VA’s Gulf War Presumptions for VA Disability Benefits
Which Veterans Qualify Under VA’s Gulf War Presumption?
For VA purposes, the Persian Gulf War refers to service in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations beginning on August 2, 1990. At present time, the period for the Persian Gulf War extends to December 31, 2021, which means that service members who have served in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations after September 2001 are eligible for benefits under VA’s Gulf War presumption. VA considers service in the following countries and locations as Gulf War service:
- Gulf of Aden
- Gulf of Oman
- Saudi Arabia
- The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)
- Waters of Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea
- The neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia
- The airspace above these locations
Veterans of Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield meet the criteria for qualifying service during the Persian Gulf War, as do veterans of Operation New Dawn (OND), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and in some instances, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
Does Military Service in Afghanistan Qualify Veterans for Gulf War Presumptions?
In some cases, military service in Afghanistan will qualify veterans for the Gulf War presumption. However, it does not qualify for presumptive service connection for undiagnosed illnesses or medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illness (MUCMI). Instead, veterans who served in Afghanistan will qualify for presumptive service connection for certain infectious diseases (e.g., malaria, West Nile virus). Again, if you served during OEF in Afghanistan, you will only be eligible for the Gulf War presumption if you have an infectious disease.
Why Were These Gulf War Presumptions Created?
As veterans were coming back from service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations, they were experiencing unexplained illnesses and symptoms. VA then created a presumption for Gulf War veterans under 38 CFR § 3.317. The presumption for Gulf War veterans is intended to make it easier for veterans to obtain service connection for conditions they develop due to their service in the Gulf War.
The presumption holds that if a veteran served in the locations listed above between August 2, 1990 and December 31, 2021, and they experience certain signs or symptoms, VA will presume that the veteran’s Gulf War service caused their condition. The presumption includes (1) MUCMIs; (2) undiagnosed illnesses; and (3) certain infectious diseases.
What Were/Are Gulf War Veterans Exposed To?
Gulf War veterans were exposed to a whole host of different environmental hazards, including oil well fires, pesticides, insecticides, chemical agents, and certain experimental vaccinations. All of these exposures contributed to VA creating presumptions to ostensibly help veterans get service-connected disability benefits.
What is Gulf War Illness/Gulf War Syndrome?
Niether Gulf War Illness, or Gulf War Syndrome, is a specific condition for which veterans can be diagnosed. Rather, it is general terminology that is used to describe a wide range of symptoms and conditions that Gulf War veterans experience. Again, these symptoms are classified into three main categories: (1) MUCMIs; (2) undiagnosed illnesses; and (3) certain infectious diseases.
Medically Unexplained Chronic Multisymptom Illness (MUCMIs)
MUCMIs are defined by a cluster of signs and symptoms without conclusive pathophysiology (i.e., the mechanisms by which the disease operates) or etiology (i.e., unknown cause). Although MUCMIs may be diagnosed, if the diagnosis is partially understood in terms of etiology and pathophysiology, then it will not be considered medically unexplained. Examples of MUCMIs include:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Functional gastrointestinal disorders
There are also numerous “infectious diseases” endemic to Southwest Asia covered under these laws including the following: (1) brucellosis; (2) campylobacter jejuni; (3) coxiella burnetiid; (4) malaria; (5) mycobacterium tuberculosis; (6) non-typhoid salmonella; (7) shigella; (8) visceral leishmaniosis; and (9) West Nile virus.
This category covers symptoms not associated with a diagnosed condition, but that VA has identified as prevalent in Gulf War veterans. These symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained fatigue
- Cardiovascular ailments
- Muscle or joint pain
- Menstrual disorders
- Psychological or neurological problems
- Respiratory disturbances
- Difficulty sleeping
- Skin conditions
What Other Qualifications Must Veterans Meet for the Gulf War Presumptive?
Again, veterans’ symptoms must present either while the veteran was on active duty or prior to December 31, 2021, as of now. It is possible that the date will be extended by Congress in the future as it has been in the past. Beyond that, symptoms must be chronic, meaning lasting more than six months. Furthermore, they must manifest to a degree of at least 10 percent disabling.
Gulf War Illness vs. Burn Pit Claims
Importantly, there are several differences between Gulf War Illness and burn pit claims. For example, dates of service are very important to keep in mind. Burn pits mainly affect veterans who deployed following 9/11. Therefore, burn pits do not fall into the Persian Gulf War time period and subsequent illnesses due to burn pits cannot be claimed under Gulf War Illness.
Another difference includes the fact that unlike Gulf War Illness, there is currently no presumption for burn pit exposure. In other words, VA has not been instructed by Congress to create a presumption, and there is no regulation stating that veterans who were exposed to burn pits should automatically receive service connection for certain conditions. In order to get service connection for burn pit claims, veterans will still need to provide a medical nexus opinion linking their condition to their exposure.
Common Errors CCK Sees VA Make on Gulf War Claims
Unfortunately, VA commits many errors when adjudicating Gulf War claims. One of the major errors is in the way VA examiners conduct Compensation & Pension (C&P) examinations for Gulf War conditions. For example, if a veteran has a cardiovascular disease, the examiner might provide a medical nexus stating that their cardiovascular disease is generally known to be hereditary. Therefore, this veteran’s cardiovascular disease does not qualify as a MUCMI because the examiner has identified a form of general etiology. However, that examination is not adequate. In this case, the veteran should point out that the examiner cannot simply provide an opinion based on their general understanding of cardiovascular disease. Rather, they need to discuss the specifics of the veteran’s case. As such, veterans should be aware of these errors and take action to rectify them when necessary.
In other cases, VA adjudicators may disregard MUCMIs altogether. Namely, they will conclude that a veteran is diagnosed with a specific condition and therefore 38 CFR § 3.317 does not apply because it is not an undiagnosed illness. However, the Gulf War presumption applies to MUCMIs and infectious diseases as well as undiagnosed illnesses.
What Can Veterans Do to Improve their VA Disability Claim Based on Gulf War Service?
First and foremost, veterans must establish that they served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations. Therefore, ensuring that VA has your service records demonstrating such service is critical. If you are a Navy veteran and you served in one of the Gulfs and your personnel records do not establish that you served in those waters, it may be beneficial to obtain your Navy deck logs to see if those can place you in that area. From there, it is important to establish that your condition meets the rest of the requirements for the presumption discussed above (see section “What Other Qualifications Must Veterans Meet for the Gulf War Presumptive?”). Veterans can do so by submitting medical records, treatment notes, and doctors’ opinions.
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