President Obama signed the "Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010" (the "Act") into law and over 20 thousand family members of our disabled veterans have received benefits as daily caregivers under the "Act".
Most caregivers receiving benefits under the "Act" are spouses or relatives who end up quitting their normal jobs in order to care for the veteran. Veterans who require near constant care are usually those suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI), severe PTSD, multiple amputations, and other serious disabilities. The "Act" provides these caregivers with benefits such as a monthly stipend, medical training, healthcare, and the ability to seek their own rest when needing a break from the daily care of a loved one.
The Caregiver Program, as established by the "Act" is handled under the umbrella of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). All decisions regarding eligibility and treatment are made by coordinators at local VA Medical Centers (VAMC).
While it is not a surprise to many of us, the sad fact remains that many VAMC's are now dropping caregivers with little to no notice. For example, the Portland, Oregon VAMC has cut 66% of its caregivers from the program. A South Texas VAMC has cut up to 48%; and the Charleston, South Carolina VAMC basically gutted it program over a 3 year period by a 94% percent reduction in caregivers.
The VA has determined to treat Caregiver "benefits" as "clinical" decisions and not "benefit/compensation" decisions. By doing this, the caregiver and veteran are robbed of their ability to appeal the decision to drop a caregiver to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) or the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). While the decision to end Caregiver benefits can be "appealed", the appeal cannot go any further than the Veterans Health Administration's own internal review.
While in nearly all cases involving VHA determinations, the veteran has the ability to appeal to the BVA and beyond, if needed. This includes claims not just for "compensation" or "pension" due to disability, but also decisions involving certain “medical determinations.” For instance, if a veteran is eligible for nursing home placement or is entitled to healthcare is something that can be appealed to the BVA or even into Federal Court. It is very telling therefore, that the VHA has determined that all decisions made in regard to the Caregiver Program are considered “clinical” decisions by VHA. This is no accident.
Caregivers initially approved by the "Act" are caring for veterans with permanent, 100% disability ratings. These are veterans who often cannot speak for themselves and are the most "at-risk" members of our veteran community. The inability to properly appeal a denial of entitlement to the Caregiver Program can very well leave these veterans without needed care if local VAMC does not grant a favorable finding on one of the internal appeals.
At around 10:20 a.m. on January 17, 1966, a B-52 commanded by Captain Charles Wendorf was several hours into a routine “Chrome Dome” overflight. Having taken off from North Carolina and buzzed along the Turkish-Soviet border, the plane now prepared for a midair refuel over the southern coast of Spain. Relief pilot Major Larry Messinger was at the controls as the bomber maneuvered underneath a KC-135 Stratotanker. It was a relatively routine procedure, but as Messinger later told author Barbara Moran, when he tried to position his plane near the tanker’s refueling boom, “all hell seemed to break loose.” For reasons that are still not entirely clear, the B-52 came in too hot and collided with the KC-135, drenching both planes in fuel and triggering an explosion. Messinger, Wendorf and two other men managed to eject or parachute out of their B-52 before it broke apart, but three other crewmen were killed. All four airmen in the KC-135 perished after their tanker was engulfed in flames.
Wreckage from the B-52 and KC-135 soon rained down on Palomares, a seaside farming community whose 2,000 residents were known for cultivating tomatoes. “I looked up and saw this huge ball of fire, falling through the sky,” villager Manolo Gonzalez later told Public Radio International. “The two planes were breaking into pieces.” Despite hunks of twisted metal landing near a schoolhouse, no one was killed on the ground, and the four American survivors were soon rescued and taken to a nearby hospital.
What the villagers didn’t immediately know was that the falling debris had included the B-52’s payload of four Mark 28 thermonuclear weapons—hydrogen bombs with 70 times the destructive power of the device dropped on Hiroshima. One of the weapons parachuted into the Mediterranean a few miles off the coast, while the other three came down in Palomares. None of the bombs produced a nuclear blast, but the conventional explosives on two of them detonated upon impact, dispersing radioactive plutonium dust across the countryside.
Word of the “broken arrows”—the U.S. military’s term for lost nuclear weapons—caused a small army of American servicemen to descend on Palomares. Within 24 hours, disaster control teams had recovered and secured the trio bombs that fell on land, but the fourth weapon was nowhere to be found. Fatigue-clad Air Force troops, many of them brandishing Geiger counters, were soon poking through Palomares’ tomato fields in a desperate search. Others arrived and went to work sifting through the aircraft wreckage and collecting plutonium-tainted topsoil. By early February, Life magazine wrote that the previously vacant coastline at Palomares had come to resemble “a World War II invasion beachhead.”
Despite early reports in the media that a nuclear device had been lost, the U.S. military and the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco remained tightlipped about the operations taking place in Palomares. According to journalist Tad Szulc, when asked by a reporter about the search for the missing nuke, one U.S. briefing officer replied, “I don’t know of any missing bomb, but we have not positively identified what I think you think we are looking for.” The halfhearted cover-up only served to drive the rumor mill. The Soviets’ Radio Moscow broadcasted that the entire area was drenched in “lethal radioactivity,” and an Australian newspaper wrote of a “death rain” from an H-bomb.
Even as they officially denied reports of a broken arrow to the press, the U.S. military was engaged in a massive search and recovery operation. Acting on a tip from Spanish fisherman Francisco Simó Orts, who claimed to have seen the fourth nuke plunge into the Mediterranean, the Navy began trawling the waters off the coast of Palomares with an armada of ships and two state-of-the-art submarines, the Alvin and the Aluminaut. When March 2 arrived with still no sign of the missing weapon, the United States finally admitted to the world that it was hunting for a hydrogen bomb in Spain. Officials gave updates on the cleanup process underway in Palomares, but vehemently denied Soviet claims that the missing weapon threatened to contaminate the sea. On March 8, U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke even held a much-publicized “swimming party” where he took a dip at one of Palomares’ beaches to prove the water was safe. “If this is radioactivity,” he told reporters, “I love it!”
A week after Duke’s photo stunt, the submarine Alvin finally located the missing fourth bomb in 2,500 feet of water some five miles off the coast. Retrieving it proved to be no easy task. A cable snapped during an attempt to bring it up on March 26, and the Navy task force lost track of the bomb until April 2, when Alvin found it a second time. Finally, on April 7, 1966—nearly three months after the B-52 crash—the waterlogged nuke was successfully winched from the depths and brought aboard the Navy ship USS Petrel. Reporters were allowed to photograph it the following day. According to the New York Times, it was the first time the U.S. military had displayed a nuclear weapon to the public.
Despite its relatively clean bill of health, there is evidence that nuclear material still lingers in Palomares. In 2006, the Spanish center for energy research, or CIEMAT, announced the discovery of radioactive snails in the region. Other examinations have yielded contaminated debris and higher than expected levels of plutonium in the soil, and certain parts of the town remain fenced off and closed to construction to this day. In October 2015, after several years of negotiations, the U.S. government signed a statement of intent to assist Spain in finishing the 50-year-old cleanup process in Palomares. Along with the removal of the town’s nuclear-contaminated soil, the deal also calls for any waste to be disposed of at a site in the United States.
Do you think the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has rated your service-connected disability too low?
The VA uses a strict rating code system to determine just how "disabled" a veteran really is, at least according to them. This often results in a disability not being rated accurately and not reflective of your actual impairment.
If a service-connected disability has symptoms that are not exactly as described in the VA rating criteria (diagnostic codes), and are causing what you consider to be significant problems with your job, or requiring frequent days missed due to doctor appointments, etc.., then you may be entitled to a higher rating. This can result in more compensation each month under the "Extra-Schedular" ratings.
After you have been found to have sustained a service-connected disability, the VA then rates the severity of that disability and how it affects your "earning capacity". The rating is based upon a Diagnostic Code that tells the VA Rater what percentage of impairment your disability is entitled to receive based upon medically documented symptoms and findings. This percentage of impairment then coverts into a monthly dollar amount. For example, a 10% rating will pay a veteran only $133.57 per month, yet a 40% rating will pay $589.12 per month.
The VA rating system and its diagnostic codes cannot cover every situation, even if the VA has applied the rating system properly to begin with. This is why many veterans receive unfair evaluations.
An example of where a claim MIGHT be sent out for an "extra-schedular" evaluation would be as follows: The veteran has a knee injury that limits his range of motion enough to qualify for a 20% rating. However, he also has instances where the knee will lock up, or maybe give way. Perhaps it swells and causes increased pain if he is walking or standing for more than even 10-15 minutes. In this instance, an "extra-schedular" rating MIGHT apply.
If the VA determines that the veterans’ symptoms do fall outside the VA rating code standards, such as mentioned above, then they next must determine if the symptoms cause "marked interference with employment" or "frequent hospitalizations". If it does, then they are required to send your case to the "Director of the VA Compensation and Pension Service" who will then determine if the disability really does require an "extra-schedular rating".