specific obligation for the VA to cover these illnesses as duty-related conditions”, said Treven Pyles the administrative director at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm that has successfully helped thousands of veterans to get access to VA disability compensation benefits.

Many of Our Veterans Wanted Simple Acknowledgment of Their Symptoms and Adequate Care and Compensation

Too often, the VA’s performance in terms of access and outcomes is mixed; there have been both important successes and intolerable gaps in service. The further you get from military service, the harder it is to prove your medical condition is related to your service. The VA’s gonna hang their hat on your disability being the result of the aging process, not service connected to your time in the United States Army. During C&P exams, a lot of diseases associated with toxic chemical exposure are equated to age, so medical examiners are just thinking that it’s part of their natural aging process.

Healthwise, we cannot do anything about what the active duty member has been exposed to, but we can protect our rights and legal benefits“, said an interviewed during a debate between veteran activists and federal officials at a conference my colleagues and I attended.

There are three fundamentals beliefs: one, doctors make sick people well; two, if I have a disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service, a nation grateful for my service will come to my support; three, Congress will fulfill its promise and promptly respond to my needs. Unfortunately, many of the veterans with service-related health problems have lost all these beliefs.

Even when Congress required the VA to begin providing care to veterans suffering from undiagnosed illnesses such as certain respiratory disorders, abnormal weight loss, and fatigue, these veterans found themselves being denied care due to other preexisting policies, such as means-testing, which requires income information to determine if you’re eligible for VA health care based on your income. Some physicians believe that the VA demand for a specific diagnosis is too strict, and thus veterans are unable to legitimate their illness in the eligible period.

Moreover, doctors have identified different clusters of symptoms, but no conclusive connection to specific exposures. Because many symptoms resemble those of other less serious conditions, victims of toxic exposure are frequently misdiagnosed, which will prevent them from claiming the amount of financial compensation he/she is truly eligible for.

Will Veterans Living With Illnesses Triggered by Exposure to Toxic Chemicals During Their Military Service Fall on the List of Priorities With the New President?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 18 million veterans in the United States, and today’s veterans’ population has needs that the VA has never before addressed. This is reflected both in the growing interest for “anywhere, anytime” health care service models and in our growing understanding of the harmful impacts of environmental toxins.

In addition to providing veterans world-class health care to meet their specific needs, the new leaders of the Department of Veterans Affairs should:

  • improve their management and accountability
  • eliminate veterans homelessness and bring down suicide rates
  • create meaningful employment and educational opportunities
  • expand the list of presumptive conditions to ensure no veteran who had exposure to environmental toxins, for example, goes without access to VA health care and benefits
  • modernize the VA health facilities to serve our veterans better through a nation-wide infrastructure plan that provides a comprehensive refresh of VA hospitals and clinics
  • increase the access to VA care beyond the five-year eligibility window for combat veterans, as diseases related to toxic exposure may take many years to manifest.

About the author:

Treven Pyles is an administrative director at Environmental Litigation Group a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama focused on helping disabled veterans and their families receive the benefits they need and the compensation they deserve.

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