Armed Forces News

More veterans who suffer from chronic pain related to injuries or conditions they received while in the service now qualify for treatment and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled April 4 that pain-stricken veterans should get VA benefits, even if their conditions are not directly linked to a medical diagnosis. The ruling overturns a 19-year precedent that barred VA from providing such benefits without a clear diagnosis.

“What this ruling means is that if a physician cannot diagnose the cause of the pain the veteran is experiencing, but the pain is related to an event, injury, or disease that occurred during the veteran’s military service, the veteran should now win disability benefits,” said Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, an advocacy group. Stichman represented veterans’ interests as the case was under consideration by the Federal Circuit.

In 1999, a lower federal court had ruled that VA had no authority to act in such veterans’ behalf. The Federal Circuit decision effectively overturned the older ruling.

This latest decision stemmed from the case of a soldier named Melba Saunders, whose service from November 1987 until October 1994 included action during the Persian Gulf War. After leaving the military, Saunders sought VA disability compensation for bilateral knee disorders she sustained while in uniform. When VA rejected her claim, she appealed to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

In 2011, even after a doctor diagnosed her disorder and agreed that it likely was caused by military service, the appeals board again said no – citing an earlier court precedent. At that point, Saunders appealed to the Court of Veterans Appeals and later the Federal Circuit, where she ultimately gained legal relief.

“The Federal Circuit’s ruling is a significant victory for disabled veterans … like Melba Saunders, who have served their country in wartime and are now unable to work to their full capacity as a result,” said Mel Bostwick, a private attorney who also represented the former soldier during the legal process.