The Perils of Peace: Veterans & Asbestos Exposure
MIDDLETOWN, Md. (WJLA) —
A Maryland veteran with terminal pulmonary fibrosis is nearly bankrupt fighting to breathe, while the Department of Veterans Affairs continues their resistance in helping him. Richard Cook served from 1958-1961 in the Navy.
Doctors say his symptoms possibly happened because of asbestos exposure on the ship. But Cook’s status as a peacetime veteran prevented him from seeking VA hospital coverage, which also prevented him from collecting the documentation the VA required to file for service-related disability benefits.
WHAT IS A PEACETIME VETERAN?
Veterans who did not serve during the following times of war are considered peacetime veterans.
• World War II (December 7, 1941 – December 31, 1946)
• Korean conflict (June 27, 1950 – January 31, 1955)
• Vietnam era (February 28, 1961 – May 7, 1975 for Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period; otherwise August 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975)
• Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – through a future date to be set by law or Presidential Proclamation)
• For more information on wartime periods to determine eligibility for VA pension benefits click here.
Peacetime veterans are not eligible to free VA medical center care unless they can prove financial destitution. Peacetime veterans are eligible for help at state-run veteran centers, home and business loan assistance, and property tax exemptions, among other benefits which vary by state.
A group calling themselves American Cold War Veterans is pushing for a medal or memorial to commemorate the service of peacetime veterans, according to USA Today. 6 million of more than 22 million veterans nationwide fall in that category, including those who served in Lebanon, Grenada and Panama.
ON BOARD THE USS WILLARD KEITH
Richard Cook served as a radioman onboard the USS Willard Keith, a Sumner-class WWII-era destroyer, between 1958 and 1961. Cook constantly drilled to crouch into a crawlspace operating the emergency radio. “It was dusty and dark and confined,” recalled Cook. US Naval vessels prior to 1980 were coated with asbestos fire-retardant.
“I was just like everybody else. I wasn’t in during war. I tried to do my job,” said Cook.
After an honorable discharge, Cook was a Maryland State trooper, restaurant franchise owner and local baseball league umpire. He and his wife Patricia settled into their Middletown, Maryland home in Frederick County. They raised a family in their home of 42 years.
Cook was originally diagnosed with heart blockage after having shortness of breath several years ago umpiring games. Later diagnoses revealed Cook’s lungs were not getting enough oxygen to the heart. Cook had pulmonary fibrosis, requiring him to constantly use a breathing machine to supply his weakening heart.
“I really can’t do anything. I read the paper. Drink a cup of coffee,” explained Cook detailing his now-near sedentary life.
AN ACT OF CONGRESS
Believing the pulmonary fibrosis was from asbestos exposure during his navy service, Cook and his wife filed for service-related disability from the VA. Their application was denied, partially because of a lack of VA hospital documentation establishing the progression of pulmonary fibrosis. The Cook’s attempts to visit the VA Hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia were denied because peacetime veterans cannot receive VA hospital coverage without proving destitution. The Cooks reached that point with mounting medical bills last year and were finally able to see a VA doctor who wrote, “Asbestos exposure could have been the triggering factor.”
“I was not going to let them win and they’re set up to win and to ignore,” said Patricia Cook.
When reached by the ABC7 I-Team, VA Assistance Benefits Director Kenesha Britton replied, “The VA is typically very liberal giving the benefit of the doubt if the veteran’s MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] is considered high risk for asbestos exposure. Radio operators were not considered high risk for asbestos exposure, despite his constant time below decks and crawling against asbestos coated wiring during emergency combat drills. Only Congress can declare radio operators high risk for asbestos exposure, according to Britton."
BANK STOPS FORECLOSURE
The Cooks faced foreclosure and eviction because of falling behind in second mortgage payments due to medical bills. A notice of a sheriff’s auction had been posted for their Middletown, Maryland home. After the ABC7 I-Team told Cook’s story, original mortgage holder BB&T Bank purchased the mortgage from the current loan holder and arranged for the Cooks to live at their home without needing to make a mortgage payment for at least one year.
The Cooks plan to make their case to the Board of Veterans Appeals again, hoping this time it will take in new medical information from the VA’s own doctors.