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 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).
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
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.