In February 1991, an armored vehicle passes through a breached sand berm separating Saudi Arabia from Iraq, paving the way for advancing allied troops during the Gulf War. WAYNE J. BEGASSE/STARS AND STRIPES
WASHINGTON – For the next five years, veterans will have an easier time seeking benefits for illnesses linked to service in the Gulf War because of an extension issued Monday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Since 1994, the VA has automatically presumed a connection from Gulf War service, which included a toxic environment of oil fires and chemical weapons, to an increased risk for several illnesses. The connection enables veterans to receive a disability rating and benefits more quickly.
But the presumed connection and the ability to seek benefits was set to expire at the end of this year, after being extended four times previously. Effective Monday, the VA extended it a fifth time, to Dec. 31, 2021.
“This end date creates such an anxiety among the Gulf War veterans that gets so high as that deadline approaches,” said James Bunker, the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Topeka, Kansas. “[Secretary Bob] McDonald promised us the beginning of this year that this extension would happen.”
As justification for the extension, the VA cited a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in February that found veterans deployed to the Gulf War have an increased risk for chronic fatigue syndrome, functional gastrointestinal conditions and mental health disorders, as well as a myriad of symptoms including headaches, joint pain, insomnia and respiratory issues that make up Gulf War illness.
In the extension filed with the Federal Register on Monday, the VA wrote symptoms could manifest in Gulf War veterans at any point, and there was “no medical or scientific basis” for stopping veterans from seeking benefits at the end of year. The rule applies to veterans who served in Southwest Asia from 1990 to now, including ones from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.
“Currently, military operations in the Southwest Asia theater continue,” the extension read. “No end date for the Gulf War has been established by Congress or the President. If extension of the current presumptive period is not implemented, servicemembers whose conditions manifest after Dec. 31, 2016 would be substantially disadvantaged.”
The VA is accepting comments about the extension through Dec. 16.
Bunker has a 100 percent service-connected disability rating from his time in the Gulf War, he said. He deployed with the First Infantry Division out of Fort Riley in Kansas and was medically evacuated in 1991 after struggling with respiratory and muscle problems. The VA granted Bunker service connection in 1992 for symptoms included in Gulf War illness.
Through the National Gulf War Resource Center, Bunker has appealed to Congress to eliminate the deadline permanently. The VA secretary is the only one with the authority to extend it.
“I know veterans wish the end date would be removed,” he said. “I wish we could get rid of it. Congress is the only body that can get rid of the end date, and they should do that to ease the anxiety of veterans.”
Of the 700,000 servicemembers deployed to the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, 36.5 percent were experiencing some symptoms of Gulf War illness in 2005, according to a previous NAS study. The federal government spent more than $500 million on research related to Gulf War veterans from 1994 to 2014, but there’s been few findings about Gulf War illness and specific chemical agents that could be causing it, according to the NAS study from February.
Besides fighting to allow veterans to continue to seek benefits for Gulf War illness, advocates are tackling high rejection rates for Gulf War claims.
In March, the group Veterans for Common Sense issued a report stating the VA denied about 80 percent of claims filed by Gulf War veterans in the first half of 2015.
At a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that month, the Veterans of Foreign Wars charged the VA was denying claims to try to rule out Gulf War illness intentionally, Stars and Stripes reported. VA officials at the hearing said its accuracy rate on Gulf War claims was about 90 percent.
“VA still has a hard time properly rating these claims,” Bunker said. “They seem to be in a constant form of denial when they do make mistakes on the benefits side.”
To find out more information about filing a claim for chronic disability related to Gulf War service, veterans can go tobenefits.va.gov. http://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/claims-postservice-gulfwar.asp
To file a comment about the extension, the VA is asking people to contact the VA’s regulation and policy management office at 202-273-9026 or by mail at 810 Vermont Ave., NW, Room 1068, Washington, D.C., 20420.