The “image” of those applying for VA Disability tends to fall into two categories: older Veteran servicemembers from around the time of Vietnam, or soldiers just now coming back from time spent in the Middle East.
While these two groups make up a significant percentage of VA Disability representation, there is one group of Veterans that too often find themselves left out — those who served during Operation Desert Storm and the first Gulf War conflict.
Relatively few VA Disability claims have been approved for the resulting health issues from smoke inhalation and other issues Gulf War Veterans suffered, but our case today shows a victory for Desert Storm Veterans seeking VA Disability.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Veteran’s Time in Service: 1991 – 1992
The veteran in question served during the Desert Storm conflict. He has verified service in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from June of 1991 through November of 1992, as well as nearby Taif from August through November of 1992.
Assigned as an Equipment Technician for Satellite Communications, he spent a good deal of his time outdoors, both day and night.
During Desert Storm, the Iraqi armed forces ignited oil well fires designed both to ensure American forces could not access the oil and to provide a significant hindrance and physical discomfort to American military forces stationed nearby.
The Veteran was exposed during this time to continued dense clouds of soot, liquid aerosols, gases, and plumes of billowing smoke. In some places these clouds were known to totally envelop U.S. military personnel.
Documented exposure rates in Saudi Arabia were at their highest during the winter of 1991 – 1992 — the exact timeline in which the Veteran was serving in Riyadh.
The Diagnosis: Adenocarcinoma of the Left Lung
VA treatment records showed a diagnosis of large cell undifferentiated adenocarcinoma of the left lung in 2005. The Veteran underwent an upper left lobectomy in September of 2005, as well as two rounds of chemotherapy treatment.
The Veteran contended that his adenocarcinoma was a result of his exposure to oil well fires during his service in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
He provided documents from his time in service, as well as supporting reports by two private physicians.
Dr. R.H. had reviewed the Veteran’s entire case file, from his time in service to his medical records. In his report, Dr. R.H. noted that the Veteran was exposed to oil well fires and smoke-filled air day and night, with no offered protection.
A VA Department Public Health article entitled Oil Well Fires, Smoke, and Petroleum During the Gulf War documented the use of oil well fires, and made clear the highest exposure times in the area were during the time of the Veteran being stationed there.
Dr. R.H. also cited an Institute of Medicine report that is entitled Fuels, Combustion Products, and Propellants. The report concluded that exposure to combustion products (such as the smoke from oil well fires) during the first Gulf War could indeed be associated with lung cancer occurrence in veterans of the conflict.
Finally, he also cited a 2010 study that revealed something essential to the Veteran’s case: When Gulf War veterans’ medical needs were compared to non-Gulf War Veterans, the only cancer that showed a significant excess in Gulf War vets was lung cancer.
Dr. R.H. acknowledged that some studies had concluded there was no adverse risk of cancer for Gulf War vets exposed to oil well fires, but made note in his own report that these studies were flawed.
- Air monitoring studies did not monitor air pollution that was equivalent to the actual exposure rates experienced by troops.
- Both air monitoring studies and health risk assessments failed to take into account the toxic exposures of specific particulate smoke and oil rain.
The Veteran also provided secondary support by way of an August 2015 report from Dr. E.A.
This physician noted that he had also reviewed the entirety of the Veteran’s claims file. Dr. E.A. agreed with it was at least as likely as not that the Veteran suffered exposure to environmental toxins from the oil well fires, and that his subsequent development of adenocarcinoma of the lung could be causally related to his military service.
The Initial VA Disability Claim Denial
Initially, the VA Disability examiner ruled negatively, citing the Veteran’s history of smoking cigarettes, as well as noting that the relationship between radon exposure and lung adenocarcinoma in Gulf War veterans was not fully established in medical literature.
The Board that oversaw the Veteran’s appeal declared the VA Examiner’s negative opinions to hold less weight than those of the two private physicians who provided reports on the Veteran’s behalf.
The two doctors working with the Veteran had noted his history of smoking, but had also made note that it was a limited history of only about two years, limiting the long-term effects and leading them to conclude that smoking had not been the cause of the development of lung cancer in this individual.
They also provided a preponderance of medical literature supporting the connection between Gulf War exposure to oil well fires and resulting lung cancer in Veterans who served there.
Final Verdict: Service Connection Warranted
VA Disability for service connection is to be granted if evidence demonstrates that a current disability resulted from an injury or disease incurred in or aggravated by active military service.
Per 38 U.S.C.A. §§ 1110, 1131; 38 C.F.R. § 3.303 (a). Establishing service connection generally requires (1) medical evidence of a current disability; (2) medical or, in certain circumstances, lay evidence of in-service incurrence or aggravation of a disease or injury; and (3) medical evidence of a nexus between the claimed in-service disease or injury and the present disability.
The Board declared that the two doctors and the Veteran himself had more than adequately proven the connection between his adenocarcinoma and his exposure to oil well fires during the Gulf War.
All reasonable doubt was resolved in favor of the Veteran, with the benefit of the doubt doctrine (see 38 U.S.C.A. § 5107 (b) (West 2014); 38 C.F.R. § 3.102) applied.
Service connection for adenocarcinoma of the lung was declared warranted.
Defend VA Disability Claims in Columbia, SC
Has your VA Disability claim been denied and you’re looking to speak with a legal representative about pursuing an appeal? Our SC Veterans Advocates team is made up of former servicemembers, so we understand the unique stress and environment of military life.
We’ll work with you to put together the necessary documentation and get to know you and your service history in order to better help you prepare to prove your service connected condition, PTSD, military-related Traumatic Brain Injury, and more.
Reach us by phone at (803) 779-7599 or contact us online at any time.