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“Fit for Life” health guru Harvey Diamond faces Agent Orange ailments, VA denial

Harvey DiamondHarvey Diamond rode through the 1980s on a stream of talk shows, famous friendships and money—lots of money—after writing a best-selling series of books about a healthy lifestyle.

But following a series of troubles after the success of his “Fit for Life” series, including negative publicity relating to bad investments, as well as life-altering health problems years after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, the Florida resident figured he would try to add one more high mark to his portfolio:

Diamond, with the help of Bergmann & Moore, was awarded service-connection for a condition not on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Agent Orange presumptive list.

“We were happy to have played a small part in obtaining VA benefits for Mr. Diamond,” said Glenn Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore, a national law firm that handles only veterans’ benefits’ cases. “Veterans need to be reminded that, despite what VA tells them, it is not impossible to obtain service-connection related to Agent Orange exposure for a condition not contained on VA’s presumptive list. Unfortunately, only those veterans who maintain their fight, despite VA’s repeated denials, ever win.”

 Diamond’s problems with chronic peripheral neuropathy began in the 1980s, when the muscles at the base of his thumbs simply wasted away. Then the Sarasota, Fla., resident, now 70, lost the use of all his fingers, except his thumbs. He limps. He can use some muscles in his arms and legs, but not others. He can’t zip a pair of blue jeans, let alone partake of the ski trips that used to be a part of his jet-set existence.

And just to add a little bit of insult to infirmity, the VA determined Diamond’s chronic peripheral neuropathy, or damaged peripheral nervous system, was not service-connected.

VA denied Diamond’s claim primarily because he suffered from “chronic,” as opposed to “early onset,” peripheral neuropathy. VA maintains a list of presumptive conditions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam–which means VA presumes the veteran’s service caused his ailment, and he or she automatically receives service-connection for that condition. Chronic peripheral neuropathy is not on that list, while “acute,” or early onset, peripheral neuropathy is.

“They kept saying it was not service-connected,” Diamond said. “My doc was saying, ‘He’s a health nut, and he has classic Agent Orange symptoms, and you’re saying it’s not service-connected? That’s nuts.’”​

“Health nut” only begins to describe his history: His “Fit for Life” books have sold almost 14 million copies around the world, and his first book sat at the No. 1 position on the New York Times bestseller list for 40 weeks. He espoused his diet—which talked about the benefits of vegetarian, vegan and raw diets without requiring them—on the Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Regis Philbin and Good Morning America shows.

Diamond’s case started when he arrived at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, in 1966. He never served in combat, instead spending his time building the base from the ground up. He did everything from digging fox holes to pulling guard duty to laying flight line when President Johnson came to visit the base in 1966.

“That was all right with me,” Diamond said. “I never once fired my weapon—I’m pretty happy about that.”

He finished his tour, counted his blessings and headed home, he said.

In the 1980s, his “Fit for Life” books hit the New York Times’ bestselling list. He talked with Oprah about how to be healthy. He appeared on Merv Griffin several times, with Griffin crediting Diamond for helping him live a healthy lifestyle. But then he noticed that the muscles between his thumb and index finger was beginning to disappear. His arms began to “wither.”

“Here I am on Oprah talking about how to healthy, but if you look at my hands, it’s just skin,” he said. “It looks hollowed out.”

At first, he thought it was ALS, but his muscles deteriorated asymmetrically, rather than all together, as they would with ALS. Some muscles atrophied, and others did not.

Doctors couldn’t figure it out. He spent his money—of which he still had plenty—traveling the country trying to get help. One day, he watched Hour Magazine as his then-wife Marilyn made an appearance. On the same program was a Vietnam vet sitting in a wheelchair and wearing sunglasses as he described how the muscle between his thumb and index finger had disappeared, and then other muscles had broken down. He talked about the connection to Agent Orange, and he called the disease “peripheral neuropathy.”

“We heard about Agent Orange while we were over there, but we were told it was safe,” Diamond said. “Guys used Agent Orange drums to make a barbecue. We could see it sitting on the water when we went to the beach. We were swimming in it.”

The man’s statement hit Diamond like a lightning bolt, and he made a visit to a VA hospital. The peripheral neuropathy eventually spread to both his upper and lower extremities. Because he had money to pay for his care, he did not file a claim.

But in 2009, he made some bad investments.

“It was bad money management on my part,” Diamond said, placing the blame fully on himself. “I went from being a big multi-millionaire to struggling to keep the electricity on.”

In 2009, Diamond filed his first claim for service connection for his peripheral neuropathy. A VA regional office immediately denied it in September that year. He appealed the decision three times. After a service-connection denial in 2013 from the Board of Veteran Appeals, Diamond went to Bergmann & Moore.

“I went to two other attorneys, and they said, ‘You don’t have a chance,’” Diamond said. “I saw the Bergmann & Moore brochure, and when I saw, ‘We used to work for VA,’ I threw all the other brochures away.”

Bergmann & Moore obtained a remand from the court, and then argued for service-connection, again, before the Board of Veteran Appeals this fall. Two weeks later, Diamond was awarded a service-connected disability decision of 100 percent dating back to his 2012 claim, and an 80 percent combined-disability rating back to 2009, as well as special monthly compensation dating to 2012 for the loss of the use of his hands—an unusual award for veterans who lose the use of an organ or extremity. It means Diamond receives a payment that exceeds his 100-percent award. Bergmann & Moore is now arguing for special monthly compensation back to the date of the original claim.

Diamond said the decision comes as a huge relief. While he’s pain-free—a condition he attributes to years of healthy living—everything he does takes time. His clothing has no buttons or zippers. He can’t open doors with knobs, only flat handles. He can’t hold a fork. It takes him hours to prepare food; he drinks through a straw; he brings his face to his food, rather than a fork to his mouth; he walks slowly; and when he goes on his daily 8-mile bike ride, it takes him a while to get situated so that he can hold the handlebars because only his thumbs are still capable of a gripping motion. But now, he said, his effort can go toward daily living, rather than the stress of trying to earn a living when it’s hard to deal with daily basics.

“I don’t know what they did, but God bless them,” Diamond said. “When I got that payment? Hallelujah. I don’t live like a king, but it takes care of me.”

He has some advice for other veterans.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “Everyone tried to convince me to stop. Don’t stop.”

As VA works to assuage its backlog of new claims, Bergmann & Moore has seen appeals cases grow—especially among older veterans. As of December, the appeals backlog is 284,132 cases. In the first week of December in 2013, the appeals backlog was 263,278 cases.

Both Diamond and Bergmann are available for comment.

 Media Contact: Kelly Kennedy 301-290-3135 or kkennedy@vetlawyers.com

 

 

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