A nonprofit veterans legal organization has created a program to help veterans file claims for illnesses related to burn pits and airborne pollutants found in combat zones.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program, or NVLSP, announced Monday that its new Burn Pits Claims Assistance Program will represent former service members seeking disability benefits for diseases that may have been caused by the fumes and chemicals emitted from open-air waste disposal sites used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as pollution from oil well fires and other hazards in the first Persian Gulf War.
The announcement follows a move in August by the Department of Veterans Affairs to designate three respiratory illnesses as presumed to be related to burn pit exposure: asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis.
Presumptive illness status allows veterans to skip a portion of the process to apply for benefits, eliminating the need for them to prove their injuries and illnesses are directly caused by their military service.
NVLSP leaders say the burn pits were known to emit chemicals and pollutants that caused respiratory illnesses in addition to various types of cancer and, since the VA has denied more than 75% of disability claims based on burn pit exposure, affected veterans need help.
"The Burn Pit Claims Assistance Program is a natural extension of [National Veterans Legal Services Program]'s legal expertise and tenacity in fighting for veterans and their families to ensure they receive the life-changing benefits they need and deserve," Paul Wright, the program's executive director, said in a press release Monday.
The VA maintains an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry for troops to report their deployment history, exposure and any illnesses they believe may be related to their military service.
The voluntary registry contains the information of 240,000 members deployed during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn to 11 countries, the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Red Sea.
Open air burn pits were used in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Djibouti to dispose of household garbage, medical waste, plastics and industrial refuse throughout U.S. combat operations during the past 30 years.
Veterans say they have rare illnesses, including constrictive bronchiolitis; cancers that are rare in young people, such as glioblastoma and pancreatic cancer; chronic skin conditions; and other diseases related to living and working near the vast burn pits, the largest of which was 10 acres across.
The VA, however, does not cover as part of its burn pit program other respiratory diseases or many types of cancer that veterans and advocacy groups say also are being diagnosed at high rates in vets.
VA officials say they will consider expanding the list of burn pit-related illnesses that may be eligible for fast-tracked compensation and health benefits but are currently reviewing the science to determine whether there's proof the conditions are linked.
Veterans organizations have worked for years to expand the list of conditions presumed to be related to chemicals used during the Vietnam War as defoliants, most famously Agent Orange, and expand eligibility to more veterans.
Seventeen diseases are now officially linked to Agent Orange, including three that were added to the list this year.
Numerous veterans organizations have employees on staff who can help veterans to file federal disability claims. Groups with veterans service officers include the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, Disabled Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the American Legion.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program originally was established by attorneys to help veterans appeal less-than-honorable discharges. It has represented veterans in various disputes with the federal government, including a ruling that Vietnam vets who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam should receive retroactive benefits for Agent Orange exposure.
The group has created a website for veterans to apply for assistance for burn pit claims and says priority will be given to veterans who contact it before Nov. 30. The organization will send the veteran an application, Privacy Act waiver and form to help its workers obtain military medical records needed to file a claim.
Spokeswoman Patty Briotta said the group will thoroughly review each application received.
"Our organization has been representing veterans in VA service-connected disability compensation cases for 40 years," she said in a press release. "We understand the large burden that navigating the world of VA benefits often places on veterans, and we do not take these cases lightly."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.