The veteran died in September 1988. However, we claimed service connection for the cause of his death because we believed that his malignant melanoma (skin cancer) had its origins in the jungles of New Guinea in the South Pacific. The veteran served as an Army first lieutenant in New Guinea for 18 months between 1944 and 1945.
The veteran was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in August of 1977. However, we appealed to the Veterans Administration that a malignant melanoma, according to dermatological experts, can start up to 40 years after excessive sun exposure. We claimed that it is as likely as not that the veteran’s malignant melanoma with metastases was related to the veteran’s exposure to the tropical New Guinea sun.
What is interesting about this claim is that we never claimed that malignant melanoma, the condition shown on the veteran’s death certificate in 1988, was present during his military service. Our contention was that the veteran was exposed to the sun during his service in New Guinea and, as a result, the veteran developed fatal malignant melanoma which metastasized and ultimately caused the veteran’s death.
The veteran’s Notice of Separation from the United States Army reflects that he served overseas in New Guinea. His service medical records are negative for any complaints, findings, treatment or diagnosis with respect to the skin or due to exposure to the sun.
The VA agreed that our evidence in favor of the veteran was very strong and could not be challenged. The certificate of death in 1988 listed the cause of death as malignant melanoma with metastases. At the time of death service connection was not in effect for any disability.
Private medical records dated August 1977 reflect that the veteran was treated for metastatic squamous cell carcinoma near his right shoulder blade. The veteran then had malignant melanoma, superficial spreading type, removed from his back the following September. The melanoma was reported to be located at the right upper portion of the back close to the shoulder.
In support of our claim for service connection I presented the VA with a study called, “Sunlight and Skin Cancer”, which appeared in Scientific American in 1996. The study proved the relationship between exposure to the skin and subsequent development of skin cancer.
We also presented the VA with photos of the veteran without his shirt working in the tropical sun in 1944 and 1945. Additional evidence appeared in the veteran’s diaries which his widow maintained for all these years. The veteran spoke of the intense tropical sun and how dark his skin was. We also obtained a sworn statement from a well known board certified dermatologist, who stated that a malignant melanoma could occur thirty-five years or more after severe sunburn. In addition, all four grandparents were born in Ireland, which according to the dermatologist, are extremely susceptible to skin cancer from excessive sun exposure. We were able to prove a delayed reaction in the melanoma development.
The VA ruled in favor of our client. She will receive DIC at the rate of $1,191 per month. She also received a nice back payment. In addition, she was reimbursed by VA for funeral expenses from her husband’s funeral. She will be entitled to a property tax exemption which will mean another $6,000 in yearly savings to the widow. The widow will also receive medical and prescription benefits through CHAMPVA.
This was an extremely satisfying claim to win on behalf of our client. Our only regret is that we could not have helped her many years ago. It is amazing, however, to think that we could prove a service connection 63 years after the end of World War II.
To me, this claim demonstrates what we can do if we apply ourselves and do the research.