The Plight of Veterans Seeking Disability Benefits

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Our country is suffering from a concerning contradiction in which we ask our soldiers to risk their lives to protect the safety of our nation, yet keep them waiting for years to be provided with the financial compensation that makes it possible for them to afford the healthcare that they need.

Tom Jenkins of Pinellas County, Florida, a 72-year-old man and 20-year Air Force veteran, can tell you this better than most. He still vividly remembers standing at the Ubon Royal Air Force base in Thailand during the Vietnam War, fresh Agent Orange on the ground. “You could smell it, it was a terrible smell,” he recalls. Now, so many years later, Jenkins is suffering from health complications that are believed to have stemmed from his exposure to Agent Orange. These complications include heart disease, prostate cancer, and excruciatingly painful neuropathy in his feet.

Based on his V.A. doctor’s confirmation that his health problems “are associated with Agent Orange exposure,” Jenkins pursued service-connected disability benefits, only to be denied by the V.A. His denial was stunning, especially given the undeniable documentation of the perimeter of Ubon Air Force Base being sprayed with Agent Orange during Jenkins’ time on that site, and given photographic proof that the air force barracks at Ubon sat very close to the perimeter and were open with only screens for walls.

According to a veterans advocate at Stetson University College, the V.A. was struggling with a backlog of nearly one million cases last year, so they pushed through and made hurried decisions on many cases like Jenkins’. Now most of those men and women are appealing their denial, which has led to an incredible backlog on the appeals end instead. Jenkins himself is number 12,396 in line to have his benefits decision appealed.

As the advocate said, “Do we really want to take care of our veterans as a society, or are we going to hold them to this standard where not even the V.A employees can understand how to apply these laws because it’s really complicated?” At the age of 72, Jenkins likely faces a five to seven year waiting period before he can state his appeal in front of a V.A lawyer. His best choice would be to hire a lawyer of his own to fight the V.A for the benefits he clearly deserves.