Burn Pits 101: Service Members are Fighting Back

This is the second installment in the series on Burn Pits in Iraq & Afghanistan. For the first installment, see this blog post.

Service Members are Fighting Back

In 2010, over 60 lawsuits across the country were brought against the government contractor KBR relating to its operation of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were consolidated in In re KBR Inc. BurnPit Litigation, alleging that KBR exposed service members and civilian contract workers to harmful fumes from its unauthorized use of open-air burn pits, thereby causing various serious injuries. However, in June 2018, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case could not move forward. The ruling was based on a legal doctrine that courts cannot decide political questions, that is,questions that are better decided by Congress and the president. This was because the panel of judges deciding the case found that the United States military had control over KBR so that KBR’s decisions regarding the burn pits were “de facto military decisions.”

However, in a Worker’s Compensation case filed in the U.S. Department of Labor, an administrative law judge found exposure to burn pits was linked to lung disease.[1]This case concerned a federal contractor, not a service member, and was not connected to the KBR litigation. Thus, it is not clear what effect, if any,this decision may have on the ongoing burn pit crisis.

In May of this year,Representatives Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Brian Mast (R-Florida), both post-9/11 combat veterans, introduced the Burn Pits Accountability Act. The Act would require the Department of Defense to evaluate whether service members have been exposed to burn pits or other toxic airborne chemicals. Service members who have been exposed will be enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs Burn Pit Registry unless they opt out. The Act is still pending a vote.

In June, the House of Representatives held a hearing to determine what is known about the health effects of burn pits. Members of various veterans’ organizations testified at the hearing, though no representative from the Department of Defense attended. In August 2018, General Patraeus sent a letter to all Congressional offices urging them to support the Burn Pits Accountability Act.

Many Veterans Service Organizations and non-profits support efforts aimed at increasing our knowledge of the effects of burn pits, as well as providing supports to veterans living with the consequences of exposure to burn pits. However, there is still much more the VA can and needs to do to support our veterans. So what can veterans do now?

What Can Service Members or Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Do?

Any veterans or service members who are experiencing health conditions that may be related to their exposure to burn pits can file for VA Disability Compensation. However, these claims are considered on a case-by-case basis, meaning service members will not get any special treatment if they claim their conditions are connected to their exposure to burn pits. However, VA regional offices have been instructed to review all claims for disability compensation for potential exposure to burn pits, even if it is not alleged.[2]

They should also consider registering with the VA’s Burn Pits Registry, and/or the Burn Pits 360’s registry. Individuals who register with the VA can receive a free health evaluation.


[1] https://taskandpurpose.com/burn-pits-court-ruling-va/

[2] Id. at 11.

Why Should I Pay For An Attorney When I Can Work With A VSO For Free?

I hear a lot of veterans question why attorneys should charge money to do something a VSO will do for free, and I get it. No one wants to give money to someone if someone else can get the job done for free. This is why many veterans choose to get help from a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) rather than hire an attorney to handle their VA Disability Compensation claim. But as Warren Buffett said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Sometimes the cheapest route is not the most valuable. Continue reading “Why Should I Pay For An Attorney When I Can Work With A VSO For Free?”

How can I speed up the decision on my Social Security claim?

It can take a long time to get approved for disability benefits; several years for many claimants (applicants). However, there are a number of methods to speed up the process. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will expedite the processing of SSI and/or SSDI claims that meet certain requirements, typically where a certain medical or financial condition is present. Additionally, there are several options for expediting the resolution of claims are at the hearing level. Continue reading “How can I speed up the decision on my Social Security claim?”

Can I Get Social Security Benefits for a Temporary Disability?

The answer depends on how long your temporary disability lasted, or is expected to last. If your disability lasted or will last less than 12 months, you cannot receive Social Security benefits. Continue reading “Can I Get Social Security Benefits for a Temporary Disability?”

What Conditions Qualify for Social Security Disability?

Conditions from asthma, to back pain, to depression, cancer, and schizophrenia may qualify a person for disability. However, it is not just the “right” diagnosis that will qualify you. Your condition must be of a certain severity for your claim to be approved.  Continue reading “What Conditions Qualify for Social Security Disability?”

Can My Child Receive Social Security Benefits?

Children can receive Social Security disability benefits under both the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programs. The rules and eligibility requirements for each program differ, and not all children will be eligible under both programs.

SSI 

A child under the age of 18 may be eligible to receive SSI if he meets Social Security’s definition of disability. When a child applies for SSI, Social Security will look at the child’s and certain household members’ income and resources to determine whether the child meets the income and resource limits for SSI. However, not all of the household income and resources is counted.

When a child applies, he goes through an evaluation process that is similar to the process for adults who have applied for SSI. The main differences are that the listings for children are different than those for adults, and the evaluation process stops after the claims examiner determines whether the child meets or equals the listings. Unlike with adult applicants, Social Security does not look at whether a child can return to his past relevant work or any work in the national economy. Either a child meets or equals the listings and is approved, or he doesn’t and he is denied.

There are several conditions that may allow your child to receive SSI payments while Social Security is still making their decision. Those conditions include total blindness or deafness, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, severe intellectual disability, symptomatic HIV infection, and birth weight below 2 pounds, 10 ounces. If your child has one of these conditions, you should ask the local Social Security office to begin payments immediately.

When your child turns 18, Social Security will review their case using the adult disability guidelines. It is important to keep in mind that just because a child is approved for SSI does not mean they will be approved for it when they turn 18. Additionally, if your child was not eligible for SSI because the income of the family was too high, once the child turns 18 the household income is counted differently. Thus, at age 18, your child may become eligible even if their financial situation hasn’t really changed.

SSDI

Disabled and non-disabled children under the age of 18, and sometimes 19, can receive dependents’ benefits if a parent is receiving Social Security retirement benefits. The child must be unmarried and under the age of 18, or be 18-19 years old and a full-time student in high school. If the child is disabled, he may also be able to continue receiving benefits once he turns 18 by applying as an adult disabled child.

Adults who were disabled before the age of 22 may be eligible to receive SSDI on their parents’ record as an “adult disabled child”. The parent must be deceased or receiving retirement or disability benefits for the adult child to apply. Unlike traditional SSDI, it is not necessary that the adult child has ever worked, because the adult child is eligible based on a parent’s Social Security earnings record.

The adult child—including an adopted child, or, in some cases, a stepchild, grandchild, or step grandchild—must meet the definition of disability for adults. In evaluating whether the adult child is disabled, the same rules apply as any other adult applicant.

Example: A father starts collecting his retirement benefits at age 62. He has a son who is 35 years old. The son has a severe intellectual disability, which was diagnosed when he was 4. The son has never worked. He can receive a SSDI benefit based on his father’s record because he meets the adult definition of disability, and was disabled before the age of 18.

Do I Need a Lawyer for my VA Disability Compensation Claim?

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, first: Yes, I am a lawyer. Yes, this post is about whether you need a lawyer. Yes, this could be seen as a self-serving post. But there is something else you should know: I don’t want your case if you don’t want a lawyer, and even if you do, I personally may not even be the right lawyer for you. I do, however, want to help you figure out if you should spend your time and resources to hire a lawyer, because not every person should, or can. Whether you hire a lawyer to help with your VA Disability Compensation claim is a decision you should give a lot of thought to. Here are the two main questions to get you started.  Continue reading “Do I Need a Lawyer for my VA Disability Compensation Claim?”