Asbestosis Not Disabling, But Sleep Apnea? Bingo!

Readers of Tom Philpott's Military Update Column Sound Off

I was disgusted that VA disability claims for sleep apnea generate such a large number of disability claims and only now is that raising concerns among leaders at the VA.

My husband served 26.5 years in the Navy, from WWII through Korea, retiring in June 1969.  All but three of those years he was stationed in the engine rooms of destroyers and aircraft carriers with their asbestos-covered steam pipes and steel decks.

Asbestos flakes constantly fell during shelling in the Korean conflict, both in engine rooms and sleeping quarters. His job included mixing asbestos and applying it to the pipes when repairs were needed, as well as standing on steel decks for hours during each of his duty shifts as a machinist mate.

Shortly after retirement, he was diagnosed with asbestosis and had a small section of lungs removed because of suspicious spots. This was in the naval hospital.  When he went to the VA for follow-up treatment he was sent to a civilian pulmonary specialist who continued his treatment for asbestosis.

In the meantime, he spent an additional 20 years working for the naval aircraft refit facility in their machine shop. So you see he led a productive life up to his retirement in 1989 from civil service.

In the past ten years he has been evaluated by VA for his asbestosis and applied for disability benefits. Their conclusion, after reading all the documentation, was that he was receiving adequate care in the civilian sector and they could do no more for him. They never did assign him disability status. Meanwhile, his condition deteriorated until walking across a room was laborious.  He is now unable to accomplish many household tasks or take short walks or travel by plane because of his breathing problems.

The irony of this is that just recently he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and prescribed a CPAP machine.  He apparently picked the wrong illness to apply for disability! To add to the irony, I too have been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and given a CPAP.

At 78 I am still working part time, maintaining our home and yard, completing renovations inside, and making sure my husband meets all of his appointments. I am a veteran of four-and-a half years in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and obviously would qualify for "disability" status on the basis of my "severe" sleep apnea.

As proud veterans, we do believe the VA has become lax, corrupt and less than sensitive to the needs of those they are supposed to serve. We are thankful for the benefits we receive but agree with your summarization of the ills surrounding the VA.

PATRICIA A. BRUNE
Pensacola, Fla.

Great column. I too wondered how sleep apnea could possibly be considered service-connected, but did come up with one "possible" explanation:

At least since 1967, Air Force members routinely trained to survive and operate in the chemical/biological environment.  We were thus exposed to tear gas and hours of wearing and breathing through chemical masks.  Adding to the equation, the filters were expensive and were rarely if ever changed them.  I'm confident numerous trainees used and handled the same filters we breathed through. I'm not complaining; the training was essential to the war fighter's survival.

It's my assumption repeated and extended wear of chemical warfare masks, exposure to carbon or charcoal material, and exposure to non-lethal anti-personnel gases, could result in service-connected sleep apnea.

 Shortly after retirement, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and was not overweight.  I did not apply for VA disability because I saw no reasonable service connection.

I did apply for what has been advertised as our government's wonderful Long-Term Care insurance.  I was not assessed as a good risk and was denied coverage.  One major reason for denial was my diagnosed with sleep apnea. Maybe the underwriter saved me a lot of money.  Time will tell.

GEORGE NEWMAN
Niceville, Fla.

I'm not fat.  My average weight is 175 pounds and, on my last PT, I ran the mile-and-a-half in 11 minutes.  I will retire Feb. 1, 2014 at 24 years of service.  Being tired throughout the day and not being able to concentrate started late 1990's. Is it Gulf War-related or getting injured on duty, I don't know.

The only reason I decided to take the sleep study was because my first sergeant talked with me about his symptoms and how the CPAP helped him. My wife mentioned to him how I would wake up with headaches every morning.  I had no idea I was not getting proper sleep and thinking it was normal not to be able to concentrate.

He said I was probably not getting proper sleep or enough oxygen while I slept.  The sleep study results showed I had over 80 apneas an hour, obstructive and central.

For Father's Day, my daughter wrote me a letter and included pictures. I could not recall events in the photos taken back in late 1990's.

I will end by noting again that I'm not fat. 

MARCO M.
Via email

I was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2000.  I had retired from the military in 1985.  I have a CPAP machine prescribed by my VA doctor.

Can I put in a claim for it?

JAMES M.
Via email

You can.  But to be awarded compensation, you would have to show your sleep disorder originated during service.  For that you would need to produce in-service medical records that you sought help for difficulty sleeping or heavy snoring, or you would have to produce credible statements from your spouse or fellow service members that, almost 30 years ago, sleep frequently was interrupted by snoring or gasping for breath. – Tom Philpott 

Please clear up some questions I have.  To be granted 50 percent service connected disability for sleep apnea, does a veteran have to have a CPAP prescribed while they were still on active duty?  Or have those filing claims been granted service connection even if CPAP was prescribed after military service because the sleep apnea was diagnosed n service?

CAROLINE K.

If sleep apnea is diagnosed and a CPAP prescribed while on active duty, a 50 percent rating from the VA virtually is automatic.  If sleep apnea is diagnosed in service and a CPAP not prescribed until later, the 50-percent rating is still almost a certainty.  Veterans whose sleep apnea is diagnosed after service and who are prescribe a CPAP, still have a chance to be awarded a 50-percent rating if medical records or testimonials from spouses or colleagues show they had difficulty sleeping while in service. – T.P.

Letters may be edited for clarity or length. Write to Military Forum, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, send e-mail to militaryforum@aol.com or visit www.militaryupdate.com

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About

Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.

Visit Tom Philpott's Military Update Archive to view his past articles.

Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.

Glory Denied

Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.

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