Peacetime Veteran with Asbestos Disease Gets No VA Care
Anyone who’s served in the U.S. military at any time is a veteran, right? So that means that veterans of all ages have equal access to care through the Veterans Administration, correct?
Consider the story of Richard Cook, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1958-1961. Cook has terminal pulmonary fibrosis, which was more than likely a result of his exposure to asbestos aboard the USS Willard Keith, where he served as a radioman.
But because Cook is a “peacetime veteran” – serving at a time when the United States was NOT at war – his status has prevented him from seeking VA hospital coverage, which also has prevented him from collecting any documentation the VA required to file for service-related disability benefits, reports WJLA-TV in Washington D.C.
Unless they can prove financial destitution, peacetime veterans – the story explains – are not eligible for free VA medical center care though they can seek help at state-run veteran centers and can request home and business loan assistance and property tax exemptions.
That certainly seems unfair to Cook and his family and others like him. After all, 6 million of the country’s 22 million veterans served during peacetime.
“I was just like everybody else. I wasn’t in during war. I tried to do my job,” said Cook, who explained that his job often involved spending a fair amount of time in a crawl space, where he operated the emergency radio. There was asbestos fire retardant in that space and in other places throughout the ship.
“It was dusty and dark and confined,” recalled Cook, who was originally diagnosed with heart blockage after complaining of severe shortness of breath.
After some time, doctors discovered that the former sailor was not getting enough oxygen to the heart and had developed pulmonary fibrosis. He now uses a breathing machine and, as such, his life has changed drastically.
“I really can’t do anything. I read the paper. Drink a cup of coffee,” Cook told reporters.
When the Cooks were denied coverage, they reached out to the local WJLA investigative team, which contacted VA Assistance Benefits Director Kenesha Britton for answers. They were shocked at her response.
“The VA is typically very liberal giving the benefit of the doubt if the veteran’s MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] is considered high risk for asbestos exposure,” she explained. “Radio operators were not considered high risk for asbestos exposure, despite his constant time below decks and crawling against asbestos coated wiring during emergency combat drills. Only Congress can declare radio operators high risk for asbestos exposure, according to Britton.”
There it was. It would take an act of Congress for Cook to get the benefits he deserved. In the meantime, the couple was falling behind on their mortgage and other bills.
Thankfully, however, the bank heard their case and is allowing them to live in their home free of charge for a year. The Cooks hope they can have things straightened out by then as they are now taking their case to the Board of Veterans Appeals, hoping that a recent statement made by a VA doctor they visited – “Asbestos exposure could have been the triggering factor” – will make a difference.