03 June 2015

Active Duty, Reserve Duty, AFTP & LEGAL Veteran Status...what's all the confusion?

It's important. The VA operates under laws which permit and require it to do different things and fundamental to the Department of Veterans Affairs is the legal definition of veteran which is carefully defined in the law. (click for just who is a veteran.)

It's complicated, as well as important. Throughout most laws dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs the term "veteran" is used, rather than a less specific "servicemember" or similar word. Thus, what makes a C-123 aircrew or maintenance Reservist a veteran is important.

The first lesson we learned is that once earned, a person is a veteran forever. The next lesson we learned is that the first lesson is untrue.

It turns out that one is a veteran for issues dealing with the particular time period of an injury or illness only if veteran status is earned at that time. Thus, we may have been Vietnam veterans (many were) and/or Gulf War veterans (many were) or both, but still were probably not veterans in the full legal sense during the period we flew the C-123s unless we somehow qualified during those years of 1972-1986 (yes, VA extended the time period per Rickenbacker's years.)

How could we have earned veteran status while flying in the Reserves? The usual ways...active duty for a period of time, an injury or illness with line of duty determination, but without satisfying the legal requirements DURING THE TIME WE FLEW/MAINTAINED THE C-123s, we are not legal veterans for purposes of veterans' benefits sought for whatever happened during those Reserve years.

I'll give my case as an example. I'm a traditional Reservist with prior Army Reserve time and AF enlisted time before commissioning, and activated during the Gulf War. Thus I'm a legal veteran. I was injured during the Gulf War and am now 100% service connected. BUT...still not a veteran for the time 1974-1980 that I flew the C-123s?

Except: In 1978 I had surgery to sever nerves to my left thigh to stop a mysterious burning sensation. If VA ever agrees, this means I had the qualifying illness or injury during my Reserve years associated with Agent Orange because that sensation is now called "peripheral neuropathy, one of the Agent Orange presumptive illnesses. If VA doesn't agree, then I'm a vet per the Gulf War and forever after, but not a vet for purposes of Agent Orange exposure during our C-123 years.

Why bring my own ailments into the conversation? To illustrate that we're all different, and that we'll be treated as different individuals under the VA's final rules for C-123 VETERANS. Also because I can just imagine somebody trying to tell Big John Harris he's not actually a veteran...not of the C-123 era, yet.

The language VA has given the White House to cover our new rule is "Presumption of Herbicide Exposure and Presumption of Disability During Service For Reservists Presumed Exposed to Herbicide." Given all the preparation for this, we shouldn't have to presume any problem getting their program for us into action.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which has to approve the language used in the new rule, has had it under review since May 13, but for some reason (we trust, not a deception of any sort) the abstract of the rule hasn't been posted so we don't know the details. It had better include retroactivity as we are simply not going to leave our widows and widowers behind on this, nor the folks who've had claims in for so many years. Those were flaws in the VA's proposed legislation which we opposed so loudly in April, and I don't expect that VA will do an end run this time.

Questions on my mind:
• Does this make us veterans under the law for the time period involved, or just convey parallel benefits to others with Agent Orange illnesses? Important for many reasons, for instance, many states offer disabled veterans benefits only to those the VA has rated as disabled veterans...any other status will leave us at a disadvantage.
• Will our families needing it receive CHAMP-VA medical benefits?
• C-123 claims are to be forwarded to St Paul VA for specialized handling by subject matter experts. Will this slow down claims? What about denied claims, and those in BVA appeals? We have asked that there be a fast track on getting these claims processed, and asked that appeals and denied claims not yet appealed be given quick Decision Review Officer examination rather than wait the years required for BVA processing and the inevitable remand.
• Will we have any opportunity for input? So far, no communications since the April 16 meeting at the Senate Russell building with VA Office of General Counsel, Senate and House advocates and veterans service organizations. We're in the dark with lots at stake.

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