Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Doing the Right Thing

Like thousands of other young Americans, Joseph Weston joined the military in search of a brighter future. Tired of his part-time position at a restaurant--and few other jobs available in his hometown of Cadillac, Michigan--Weston enlisted in the Air Force, with plans to become a jet engine mechanic.

But Weston never made it to tech school. In fact, he never completed basic training. Less than two weeks after he arrived for basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, Weston received a stunning diagnosis from Air Force doctors. He was suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of blood cancer that is extremely rare--and often deadly--in adult patients.

Basic training and technical school were put on hold, as Weston began a battle to save his life. He underwent months of grueling chemotherapy that put the disease in check, but left his body weakened. Then, the USAF bureaucracy delivered a second, devastating verdict. A personnel evaluation board (PEB) determined that Weston is unfit for service, because of his leukemia.

While that was hardly surprising, the second part of the board's ruling came as a shock. The panel determined that Weston's illness was a pre-existing condition, meaning that he would be discharged without a pension or medical benefits.

But Weston's doctor disagrees with the board's decision, as Erik Holmes of Air Force Times reports:

“In my opinion, there wasn’t a way to prove that [the cancer] was there two weeks beforehand” when he started basic training, said Maj. (Dr.) Della Howell, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Lackland’s Wilford Hall Medical Center. “These types of leukemias ... are acute in nature so they do occur fairly rapidly. ... I didn’t think they could prove [whether] it’s pre-existing or not.”

Weston is appealing the physical evaluation board’s Oct. 29 ruling. The secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council will rule on the appeal, though there is no word when that decision will be rendered.

A spokesman for the PEB declined to comment on the case.

For now, Weston is on base at quarters provided by Fisher House, the private-public venture that offers housing and services to sick and injured military members and their families. He is undergoing a chemotherapy regimen of intravenous injections, pills, muscle injections and painful spinal taps. His treatment is scheduled to last 2½ to three years and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Without a temporary disability retirement, Weston will return to Michigan without medical benefits --and facing a likely gap in his treatment. While he would qualify for coverage through Medicaid, the Social Security disability program and the Michigan Department of Veteran's Affairs, establishing those benefits would take time, delay treatment and increase chances for a relapse.

We understand that the military isn't a social welfare agency and there are established rules for who does--and doesn't--receive benefits. But there is no indication that Weston was suffering symptoms of the disease before he reported to basic training, and Dr. Howell says it's impossible to know if the leukemia was a pre-existing condition.

That should be good enough for the Air Force, but then again, personnel boards aren't always know for rational decisions. Consider the case of Major Jill Metzger, the personnel officer who disappeared during her deployment to Kyrgyzstan a couple of years ago. Metzger claimed that she was abducted, but there is considerable evidence that she faked her disappearance. She later claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and was received a temporary disability retirement--the same type of discharge being sought by Joseph Weston.

Clearly, the ruling in one case should not affect a decision in another. But the Metzger case is an absolute travesty, a case that has stirred enormous discontent within the ranks. And for good reason. Metzger got her retirement (and pension) in near-record time, while scores of combat-wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan are still trying to work their way through the system.

If Jill Metzger deserves benefits for her "injuries" (and we use that term loosely), how can the Air Force deny someone who is genuinely deserving, like Joseph Weston?


Unknown said...

That's ridiculous. If they didn't catch it on his pre-enlistment physical, then its not "pre-existing".

Not that I don't know what it feels like. The Navy discharged me for a 'pre-existing' claustrophobia... after I'd been in 4 years. And as I'd enlisted to be a 'nuke', I got more rigorous than usual entrance psych evaluation. But no.

OldSarg said...

The MEB's (medical evaluation boards) have way too much say so in the condition and health of military members. I knew a crew chief (17 years active) who had a botched surgery at our base hospital, discharged and offered $27,000 for 17 years of service. They also didn't tell him that if he had taken the money he would not be eligible for VA Comp and Pen until he either 1) repaid the money or 2) waited the number of months needed to equal VA payment he would have received.

kitanis said...

I think this case is on the side of the airman or ought to be.. they did not catch the illeness under the testing done at MEPS..

But like OldSarg said.. MEB's are tricky things.

fmfnavydoc said...

I hjate the MEB process - had to deal with it while I was a Great Lakes...had a young Sailor that was diagnosed with a form of kidney disease that was caught at "A" school...was looking at a kidney transplant within 5 years to help him, otherwise it was a death sentence. Disease not caught at MEPS, was caught when he was in the ER passing kidney stones. Since he was within 180 days of joining the Navy, he was discharged as a "entry level separation". I looked at everything that I could do (I was the Admin Officer at the school), tried every route (medical and legal) to keep him in - he was going to have to go back to a crappy paying job in SOCAL. Still hate myself to this day for having to discharge him...the system is AFU...

Storms24 said...

I've a casual experience with someone with Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and I find it nearly impossible to believe that he contracted the disease in the 9 days between his first day of BMT and the date he was diagnosed. We don't have access to the MEB or PEB files (much less to the young airman's medical history), but I think it is a bit foolish to assume that there isn't more to the story. For instance, did a closer examination of his medical records reveal an undisclosed condition or finding from a civilian doctor before he entered into the military? What was his white cell count at the time of diagnosis (relates directly to the length of time the malformed cells have been developing)? Which type of ALL has he been diagnosed with (four of the six require a significant amount of time to reach the "acute" stage). Was the opinion of a pediatric oncologist the only medical expert consulted?

While the Air Force is no more immune to large, uncaring (and often incomprehensible) bureaucratic bungling than any other government entity, I know that there are also literally thousands of servicemen and women who have received all of their just entitlements through this process. Without more information, we have only the claimant's viewpoint that he has been treated unfairly.

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