Terri just set a precedent by winning her Department of Veterans Administration (DVA) claim for service connected health conditions associated with her exposure to toxic chemicals at George AFB. She had a repeated and prolonged exposure to chlordane and other organochlorine pesticides (“OCPs”) that were used as herbicides, insecticides, termiticides, pesticides, and rodenticides to protect the George Air Force Base Family Housing, dorms, and barracks. She was on active duty, assigned to George AFB from July 1980 until March 1982, living in the enlisted personnel’s barracks, and then as a dependent lived in base family housing until January 1985.
My name is Terri Kristl Crooks, I was active duty assigned to George AFB from July 1980 until March 1982 living in the enlisted barracks and then as a dependent lived in base housing there until January 1985. This is a review of my story about George AFB and how I found out about “the toxic base” and ultimately won my claim for VA Service connection for health conditions associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, specifically the pesticides used while my family and I were at George AFB.
My husband was on Facebook approximately 15 months ago, actually on the George AFB page that he is a member of when he came across a page/article that Frank Vera had posted about the “toxic Bases” and the fact that George AFB was on the EPA Super Fund site lists. He called for me to come see what he was reading. At first, I was shocked and then the more I read, the angrier I became. For years I had been diagnosed with some significant health conditions that resulted in a couple of major surgeries and the fact that while stationed at George AFB had given birth to a really wonderful all be it premature son. My son was born 13 weeks premature and I had always wondered what could I have done differently or better that would have kept this from happening. Anyways, back to the toxic chemicals. I started to research the chemicals by first going to the EPA Super Fund site and getting the list of chemicals of concern as that was the easiest way to start. I became obsessed with finding out about these chemicals, what the potential harm was and based on my own health issues could these chemicals have caused my health issues. I also pulled out the copies of my own treatment records of which I had made a complete copy of just before my husband retired. I made another copy of them and started highlighting the copy with a magic marker for each instance where in the case of my breast cancer where suspicious lumps and surgeries occurred and was able to show that the suspicious lumps started within 6 months of being stationed at George AFB. As for the other health issues, I suffered for 8 years with GYN issues, and finally required a hysterectomy, again the issues all could be traced back to exposure to the chemicals sprayed in the George AFB housing. Once I had all the information from my records together, I searched online and found VA rating decisions for exposure to these chemicals as well. I actually used 1 rating decision as supporting documentation when I submitted my claim for VA disability compensation. I also GOOGLED and found a copy of a NEXUS letter which is key to winning a claim for disability with the Department of VA. The NEXUS letter is written by an individuals’ primary care physician and provides a statement where the doctor states that there is, “as likely as not” an association between the health condition and the exposure to the pesticides/chemicals.
Once I had all the documents including the Housing Deed Restrictions (all which are public info, you just need to know where to locate them which can be frustrating and time-consuming), my military treatment records, rating decisions that I was able to find online, I uploaded approximately 100 pages of supporting documents along with my letter to submit the claim for VA disability. The frustrating part of this is the fact that 7 years ago I had applied for disability for the hysterectomy and been denied even though the surgery records for both the hysterectomy and bilateral mastectomies were both sitting on file at the VA hospital in Tucson AZ. I find it interesting that the records are at the VA in Tucson AZ given the fact that I was not receiving any form of VA disability at the time.
I waited approximately 9 months and started looking at the Department of VA processing time reports for claims. In their weekly reports, they show that they are processing claims in approximately 125 days. I thought that was interesting at that point given the fact that my claim had been pending for 9 months and I hadn’t heard anything so I sent an email to the Secretary of the VA, Robert McDonald and asked him why the disparity in what is being reported for their performance measures and the actuality of what is being done. Within 1 week of sending that email, I received a call from one of the VBA Compensation and Pension at Des Moines Iowa, where my claim had been sent even though I live in Florida, telling me that a Comp & Penn examination would be set up for me. The exam would take place in Orlando FL because that was the closest to me. It did take about 45 days for Orlando to have an opening for an appointment because they are so backlogged but I did get my appointment. The good news is that 10 days after my exam, that’s right 10 days; I received a call from Iowa telling me that they had settled my claim and I was being awarded 70% VA Disability for my 2 health conditions and 0% for the scars associated with the surgeries (there are lots of scars from the mastectomies and reconstruction). I was shocked that it all happened that quickly once I had the C&P exam. I will tell you that I am also in the middle of an appeal because I opened this claim “with new and pertinent” information that automatically created an appeal because of being denied 7 years ago. I feel that the VA created a “clear and unmistakable error” and so the appeal is pending. I will continue to send emails to the Secretary of VA, the Deputy Secretary of VA and the Secretary of the Air Force if that is what it takes. For me, it’s not the money, it’s the acknowledgment and the acceptance of responsibility for what was done.