Statements from the Department of Veterans Affairs
"The Department of Veterans Affairs is grateful to Mr. George Albernaz for his service to our country and we extend our sympathies to his widow. We consider all available evidence and provide every Veteran the maximum benefits allowed by law. Whenever evidence can be equally weighed, VA resolves all reasonable doubt in favor of the Veteran. The employees of the St. Petersburg Regional Office are committed to fulfilling this mission and serving Veterans and their families." — Kerry Witty, director of the VA's regional office in Seminole.
The VA also provided answers to questions about the story from spokeswoman Collette Burgess.
On how the VA estimated radiation exposures for George Albernaz:
"VA gathered evidence of radiation exposure from the military and submitted this evidence to the Under Secretary for Health for an opinion regarding whether Mr. Albernaz' condition is linked to military service. Because U S. Navy records do not specifically list Mr. Albernaz as having had radiation exposure, the Navy provided estimates based on the radiation dose amounts of his fellow crew members on the USS Calhoun County in 1958-1959. The maximum amounts of radiation were .52 roentgens (rem). The Under Secretary for Health issued an opinion in 2004 which determined that Mr. Albernaz had .52 rem of radiation exposure but found no link between brain necrosis and exposure to radiation. A second opinion was issued in 2011. This opinion considered other evidence including statements from neuro-physicist, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan. In consideration of Dr. Morgan's statements, the estimate of Mr. Albernaz' radiation exposure was increased to 40 rems. However, because the level of exposure and the time which elapsed from exposure to the development of Mr. Albernaz's brain necrosis were well below established medical thresholds, the Under Secretary for Health was unable to establish a link between Mr. Albernaz's condition and his exposure to radiation while aboard the USS Calhoun County."
On delays in deciding radiation cases:
"Radiation claims, like all disability claims, require development for pertinent evidence. If the disability was treated while the Veteran was on active duty, service connection can be considered on a direct basis. However, claims for disabilities that developed after service based on radiation exposure also require verification of the dates, places, and circumstances to exposure and diagnosis of a radiogenic disease. Opinions from the Under Secretary for Health may also be necessary. hese additional levels of development, especially when the disease is not one established by VA as induced by exposure to ionizing radiation, can lengthen the claims process. Mr. Albernaz and subsequently, his widow, have continuously pursued service connection for his brain condition. Since Mr. Albernaz first filed his claim, numerous pieces of evidence have been submitted, reviewed, and considered. The Board of Veterans Appeals recently remanded the appeal for additional evidence. A new decision will be made once the evidence is received."
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On evidence submitted by Albernaz's radiation exposure was at least 38 rems:
"VA gives due consideration to all evidence submitted in support of Veterans claims. Statements from Dr. Karl Z. Morgan were considered by the Under Secretary for Health in a decision dated August 29, 2011. Based on Dr. Morgan's statements, Mr. Albernaz's exposure was re-assessed as 40 rems. It was found, however, that established medical literature does not link exposure to ionizing radiation and diseases of the central nervous system. Abrupt deterioration of the brain has been reported when excessively large doses of radiation have occurred, but Mr. Albernaz's exposure, at 40 rems, was far lower than the threshold dose known to cause damage. Also, his brain necrosis did not occur near the time of exposure, which is normally the case, but instead it occurred some 31 years later. As a result, VA was not able to establish a link between Mr. Albernaz's exposure to radiation while aboard the USS Calhoun County and his brain condition."
On linking illnesses to radiation:
"The VA works closely with various national health agencies to establish links between exposure to environmental hazards and the subsequent development of specific disabilities. VA regulations are amended to reflect these links and pay benefits. If exposure to the environmental hazard can be established to have occurred while on active duty, and the Veteran's disability occurs within established time frames, and the disability is linked to that hazard, VA presumes that the exposure is the cause of the disability and pays compensation. There are several disabilities that have been linked to exposure to radiation and information about these disabilities is readily available to veterans. While VA considers all claims for service connection for radiation related disabilities that are not considered presumptive under VA regulations, these claims are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and are specific to the individual veteran and his/her medical history ...
"Radiation claims, like all disability claims, require development for pertinent evidence. If the disability was treated while the veteran was on active duty, service connection can be considered on a direct basis. However, claims for disabilities that developed after service based on radiation exposure also require verification of the dates, places, and circumstances to exposure and diagnosis of a radiogenic disease. Additional information regarding radiation exposure may also be needed from the military and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Advisory opinions from the Under Secretary for Health may be necessary as well."