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A Good Soldier

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Ed Gherman

A Good Soldier

Questions about VA Disability and Multiple Sclerosis

He fell suddenly, not a hundred feet from my moving car. It was a solid, bone breaking tumble and I was surprised when he got to his feet, brushed himself off and resumed walking hesitantly toward a car parked next to the curb from which he'd just fallen. I drove slowly alongside, then braked and asked if he were all right. He smiled when he saw me; I recognized him as one of my daughter's friends, Sam. I had known him for over ten years. We'd met just after his return from an enlistment with Army Rangers. It had come as a shock to all of us when we learned he had Multiple Sclerosis. He'd gone to a doctor because of numbness in his leg and blurred vision and after extended testing, was diagnosed with the disease.

Over the years I'd hear bits and pieces of Sam's progress from my daughter. After I witnessed his fall, I asked her for an update and she told me that he'd had some problems walking and that he was using a cane most of the time. I asked her what he was doing for money and she said that he was getting paid by the Army, full disability and all medical benefits. I was dumbfounded and told her that she must be wrong and would she check as soon as possible. She did and confirmed that he was indeed receiving full benefits and that MS was considered a service connected disability.

I found this so hard to believe that I contacted Sam myself and he agreed to an interview. He confirmed that he was on disability. He said that the VA will grant disability status if the condition becomes apparent to a degree of ten percent or more within seven years from the date of a veteran's separation from the service. Sam didn't realize he was eligible for these benefits until a friend, an ex-serviceman, told him, three years after his initial diagnosis. The VA confirmed Sam's disability and service connection.

I'm glad that Sam's needs are being met by the VA. He was a good soldier. But it's difficult, if not impossible to understand the VA's reasoning and justification for granting disability status and a service connection for MS. There is no know cause for MS. If the cause is unknown, how can a connection be made between a person's stay in the service and MS? It doesn't make sense. A service-connected disability can be granted for any condition which is incurred or aggravated by a veteran's military service. The big questions are: What is it in the service environment that causes folks to become susceptible to MS and how did the VA make a connection between this environmental factor, service in the armed forces, and Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple Sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system. Myelin, which facilitates the high speed transmission of electrochemical impulses between the brain and the spinal cord, becomes scarred and hardened into what are known as plaques. These multiple plaques damage the myelin and cause the neurological transmissions to be slowed or blocked completely which leads to diminished and, sometimes, lost functioning. The symptoms, severity and duration of MS varies from person to person. Most patients experience muscle weakness and loss of muscular control, fatigue, vision problems and cognitive impairments such as poor memory and concentration. Other symptoms include pain, tremor, vertigo, bladder and bowel dysfunction, depression and euphoria.

There are 350,000 Americans who have MS and about two hundred new cases are diagnosed each week. Most folks experience their first symptoms between the age of twenty and forty, rarely before fifteen and seldom after sixty. Caucasians are more than twice as likely to contract MS than other races; MS is five times more prevalent in temperate climates than in tropical. There does seem to be a genetic relationship or connection between those who are susceptible to MS. In the population at large, a person has a one-tenth of one percent chance of contracting MS but if one person in a family has MS then the other family members have a three percent chance of getting it also.

The cause for MS is not known. Some think it's an auto immune disease that launches an attack on its own tissues. While this is certainly a clear possibility, nothing conclusive has ever been established. One plausible theory is that the causative agent could be a unique microorganism such as a mycoplasma. These poorly understood organisms are able to alter protein, and then sensitize the host against itself. For example it was found that mycoplasmas can cause the formation of the rheumatoid factor. A similar mechanism could apply to Lupus and many other auto immune disorders. Another interesting factor is that females, who are infected four times more frequently with mycoplasmas than males, are twice as likely to contract MS.

But this is all only speculation because the truth is we simply don't know what causes MS. Then how did the VA decide that MS was connected to a person's stay in the Armed Forces? I wrote the Department Of Defense, through Barbara Boxer's office, and they refused to answer any questions. I also contacted the Veterans Administration. They did confirm that MS was a service connected disability and answered some of my inquiries. They seemed puzzled that I was skeptical of the MS disability designation and informed me that "congressional legislation would be required to change these provisions of the law".

There are currently about eleven thousand veterans who have been granted a service connected disability for MS. The only condition is that the disease be confirmed within seven years of a veteran's separation from service. As any one familiar with the labyrinthian process of obtaining a service related disability can attest, it isn't easy getting money from the VA. The problems surrounding "Gulf War Illness" is a certain reminder of this fact

The VA and the Department Of Defense must possess information that they're not sharing with the rest of us and certainly not with the new enlistees. I know the Sergeant isn't telling new recruits that they should look out for MS, as they do with AIDS or syphilis. If there is a chance that MS might be contracted or complicated by their time in military service, then why aren't enlistees told this? Would this complicate the recruitment process? Probably, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it would complicate something far more important to the modern Armed Forces: vaccinations. This is the one factor, aside from the traditional haircut, that all service folks have in common. If, as some believe, the causative agent is a mycoplasma, vaccinations could conceivably be the mode of transmission.

What bothers me most is that I'm sure the VA and the DOD have research that justifies granting this disability to thousands of veterans. If they have information that connects MS to military service, then we should all know what that information is. Multiple Sclerosis is a serious and growing disorder that afflicts millions of persons. To purposefully withhold information that would better our understanding of this disease is unjustified.



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