I want to tell you the story of one of our clients – a decorated Vietnam Combat Veteran -who finally received the 100% service-connection award he was entitled to.
It only took 13 years.
About the Client.
The Veteran was a highly decorated helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
He was awarded 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), the Air Medal, Air Medal with “V” device, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry w/Silver Star, and a BronzeStar).
After returning home and leaving the military service, our client was diagnosed with a Motor Neuron Disorder in 1995.
His condition was, at various times in its progression, diagnosed as either/both ALS (aka, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) or PLS (aka, Primary Lateral Sclerosis).
[Medical Note: Motor neuron diseases are not distinct disease entities – they are a continuum. Upper motor neurons are located in the brain. Lower motor neurons are located in the spinal cord.
When a Motor Neuron disease impacts the lower motor neurons, it is called PMA, or Progressive Muscular Atrophy. When the Motor Neuron Disease affects the upper motor neurons, it is PLS, or Primary Lateral Sclerosis.
When the Motor Neuron Disease affects both upper and lower motor neurons, it is called ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
This is important – if you are a veteran with PLS or PMA that also affects the upper motor neurons, for VA benefits purposes, this is medically speaking the same disease entity as ALS.
The Veteran’s fight with the VA.
In 2000, the Veteran asked the VA to consider whether his Motor Neuron Disorder was related to his military service, and if so, to grant him disability compensation. They said no. For the next 9 years, this Veteran battled the VA.
Time after time, the answer came back no.
In 2008, the VA issued a rule that said that the law will presume that ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) was caused by military service, no matter how long after service the condition is diagnosed.
Our client thought he’d finally get help from the VA.
Our Client was wrong: No Help was Coming.
In 2008, the VA denied his claim again.
This time, the played a “shell game”, and said that he never had ALS. After all, they said, his condition was called PLS.
What’s the difference?
If you ask the doctors, in this Veteran’s case, there was no difference.
His Motor Neuron Disorder presented as affecting both upper and lower motor neurons, and as far as they were concerned, it was the same disease entity: a Motor Neuron Disorder that was both ALS and PLS.
By the time of his denial in 2008, the Veteran was about done with the VA.
He filed a Notice of Disagreement and hired the Attig Law Firm.
The Lawyer took the “Client-Centered Approach” to the Case that VSOs never did.
The lawyer’s approach to the case was simple: we talked to his doctors.
They wanted to learn what was ACTUALLY happening in his body.
What they learned was this: regardless of the label you put on this Veteran’s medical condition, his disease was the same disease entity as ALS.
ALS is always presumed related to military service for any eligible Veteran whenever it is diagnosed.
Ultimately, an expert in Motor Neuron Disorders explained this to the BVA and the VA Regional Office, and the Veteran was service connected for ALS.
Two Things About this Case Stand Out.
There are 2 things about this case – what Congressmen, VA employees and raters, Board Judges, and most Americans just don’t get:
#1: The law says one thing, and the VA Bureaucracy applies it in a completely different – often unlawful – way.
The typical VA benefits claim requires only one doctor’s opinion to establish nexus between a particular diagnosed condition and military service. In fact, the law is pretty clear: a medical expert’s opinion that establishes that your medical condition is “at least as likely as not” related to your military service is all that should be needed to prove service connection.
Even when the Veteran submitted his opinion, the VA hedged their bets.
I would argue that they developed his claim to deny it, offering a medical opinion by a doc that didn’t know Motor Neuron Disorders from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
This particular case took no less than FOUR doctor’s opinions – 3 private doctors (one of whom is a specialist in Motor Neuron Disorders) and one VA C&P Doctor – to prove to the VA what it should have been able to figure out and decide 13 years ago.
#2: The VA, far too often, looks at Veterans as “cases”, not as human beings with real problems needing real help.
We see this in the form letters the VA sends out – that often illustrate that the VA doesn’t seem to “get” what you are saying. We see this in the responses from BVA and VA officials that believe that Veterans are “mooching fakers” or “frauds”.
No matter how many “ICARE Buttons” a VA employee wears, if they don’t actually look at each Veteran’s claim like it is the claim of a real human with a real problem, the VA will continue to be “out of touch” with the community it serves.
A Message for Veterans with ALS.
If you are diagnosed with ALS anytime after military service, the law presumes it is related to your military service. If your ALS presents as a condition with a different name, or is the same disease entity with a different title, you are still entitled to compensation from the VA.
This Veteran needed a lawyer, 4 medical doctors, at least 2 VA Raters, a DRO, a BVA Judge, and 13 years to grant what the law says is an open-and-shut VA Benefits claim.
What made the difference was a single lawyer – that cared enough to pick up the phone and talk to the Veteran’s doctors.