Vets with STDs Getting Disability Payments

Thousands receive checks for diseases caught off-duty


Scores of veterans across the country are getting lifetime checks from the government for gonorrhea, genital herpes and other venereal diseases they caught while in the ranks.

The disability payments are made under a little-known provision from three decades ago that entitles vets to monthly benefits for sexually transmitted diseases they contracted, or simply aggravated, while in the service -- even if they became infected on their own time years ago.

Under the rule Congress created at the end of the Vietnam War, even genital warts are considered a "service-connected" condition entitling a vet to the same $100 or more a month for the rest of his or her life that those who suffer wounds or battle injuries can receive.

This enrages some veterans of combat in Iraq, particularly those who have had to battle the backlogged Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy to be deemed worthy of benefits for clearly war-related disabilities. For them, the fact that the VA's resources and taxpayers' wallets are being tapped for such claims is hard to stomach.

"It's a crock," said Jerry Yarbrough of Gibson County, Tenn., who suffered major systemic damage from heatstroke as an Army fueling specialist in the early days of the Iraq invasion and continues to fight for full benefits now that he's "a virtual prisoner in my own home."

The number of veterans getting benefits for sexually transmitted diseases is unclear. Repeated requests to the Department of Veterans Affairs for that information went unanswered.

But a review by Scripps Howard News Service of more than 60,000 cases under the purview of the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration reveals that there likely have been thousands of vets since 1972 who, collectively, have drawn millions of dollars in payments for conditions they readily acknowledge came from illicit sexual activity.

Among those receiving VD disability payments is a Texas veteran of a four-year hitch in the mid-1980s, who convinced the Board of Veterans' Appeals that he deserved to be considered 30 percent disabled -- worth $350 a month now -- because his genital warts left him seriously depressed.

Another veteran, this one from Wisconsin, waited 30 years before applying for benefits for the residual effects of gonorrhea he acknowledged he contracted from a prostitute during his basic training at Fort Polk, La., in 1972.

This former soldier, who mustered out of the Army in 1975, said he continued to suffer from recurring gonorrhea-related urethritis when he sought benefits in 1996. Eventually, the appeals board deemed him 10 percent disabled, and thus eligible for a monthly check of about $100 for the rest of his life.

The question of compensating veterans for sexually transmitted diseases is one that apparently has not arisen in Washington since 1972, when Congress changed old rules that had categorized the contracting of such diseases to be an act of "willful misconduct."

Part of the reason lawmakers gave then for eliminating the pejorative classification was that doing so would encourage Vietnam vets returning home with VD to get treatment, rather than stay in the shadows and spread the diseases.

From then on, veterans have been eligible for benefits for an array of venereal diseases that were caught while in, or aggravated by, their military service.

In all, close to 20 sexually transmitted or related conditions can be found on the list of diagnoses covered by VA benefits. According to a VA archive of claim appeals, one of the most common is gonorrhea-connected urethritis, an inflammation of the male urethra. Gonorrheal and syphilitic arthritis, and syphilitic heart disease and dementia are also on the list.

That taxpayers are subsidizing vets with those diseases does not sit well with Sen. Larry Craig, the top GOP member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"We need to rethink whether taxpayers should support cash compensation payments for disabilities that are, without doubt, the result of one's own personal, voluntary behavior. Sexually transmitted diseases fall into that category, in my mind," said Craig, an Idaho Republican.

Several veterans service organizations offered a comparatively mild defense of VD benefits.

Saying he was unfamiliar with the reasoning behind the policy, Veterans for America official Steve Robinson suggested some of the beneficiaries could be victims of rape, former prisoners of war or others who contracted the illnesses during the call of duty.

He also decried those who focus on this sort of issue -- which involves a comparatively small number of the 2.6 million vets getting benefits and a tiny portion of the $26 billion benefits budget -- instead of on the trouble vets are having in getting VA help that is clearly due them.

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis called the subject a difficult one and cautioned that some who innocently contracted venereal diseases would suffer if they were denied benefits.

"Some of the maladies ... can be contracted through non-sexual means, or through normal human relations," said Davis, whose organization has represented veterans with venereal diseases in their appeals to the VA for more benefits.

The issue is not on the current agenda of a commission charged by Congress with finding fixes for the overburdened veteraqns care system.


Here's a sampling of some of the veterans granted monthly disability benefits for "service-connected" sexually transmitted diseases. None of the veterans' names were revealed in the case files.

a vet who retired in 2000 after 20 years of service said he contracted genital herpes in 1994 and has been plagued with recurrent outbreaks since then. Because he has hepatitis C, he is unable to use the anti-viral medications commonly prescribed for herpes.

"This had made sexual activity difficult on a repetitive basis," the veteran contended, according to a summary of the appeals board hearing. In 2005, four years after he filed his claim, the board deemed him 30 percent disabled by his herpes infection and thus entitled to about $300 a month in disability benefits for the rest of his life.

a veteran who served two years in the mid-1970s asked for benefits nearly 24 years later for his penile warts, which he said he acquired while in service. He said he deserved benefits because his "sex life has been affected due to the fear of infecting his partner, and he suffers embarrassment each time he seeks treatment for the warts," according to a summary of his appeals hearing. "He testified that although he has a girlfriend, he has not had sex for a year and a half due to the fear of infecting her," the summary said.

In 1996, the board said his condition left him 10 percent disabled, which translates today into about $100 a month for him in perpetuity.

a veteran who served from 1962 to 1965, and for eight months in 1991, filed for benefits for the six condyloma acuminata, or anal warts, which medical dictionaries describe as sexually transmitted. The vet said the growths had bedeviled him since his service during the Persian Gulf War in Saudi Arabia and, despite treatment, always return.

"The veteran also testified that he experiences a lot of discomfort when he is in the sitting position," said a summary of his testimony during a 1994 hearing on his case.

In 2000, the appeals board deemed him 10 percent disabled because of the warts, entitling the vet to about $100 a month for the rest of his life.

[ Compensation News ]