Three military veterans from different branches smiling

Veterans’ Benefits Eligibility Factors You May Have Overlooked

One recent appeals court ruling shows the importance of carefully reviewing an individual’s military service record. Whether on land or at sea, these men and women can be exposed to significant health hazards in their line of duty. For complications that arise many years later, a veteran’s service location can play a significant role in the outcome of their application for compensation.

A VA-accredited elder law and estate planning attorney can help you file an application for veterans’ benefits, including the Aid & Attendance (A&A) pension. In filing this application, it is extremely important that an individual’s military service record is reviewed by an experienced attorney to identify any and all areas of benefits eligibility. What starts as a quest for non-service connected pension may transition to a much higher level of benefits for a service-connected condition, disease or disability – as seen in the two case studies below.

Case Study 1: Contaminated Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune

Camp Lejeune is a Marine Corps base located in North Carolina. For a period of more than 30 years, people living or working at this base were exposed to a contaminated water supply. The VA recognizes eight diseases resulting from this exposure to “dirty water,” including:

  • Adult leukemia;
  • Aplastic anemia, and other myelodysplastic syndromes;
  • Cancer of the bladder, kidney or liver;
  • Multiple myeloma;
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and
  • Parkinson’s disease.

“John*” came into our firm for a free consultation to check his eligibility for the A&A pension. Based on our preliminary assessment, we were seeking an award of $2,169 in monthly payments for unreimbursed medical expenses. In reviewing his information, our in-house VA Specialist noted that John had served for a period of time at Camp Lejeune. John had also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Because John served at Camp Lejeune during the water contamination period, he was entitled to service-connected benefits for Parkinson’s and other ailments that were directly related to his exposure to dirty water. His actual award amounted to just under $8,000/month and, to-date, has been the biggest award Beck & Lenox Estate Planning & Elder Law has ever obtained for a veteran client.

John and his family were unaware of his eligibility for increased disability compensation. An inexperienced attorney could just as easily have overlooked the small detail on his service record. In selecting a law firm to assist with an A&A application, be sure the firm is accredited by the VA and well-versed in the public health issues faced by our nation’s veterans as a result of military exposures.

Case Study 2: Naval Veterans and the “Foot on Land” Requirement

Alfred Procopio, Jr., submitted a service-connected claim for benefits, based upon the assertion that his prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus was as a result of exposure to Agent Orange during his Vietnam War-era service in the United States Navy. Alfred’s claim was denied because he had served on a ship located in the waters of the Republic of Vietnam, but never actually set foot on land. In 1997, the government declared they were limiting the definition of “service in the Republic of Vietnam,” as stated within the Agent Orange Act of 1991, to:

“Service in waters offshore the landmass of the Republic of Vietnam only if the service involved duty or visitation on the landmass, including the inland waterways of the Republic of Vietnam.”

-via the Federal Register

Conversationally, this was referred to as the government’s “foot-on-land” or “boots-on-ground” requirement.

Diabetes mellitus type 2 and prostate cancer are among 14 diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange, also known as “presumptive diseases.” This list includes several different cancers and soft tissue sarcomas, in addition to nervous system conditions and other rare diseases.

International Law Defines the Republic of Vietnam

Alfred appealed the decision to deny his benefits to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and won the appeal on January 29, 2019. Alfred’s legal team focused their petition on an assertion that the 1991 law was intended to provide aid for all Vietnam veterans – not just ground troops. On Page 14 of the majority opinion for the 9-2 ruling, Judge Kimberly Moore noted “the government’s foot-on-land requirement […] does not provide a basis to find ambiguity in the language Congress chose.”

Within this opinion, the court also relied on international law to define the boundaries of the Republic of Vietnam. As noted on Page 9 of the court opinion, international law recognizes that:

“‘The sovereignty of a coastal State extends […] to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea,’ having a breadth ‘not exceeding 12 nautical miles.’”

By accepting the international law definition, it became clear that Alfred had served in the Republic of Vietnam. Based on that finding, the denial of claim was reversed. Alfred became entitled to a service-connection for his prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus, which he likely developed as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.

Alfred’s win was a win for an estimated 50,000-70,000 additional “blue water” veterans who were previously ineligible for service-connected benefits. This ruling may also be a win for eligible survivors of these veterans, with regards to Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits. For more information on DIC benefits, consult a VA-accredited law firm.

The Beck Team Advocates for our Nation’s Veterans

At Beck & Lenox Estate Planning & Elder Law in St. Charles, we are proud to serve a variety of clients with their estate planning and elder law needs. We are particularly happy when the client happens to be a veteran, who needs our help in assessing their eligibility for the Aid & Attendance (A&A) pension. To-date, our VA- accredited firm has successfully submitted more than 1,850 A&A applications, for local veterans in the St. Charles area and beyond.

Our founder, Rudy Beck, is also a founding member of Veterans Advocates Group of America (VAGA.) This Georgia-based organization has dedicated researchers who comb the pages of VA documents, to unearth any information that helps veterans obtain benefits for their service to our country. We have the resources and expertise you need.

If you are a veteran or the spouse of a veteran, and want to explore the possibility of financial benefits for a condition, disease or disability that may be connected to your military service, contact us to discuss your situation.

*Name has been changed to protect the family’s privacy.