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Active Duty:

It is advisable for anyone on active duty who believes they may be sick from exposure to open burn pits to seek medical care while still on active duty orders. Regardless of the cause of the condition, medical documentation of symptoms and diagnosed conditions while on active duty are essential to the later submission of claims for service connection of any condition, whether or not it is related to toxic exposure from burn pits.

If you become disabled while still on active duty and the conditions are recorded, the VA will not make you prove the condition is related to a particular “event” or something specific, such as the burn pits. They assume it’s related to (or “coincident with” to quote the law) military service. This is why documentation during service is important.

If a medical condition results in the military determining you are not fit for duty and thus referred to the Disability Evaluation System, then the Disabled American Veterans can offer free representation by one of their National Service Officers (see Contact page).

Veterans

In order for the VA to award service connection for a disability, it must be an ongoing condition, not a condition that occurred once during service and has since cleared up with no residual symptoms. This does not mean that you cannot obtain service connection for allergies and flu-like symptoms, for example. If the condition(s) is recurrent or chronic, then benefits can be awarded. The level of benefits depends on the severity and can range from non-compensable (0 percent, but service-connected nonetheless) to 100-percent disabling. There are ratings above the 100-percent level for more complex and extremely severe disabilities.

If you get sick after service (usually more than a year after service), then you need to either show: (1) that the condition had its “onset” during service; OR (2) that an event, like exposure to the burn pit, caused the disability. This follows the general rule that “service connection” requires a present disability, a triggering event during service (unless the onset began during service), and a nexus (link) between the two.

If the VA (or Congress) establishes “presumptive” disability benefits, then the nexus (usually a medical link, but it also could be the continuity of symptoms and/or treatment) required to establish a service connection will be waived for whatever disability(ies) makes it on to the list for those exposed. Apart from obviously stopping the irresponsible exposure of troops to toxins by openly burning everything, one of our primary goals is to help establish, through regulatory agency action or legislative action by Congress, “presumptive” disability benefits for a number of disabilities related to service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you have filed or do file a claim for disability benefits, and the VA then denies the claim, do not hesitate to appeal the decision. You have one year to do so. However, you should submit your appeal as soon as possible. This process is easy: simply write a letter to the VA and specify which issues of your decision (or all of them) you wish to appeal. Explain to the VA why you disagree. You may submit any evidence that could be helpful (for example, information on the burn pit). On your appeal, inform the VA that you prefer the “post-decision review process” by a decision review officer (doing it now will save you time later).

The VA eventually will send a “Statement of the Case” if they do not change their decision locally, which they may do. Attached to that stack of documents will be a “VA Form 9.” Fill it out immediately and mail it to the VA. Without this form, your appeal will expire. With this form, your appeal will proceed to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

One quick note: It is important to understand the term “service connection.” It means that the VA (not DOD) has officially determined that a disability is related to, or coincident with, military service. Many people refer to anything they feel is related to service as service-connected when the VA has not awarded a service connection. So file your claim with the VA if you are affected and start reclaiming your life.

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