In a recent post, I discussed the accidental radiation exposure that a large number of veterans suffered from in 1966. For those of you who did not have a chance to read the first of this two part series, I will briefly recap below.
In 1966, the US Air Force Strategic Air Command tasked a B-52G with a round trip flight from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, across the Atlantic, along the coast of the Soviet Union’s European borders and back. The B-52 was carrying four hydrogen bombs, and required two inflight refueling to make the trip. During the second refueling, the B-52 collided with the refueling boom causing an explosion that killed the crew of the refueling plane and three of seven aboard the B-52. The explosion, which happened over the Spanish coastal village of Palomares, sent all four hydrogen bombs hurtling toward the Spanish coast. Two of the bombs landed relatively intact, one in a nearby riverbed and the second in the ocean which was recovered almost two months later. The final two landed hard on either side of the village of Palomares causing the conventional explosives to detonate and leaving house sized craters on either side of the town.
Almost immediately after the bombs fell, alarms sounded in US military bases around Spain. Airmen were loaded onto buses and shipped to the crash site for clean-up and recovery. These mean were not provided with any protective gear and were informed that, although there was plutonium in the bombs, there was no need to worry about radiation because the alpha particles emitted could not penetrate a person’s skin. While true, the warnings failed to account for inhalation of the plutonium particles that were scattered about during the explosions or the fact that these particles had no effective means of passing through the body once inhaled.
Following the exposure, troops almost immediately started experiencing symptoms related to the radiation including headaches, joint pain, and skin rashes/growths. Men in their twenties began suffering from arthritis. Today, the New York Times has identified at least 40 Airmen who were exposed, and of them 21 have been diagnoses with or died from cancer. Even now, the Air Force and the VA maintain that veterans exposed to radiation at Palomares were never exposed to dangerous levels, pointing to a deeply flawed test carried out in 1966.
How to Establish Service Connection
Because the VA and Department of Defense refuse to recognize disabilities associated with radiation exposure at Palomares, it is necessary to prove service connection and make them recognize the disabilities are service related.
The first hurdle, and likely the most obvious, is the existence of a current disability. The VA will not provide benefits only because a veteran contracted a disease or was injured in service. The VA will provide compensation benefits to veterans who have a current disability, or current disabling residuals of an in-service disease or injury. Finally, the veteran must show a nexus, or common link between the in service incident and the current diagnosis.
When determining if a veteran has a current disability, the VA looks for competent medical evidence. VA regulations define “competent” medical evidence as “evidence provided by a person who is qualified through education, training, or experience to offer medical diagnoses, statements, or opinions. Competent medical evidence may also mean statements conveying sound medical principles found in medical treatises. It would also include statements contained in authoritative writings such as medical and scientific articles and research reports or analyses.” Essentially, the regulations state that the diagnoses should be made by a medical professional or an individual with the specialized knowledge, education, experience or training qualifying them to give such an opinion. This is not said to discount lay opinions (friend and family statements). There are times when they can diagnosis something such as a broken arm or leg, something that does not require special training. Additionally, lay statements can sometimes trigger the VA’s duty to assist.
One of the most prevalent if not notorious diseases stemming from the cleanup of Palomares is cancer. So for the purposes of this article, we will assume that our veteran has a current diagnosis of cancer.
In Service Event
Once the veteran has established a current diagnosis or disability, he must then establish that there was an in-service event, injury or disease. This can often be shown in service records, service medical records, or through buddy statements. Buddy statements do not necessarily have to be from someone who served in service with you, but can also be from friend or family members who can comment on affect pre- and post-service, changes they noticed in behavior or mood, and what veterans have told them over the years. It is important to note that there are times when this type of buddy statement may be the only evidence a veteran has to submit on the subject. An example of one of these times is a veteran who suffered military sexual trauma (MST).
For the case at hand, we will assume the in service event is working on the cleanup of the fallout following the bomb detonations.
Typically the most difficult part of a claim, the veteran must get a nexus opinion. Simply put, the nexus is the link between the current disability that the veteran is suffering from and the event in service. In the case of this article, the nexus must prove a relationship between the veteran’s current diagnosis of cancer and the cleanup of Palomares.
Most often this nexus is a medical opinion from a qualified expert who can go through the facts of the veteran’s case, explain how they can cause or relate to the veteran’s current condition and then state that the diagnosis is at least “as likely as not” related to the in-service event. Many times, a veteran will face medical opinions from within the VA that his condition is not related, or “less likely than not” related, to service. In these cases, a qualified expert can address not only what he finds is relevant to the diagnosis, but address the issues and concerns that a compensation and pension (C&P) examiner relayed in his opinion.
It is also important to note that the presence of a negative opinion is the not end of your claim. When there are conflicting opinions and the evidence is in equipoise, the VA must grant the benefit of the doubt to the veteran.
As you can see, a nexus opinion is critical in establishing service connection for a claim. Especially so in cases, such as Palomares, where the VA, DoD and military branch all claim that the disease or disability could not be related to exposure in service.