DeWITT, Va. (WRIC) — More than four years after his death, and decades after the conclusion of his military service, the widow of a Vietnam War veteran is still trying to get her husband’s benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Air Force veteran Joseph Wilkins passed away in 2018, but his medical problems predated his death by more than a decade. His widow, Carolyn Fields-Wilkins, an Army veteran herself, has since been fighting for the recognition of his claims.
“When I filed a claim for Parkinson’s in 2009 or 2010, it was denied because, they say, he did not have Parkinson’s,” Carolyn said.
However, Joseph’s death certificate, which Carolyn said has been sent to the VA, lists a series of medical issues under the purview of Parkinsonism.
“I still don’t understand how that works,” she said.
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that progresses slowly in most people. Symptoms can take years to develop, and most people live for many years with the disease.
The symptoms caused by Parkinson’s include an ongoing loss of motor control — such as resting tremors, stiffness, slow movement and postural instability — as well as a wide range of non-motor symptoms — such as depression, loss of sense of smell, gastric problems and cognitive changes, among others.
Meanwhile, Parkinsonism is a general term that refers to a group of neurological disorders that cause movement problems similar to those seen in Parkinson’s disease, such as tremors, slow movement and stiffness, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Under the category of Parkinsonism, there are a number of disorders, some of which are yet to be clearly identified or named.
Effective Aug. 31, 2010, Parkinson’s Disease was added to the list of those presumed to be associated with herbicide exposure. The Federal Register publication of the new final rule noted that this would apply to claims received by the VA on or after that date, and the claims pending before the VA on that date.
Additionally, the VA would apply this rule in readjudicating certain previously denied claims, as required by court orders in Nehmer v. Department of Veterans Affairs. A service member could, however, still establish service connection for Parkinsonism.
But in 2021, the VA officially added Parkinsonism to the aforementioned list.
“I don’t know what’s owed to my husband for the Parkinson’s,” Carolyn said. “But the pain and suffering that he endured, all the while, I’m saying, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t give him that. Take this out. Don’t do this,’ I don’t think you can ever be paid enough.”
From 2007 until he died in 2018, Carolyn said that Joseph was in and out of VA Medical Centers in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. She claimed there were times when he would be refused treatment, and others when he was not being cared for properly.
“His niece and I left him at the Community Living Center, walking and talking,” Carolyn said, recalling one such instance at a VA Medical Center. “I went back home to North Carolina, got sick, couldn’t get back until about a week, and when I did and I went into the hospital, he was sweating profusely, head twisted, mouth open, drooling. I couldn’t believe it.”
Carolyn said that over the years, his health declined. She believes it was a combination of exposures in Vietnam and inadequate medical treatment as he aged.
“He never recovered, and he wasted away,” she said. “I want them to look at his claim in its entirety, and that’s mainly because of everything that happened to him. There are residual effects from the drugs that he was given.”
Most recently, Carolyn received a FedEx shipment of documents on March 31, which had been overnighted to her address in her husband’s name. The documents stated that he needed to come in to a VA Medical Center for a C&P Exam.
According to the VA, after a claim is filed, the department may ask the veteran to come in for a compensation and pension exam to help rate their disability.
“How does this make any of that better, when you send me something for my deceased husband, that I know is deceased because I’m missing him?” Carolyn said. “I know he’s deceased. He gave me purpose. I took care of him like he was my baby because that’s what I wanted to do. But how does this help?”
For now, Carolyn is continuing to fight to have her husband’s claim recognized. The VA confirmed to 8News that work is being done with her on the customer service side