Fighting my claim since 2008
If I’ve seemed distant or unengaging over the past few days it’s probably because I’ve been elsewhere in my mind. I began this fight really since 1970 when I had a lump removed from my shoulder at the Boise VA Medical Center during a break in service. I had just returned from Southeast Asia barely 2 months prior and didn’t know what it was. The VA did a great job of removing the lump, sending it off to be evaluated and the results came back benign, nothing to worry about.
During active military service I had a number of other growths removed in various places and didn’t know why they showed up in the first place. After retiring I had more growths (lumps) removed, some surgically and others using dry ice or spray.
Almost eight years after retirement and just 3 days before my 49th birthday I suffered a heart attack and spent the weekend in a local hospital recovering. I continued working for another 10 years before filing a claim with the VA for my heart condition (IHD) in 2008 and the next year I got my denial letter from the VA.
I was (and sometimes still am) a bit dense. My first instinct was anger, at the VA for denying what was rightfully mine – compensation for a heart condition that had been building up over time and I wondered how military service attributed to it? I’ve no doubt the stressors of leadership around the world in all kinds of situations had a lot to do with my heart attack.
In 2010 the VA recognized exposure to herbicides to bases in Thailand but with stipulations – had to be a USAF cop or dog handler or an Army MP pulling perimeter security duty at a USAF base in Thailand. Fat chance I told myself. They had a stipulation that if your duties brought you at or near the perimeter it could be conceded that you were exposed to herbicides, providing you had credible evidence (photos, documents, orders and even buddy letters). Too bad they didn’t tell us that back in the day I’d have saved all that, right? I applied again and got another denial letter. I went back into the cycle of anger at the VA for doing it to me again.
I began working with other Veterans, encouraging them to keep trying, never give up while trying to get my stuff together and getting denied year after year. It never occurred to me that I was my own worst enemy. I failed to understand the process or grasp the importance of declaring my illness/injury getting it service connected (in service occurrence) or aggravated by active duty and having a medical NEXUS (linking the medical diagnosis to my disability from the service connection). I began telling others what to do, but never doing it myself. At least not the way it needed to be done.
I didn’t know about having a C-FILE (VA claims file). I didn’t realize that the VA starts a claims file the very first time you request assistance from the VA either through education, treatment or a VA home loan. From then on every time your name and file number comes to the VA it goes into your claims file. Someone said to request it from the VA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) so I did, several times before I finally got it in the mail. I had requested military documents from the Army, finance and anywhere else I could think of and finally I began getting those files in the mail too. I went to my local military treatment facility and requested my treatment records from them (being retired military). Soon I got those records too. I wasn’t told what to do with any of the records, so I sat on them.
Finally I decided to get organized and readied a file cabinet and decided to print my C-File which consisted of 214 pdf files. Piece of cake, I highlighted the files and pressed print! BIG MISTAKE! I should have checked more into the details because after several cartridges of printer ink and 2 reams of paper I must have had close to 1,000 pages that actually filled up an entire file drawer. I still didn’t know what to do with everything so once again I sat on it.
Finally I began going through everything – sorting and labeling until I had everything in order. Next I had to mentally process all this information. What I found documents that were not mine included in my file. I submitted a request with the VA to remove those files, but they are still there. I even made more requests through my Colorado congressmen and got a couple of packages with more documents.
I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years, not following through after receiving my decision letters. I was slow in gathering and submitting additional documents, pictures, maps, historical or relevant info.
My biggest assumption was that the VA was my friend. WRONG! After filing my Notice of Appeal I thought I had it all together. WRONG! I got a denial from the Board of Appeals and went right back into the anger mode cycle.
I’ve used a number of VA certified agents over the years and my last one called me up and said I should probably take it to the Court of Veterans Appeals (CAVC). They said they could do no more and I’d be better off contacting a certified attorney. After I filed to get on the docket at the CAVC I began getting all types of letters from certified attorneys want me to pick them for representation. I stuffed all those letters in a file, since none were local.
I had to wait for the VA Sec to send me what is known as the “Record Before the Agency” before I could proceed. I got a list of local attorneys from the VA.GOV website. I went down the list contacting each one. Some were not taking new clients, others were bad contact info, a couple replied back and I even talked to one. There was one recommended to me but he is in Afghanistan representing the USA.
Finally I got in the mail the “Record Before The Agency” which turned out to be my Board of Appeals denial and my entire C-File totaling slightly more than 2592 pages (including those I asked to be removed belonging to someone else).
After contacting and being turned down by several firms (including CCK) I was at a personal low point, until I decided this weekend to finally get it together and represent myself using a 3 page CAVC document called an Appellant’s Informal Brief. There are 8 questions and they look only at what is in the RBA. The brief must be worded so that no other party’s private info is divulged and no part of the RBA is to be attached. The maximum limit is 30 pages. My brief is a mere 8 pages and was sent to the clerk at the CAVC this morning.
I know I’m probably rather high on this long Court Docket list and have no idea how long or when my case will be decided. My goal is for the court to concede herbicide exposure and Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) as secondary to herbicide exposure.
A wise man once told me “the VA is not your friend, it is not your enemy but is a worthy adversary” approach it that way. I might add the VA has lawyers, lots of lawyers who get paid the big bucks to keep the floodgates closed for Thailand Veterans of the Vietnam War era seeking compensation and treatment for exposure to herbicides in Thailand so long ago.
I thought about keeping this private but after much debate (with myself) I’ve decided that someone out there needs encouragement so read my story and continue the fight. Rather than call it an exercise in futility after 10 years it’s more like an exercise in perseverance. It’s not over until it’s over. – I am the Real Truckmaster!