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?