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".
On August 23, President Trump signed into law the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017” (“The Act”). The Act is meant to speed up the appeals process for veterans seeking VA disability compensation. By February of 2019, The Act is intended to simplify the current appeals process by allowing veterans to choose one of three paths to appeal their claims. Under The Act, the disabled veterans can do ONE of the following:
Ø request a “higher-level” VA rater to review their case (without new evidence) and issue a decision; or
Ø appeal, with new evidence or information, to the same rater who originally denied their claim; or,
Ø have the appeal sent straight to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA).
Q: When will this new appeals process take effect?
A: The earliest the appeals reform bill will become effective is February 14, 2019 which is 540 days from the signing of the bill. The bill was signed on August 23, 2017 so there will be no change to the appeals process until February 14, 2019 or later.
Q: Should I wait to start my NEW claim until after The Act takes effect?
A: No. You should file your initial claim as soon as possible. If your claim is granted, VA will pay past-due benefits starting from the date you filed your claim. So, waiting to submit your claim until after The Act becomes effective WILL cause you to receive less compensation.
Q: Should I wait to file an appeal until The Act takes effect?
A: Again, No. You only have one year from the date of your Rating Decision (VA’s decision on your initial claim) in which to file an appeal. So DO NOT WAIT!
Q: Can I opt in to the new system once it’s enacted?
A: YES, Veterans with pending claims will be able to opt in to the new appeals process if they receive notice of a decision on an initial claim on or after the date the Act is enacted (likely February 14, 2019). You can also opt in after receiving a Statement of the Case or Supplemental Statement of the Case on or after the date the Act is enacted. Further the new RAMP initiative will allow select disabled veterans the right to opt-in to SOME of the new process.
The new appeals process, in theory, is supposed to streamline the process that tends to increase wait times. Mainly, the new changes target the processes surrounding new evidence and hearings. As it is right now, veterans can submit new evidence at any point during their appeal, which causes an additional round of reviews and drives up wait times (UNTIL THE APPEAL IS “CERTIFIED” TO THE BVA). The disabled veterans wait years just to get a hearing scheduled.
In this step, after receiving an Initial Denial, you appeal and the appeal goes back to your VA Regional Office (usually). However, you can request the review to be done at a DIFFERENT Regional Office in some circumstances.
A “more senior” VA Rater will then perform a completely new (de novo) review of your entire claims file. BUT, you cannot send in new evidence and the decision will be made based ONLY on the evidence already in your claims file. The VA has NO DUTY TO ASSIST the disabled veteran in getting evidence required to prove the claim.
Choosing this track after an initial denial results in your appeal going back to your VA Regional Office (usually). This basically becomes a “new” claim in my opinion, because this is a claim for the exact same benefits you were just denied, BUT you are also REQUIRED to send in “New & Relevant” evidence. Here, the VA does have a “Duty to Assist” you in getting the evidence required to win your claim. It is really no different than the current appeals process of just starting all over.
This third and final track of the New Appeals Process means that once your original claim is denied, you can SKIP the review at your VA Regional Office and instead decide whether or not you want a “Hearing” either in-person or by videoteleconference with the BVA Veterans Law Judge.
The BVA will separate appeals into those wishes a Board Hearing and those not wanting a Board Hearing, supposedly to speed up the entire process. Here, new evidence is supposedly optional, but we really just don’t know yet.
As mentioned above, the VA’s “Duty to Assist” the disabled veteran (for example, their obligation to help veterans get their medical records, service records and private records) during the claims process will only apply to original claims and supplemental claims. The duty to assist law would no longer apply to the Board or to claims filed on the Higher Level Adjudication track.
This means that the VA will ONLY help disabled veterans locate and submit medical records, military service records and/or private medical care records at the initial and supplemental claims stages. After that, you are on your own.
Read my post on RAMP to find out if you should enroll.