From Agent Orange to burn pits, members of the Armed Forces are exposed to harsh environments and chemical toxins. Some of these hazards are known, while other hazards remain unknown. Even after decades of research, diseases associated with Agent Orange are still being added to the list of presumptive conditions recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Yet, many diseases are still unknown. Gulf War Illness, for example, impacts many veterans who return from the Middle East. It may cause various symptoms, such as joint pain. Other environmental hazards that are yet unknown, that could also cause veterans to have pain that is undetectable by medical tests.
Only recently will the VA recognize pain, alone, to be a disabling condition.
Pain is now a VA disability
For many years, the VA did not recognize pain as a disability. To receive disability, the VA required an underlying diagnosis. That is until the Federal Circuit Court heard the case of Melba Saunders.
Saunders served active duty in the Army from 1987 to 1994. During service, she began experiencing knee pain. After discharge, Saunders filed for VA disability compensation for knee pain, hip pain and a foot condition. To develop her claim, the VA sent her for an examination. The examiner noted that Saunders had several limitations due to knee pain, such as the need to use a cane or brace, an inability to stand for more than a few minutes and increase absenteeism due to knee pain. The examiner even opined that the knee pain was "at least as likely as not" due to Saunders's service in the military.
Unfortunately, the examiner diagnosed Saunders with "subjective bilateral knee pain," rather than a more definitive diagnosis. The Board of Veterans Appeals denied Saunders's claim, stating that Saunders failed to show the existence of a present disability because "pain alone is not a disability for the purposes of VA compensation."
Senior Airman Joseph Suarez, 99th Medical Operation Squadron physical therapy journeyman, connects Master Sgt. Jeramie Brown, 99th Air Base Wing broadcast journalist, to an electrical stimulation machine Sept 21. (U.S Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Stephanie Rubi)
Saunders continued to fight this decision, and she appealed it to the court system. After several more years of battle, the Federal Circuit Court finally overruled the determination that pain, itself, cannot constitute a disability sufficient for entitlement to VA disability compensation.
The Federal Circuit Court first looked to the wording of the applicable statute. The court noted that "disability" was not expressly defined. Since there was no definition, the court decided to give the word "disability" its ordinary meaning, for purposes of interpreting the statute, and it defined it to mean "functional impairment of earning capacity." The court went further and stated that pain alone can be a functional impairment. Therefore, the court stated that a formal diagnosis is not required.
What the ruling means for veterans
The court's ruling in Saunders v. Wilkie is a win for all veterans. With the VA still doing research on Agent Orange, a Vietnam-era hazard, veterans can expect that it will be many years, likely decades, before the VA fully recognizes conditions associated with hazards such Gulf War Syndrome or Burn Pits. Based upon this new ruling, however, veterans can now claim disability due to pain alone.
Staff Sgt. Rebecca Gaither, physical therapy NCOIC, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AA), helps Soldiers get back on their feet at Combat Operations Base Speicher, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Rick Rzepka)
Winning a claim on pain alone will not be easy. The veteran will still want to make sure that symptoms are documented in service. This means, ideally, reporting to a doctor, at least once, prior to discharge to make a record of the pain, shortness of breath, coughing or other symptoms. It may also mean getting statements from people who were aware of the condition during service. The veteran will want to file a claim for conditions very quickly after discharge, and appeal adverse decisions because it is likely that the VA will not readily grant claims despite the court's decision in Saunders v. Wilkie.
This means that veterans will need to hold the VA accountable by taking the appropriate legal action, and maintaining the fight until the VA follows the law. A large number of cases are granted or remanded when appealed properly.
Overall, Saunders v. Wilkie case rendered another great decision for veterans. When coupled with some of the other very notable court cases that have come out in the last twelve months, veterans have a great tool to obtain the compensation that they deserve. They have sacrificed their bodies to the harshest environments, but the science is still out on the side-effects of exposure to these environments.
This recent decision by the Court allows veterans to seek, and obtain, disability benefits without a need to wait for decades until science has caught up to the symptoms veterans are already experiencing.
This article originally appeared on Military1. Follow @Military1 on Twitter.