Between 2001 and 2014, the US government used the term ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ to describe the War in Afghanistan. With more than 775,000 service members deployed to the country at least once, active duty U.S. military members had to endure any number of challenges abroad.
If you participated in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), you might be wondering if you qualify for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The short answer is yes: veterans who served in the Afghanistan war may be able to receive benefits if they face ongoing health problems after returning. Find out more about how eligibility works.
What are OND, OIF, and OEF?
OND stands for Operation New Dawn (OND) and OIF stands for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and both initiatives were designed to help promote international freedom and reduce the frequency of terrorist attacks.
Because these operations encompass an array of Gulf War Veterans, including combat veterans, Air Force service members, and National Guard members, we’ll break down how and why OND veterans and OIF veterans typically apply for benefits, and what they might be eligible for.
Why Do OEF, OND, and OIF veterans Receive Veterans’ Disability Benefits?
Veterans receive benefits when they experience negative health outcomes due to their time in the service. We’ll look at the most common reasons why this may occur:
OEF Veterans and Toxic Exposure
During a service member’s time in the service, they may have been exposed to any number of harmful substances. Some of the most common during Operation Enduring Freedom include:
- Burn pit smoke
- Toxic-embedded fabrics
- Explosive matter
- Mefloquine (this protectant against malaria can cause side effects)
The health outcomes for exposure can vary greatly and may require anything from short-term to permanent medical care. Military personnel should learn more about the public health hazards they encountered while overseas and evaluate whether they came into contact with any of the following:
The environment in Iraq and Afghanistan inherently exposes military service members to a variety of particulate matter. This includes acids, metals, and other forms of air pollution. The matter typically occurs as a mix of droplets and compounds.
When the particulate matter has a diameter of less than 10 micrometers, it can pass through the nose and throat and head straight for the lungs. The health concerns from this kind of long-term exposure can be extremely serious, especially if you had any underlyiny conditions (e.g., asthma, etc).
A VA or Department of Defense official may refer to the two official terms for this concern as PM10 and PM2.5 (referring to the width of the matter), but the general idea is that you’ve inhaled a substance that can cause long-term damage to your body while you were serving your country. Common reactions to chemical, metal, or acidic exposure include respiratory conditions and ongoing irritation.
Depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan was used for a variety of reasons, both in terms of offensive maneuvers and defensive measures. A tank might have had a layer infused to its exterior armor (so it could withstand ammunition) or it may have been added as a weight to balance an aircraft.
Defined as the material left behind after most of the radioactive uranium has been removed, it still retains some degree of radioactivity. Exposure typically occurs due to ingestion or inhalation, and the amount absorbed will depend on the length and severity of the exposure. Depleted uranium exposure can lead to any number of serious consequences, such as lung cancer or kidney cancer.
Veterans in OEF and OIF may have been exposed to a number of illnesses while abroad, including the following:
- Malaria: This disease includes fevers, headaches, muscle aches, chills, and sweat.
- Coxiella burnetii: Sometimes called Q fever, this disease includes nausea, fevers, and severe headaches. In some chronic cases, cardiac inflammation may occur.
- West Nile Virus: This virus is typically caught through mosquito transmission, and symptoms include vomiting, nausea, headaches, and muscle weakness.
- Brucellosis: This disease is caused by bacteria and its symptoms include anything from joint pain to profuse sweating.
- Mycobacterium tuberculosis: This lung disease can cause weight loss, bloody coughing, chest pain, and fevers.
Exposure risks are a common reason that veterans of OEF and OIF may be entitled to disability benefits. Remember that diagnoses can vary due to exposure, so you may need to dissect the epidemiology of what you’re experiencing in order to make the connection.
OEF Veterans and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)
Around 10 – 20% of Army and Marine Corps service members involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom sustained a mild traumatic brain injury. These injuries can ultimately result in long-term health problems, such as confusion, memory loss, dizziness, and even loss of consciousness.
In addition, in a study of more than 300,000 soldiers and Marines, the frequency of those reporting mental health problems was several percentage points higher than those returning from other deployments. For those returning from Iraq, the frequency was about 19%. For those returning from Afghanistan, the frequency was about 11%. The baseline for other deployments was 8.5%.
These kinds of outreach studies provide real insight into just how many veterans are affected by they come back to the US. The symptoms don’t just harm them either, but can easily stretch to dependents, extended family members, and even their larger community.
Common disabilities from TBI can include:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This condition is more than just general stress after an event. It can be debilitating for veterans to live with the trauma day after day.
- Depression: From mild to severe, depression causes service members to lose joy in things they once loved to do.
- Anxiety: Anxiety can manifest as anything from fear to a general sense of unease.
- Physical difficulties: The brain is what controls the rest of the body. Any damage can result in a multitude of physical disabilities.
TBIs can occur for any number of reasons, but one of the most common is IED explosions. Considering their frequency and the proximity of veterans to them, it’s no wonder that this is such a common reason behind disability claims.
TBI may also contribute to the higher frequency of suicides for military personnel who served in the Afghanistan war. If you think that you might be suffering from a TBI, it might be time to talk to a doctor so you can be evaluated.
Disability Benefits for OEF Veterans and Gulf War Veterans
Gulf War Veterans may be eligible for the following benefits:
- Medical services: Whether it’s talk therapy or ongoing check-ups, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may be able to cover a variety of healthcare services.
- Readjustment counseling: Coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan can be a shock to the system. This service helps service members find their footing faster than they may have on their own.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder program: For veterans who have experienced severe trauma, this program can help them cope with the aftermath in a more productive way.
- Caregiver support: For veterans who require ongoing care for daily living, VA benefits may be able to compensate for these costs.
Disabilities Affecting Only Operation Iraqi Freedom
Some veterans have been exposed to additional toxins while serving in Iraq. OIF veterans should consider the following scenarios that may result in adverse health concerns:
- Hexavalent exposure: In 2003, around 830 service members guarded a water treatment facility in Iraq that contained a lung carcinogen in the ground and air. After evaluations, these veterans were found to be more likely to have issues with their eyes, nose, throat, lungs, kidneys, or liver.
- Exposure to sulfur dioxide: After the Mishraw State Sulfur Mine Plan caught fire in northern Iraq, it burned for almost a month. That’s 42 million pounds of sulfur dioxide per day, which can affect health in any number of ways.
Veterans involved in this operation may be able to apply for any costs and services needed due to these disabilities.
Disability Benefits Available to OEF, OIF, and OND Vets
You may be eligible for the following:
- 5-year free health care: Starting from the date of discharge, you may be able to receive 5 years of healthcare for no charge.
- 180-day dental benefit: Again, starting from the day of discharge, this is a full 6 months of dental benefits to fix any number of issues that may have arose from the above.
- Vet center support: The VA may be able to connect you with a center where you can receive additional support to improve your quality of life.
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