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Cold Exposure as Combat Injury

Image Credit: Media Drum World
Researched & written by Know A Vet?

July 27, 2022, marks the 69th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Day. This war was fought from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. Active fighting stopped in 1953 but Congress extended the war period to January 31, 1955.  This extended benefit eligibility due to uncertain peace after the July 1953 negotiations.

Participants in the Korean War Chosin Reservoir Campaign suffered high rates of injury from severe cold. This campaign is one of the situations the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes as a source of cold injuries.  

In 2020 there were over one million living Korean War Era Veterans. Their median age was 88 (VA datahub).

COLD INJURY

Cold injury may result in tissue damage, loss of function, neurocirculatory loss, amputation, and death.

Factors that contribute to cold injury risk include:

  • air temperature
  • wind
  • moisture
  • length of exposure
  • lack of appropriate shelter
  • fitness level
  • low physical activity

The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, or Battle of the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir, had all these factors.

The battle took place in the mountains of North Korea. Temperatures during the 17-day battle dropped well below zero. Some reports say they hit minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 F). Others say they hit minus 54 degrees Fahrenheit (-54 F). Some report a wind chill factor of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-100 F).

There was a shortage of cold-weather clothing and of dry socks and gloves. There were rivers to wade through. There was enemy fire that kept troops pinned down and immobile for long periods of time in the cold.

Prolonged exposure to extreme cold can lead to injuries like frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot. (Trench foot is also known as immersion foot). These conditions can cause permanent damage to arteries, nerves, and veins.

Such injuries can also lead to long term and delayed health issues, including:

  • Pain in the extremities, hot or cold tingling sensations, and numbness
  • Cold sensitivity
  • Tissue loss, nail abnormalities, color changes
  • Impaired sensation
  • Skin cancer in frostbite scars, including in locations like ear lobes and heels
  • Changes in muscle, skin, nails, ligaments, and bones
  • Arthritis in involved areas
  • Fallen arches
  • Stiff toes
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • Chronic tinea pedis (chronic athlete’s foot)

As Veterans age, cold-related problems may worsen if conditions like diabetes and peripheral vascular disease arise. This places these Veterans at higher risk for late amputations.

The VA “Military Health History Pocket Card” notes that “it is important for VA staff examining and caring for veterans who have experienced cold injuries to be familiar with the recognized long-term and delayed sequelae.”

Listen to Bob, a Korean War Veteran, talk about his cold-induced injury diagnosis

SERVICE CONNECTION

Battlefield conditions often prevented getting medical care after injuries like frostbite occurred. Service medical records may not show such injuries. Regardless, if a Korean War Veteran is diagnosed with a disability related to cold injury, VA must concede service connection if the Veteran’s participation in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign is confirmed. This is stated in the VA Adjudication Procedures Manual Part V, Subpart iii, Chapter 5 Topic 4.

 

GETTING HELP

Korean War Veterans with health issues related to cold injuries may file a claim for disability compensation. VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis.

You can file a claim directly with VA. Or you can use the free services available from Veterans Service Offices and Organizations (VSOs). Know A Vet (KAV) recommends VSOs as the best first step to getting help.  VSO personnel are trained and certified to find all benefits earned through service.

Use these pages to find local VSO help:

Learn more about health issues and VA benefits available to Korean War Veterans at:

Research and studies show that injuries from exposure to cold continue to affect those in military service. Training and awareness help to reduce the numbers affected.

Learn more at Health.mil and U.S. Combat Readiness Center.

Update: Cold Weather Injuries, Active and Reserve Components, U.S. Armed Forces, July 2015–June 2020

RELATED INFORMATION

 

Sources

Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. (2020, November 1). Update: Cold Weather Injuries, Active and Reserve Components, U.S. Armed Forces, July 2015–June 2020. Health.mil. https://health.mil/News/Articles/2020/11/01/Update-Cold-Weather-Injuries-MSMR-2020

Cold Weather Injuries. Korean War Educator. Retrieved July 18, 2022, from http://koreanwar-educator.net/topics/homefront/p_cold_injury.htm

History.com Editors. (n.d.). Korean War. History. Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/korea/korean-war

Orr, K. D. M.C. LT. COL.; Fainer, D. C. M.C. CAPT.  (1952, May). Cold Injuries In Korea During Winter of 1950–51, Medicine: May 1952 – Volume 31 – Issue 2 – p 177. Lippincott Journals. https://journals.lww.com/md-journal/Citation/1952/05000/COLD_INJURIES_IN_KOREA_DURING_WINTER_OF_1950_51.3.aspx

Schedule for Rating Disabilities, 38 C.F.R. § 4.104 (2022). eCFR. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-38/chapter-I/part-4

Sterner, Douglas C. (2018). The “Frozen Chosin”. Home of Heroes. https://homeofheroes.com/heroes-stories/korean-war/frozen-chosin/

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2000, June). Data on Veterans of the Korean War. VA. https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/KW2000.pdf

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Korean War Veterans. VA. https://www.datahub.va.gov/stories/s/Korean-War-Veterans/7wja-85c3/

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). M21-1 Compensation and Pension Manual, Part V, Subpart iii, Chapter 5 – Cardiovascular System Conditions, Topic 4 Residuals of Cold Injuries. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.knowva.ebenefits.va.gov/system/templates/selfservice/va_ssnew/help/customer/locale/en-US/portal/554400000001018/content/554400000014520/M21-1-Part-V-Subpart-iii-Chapter-5-Cardiovascular-System-Conditions

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Military Health History Pocket Card – Korea. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.va.gov/OAA/pocketcard/m-korea.asp

Veterans Benefits Administration. (2017). Schedule for Rating Disabilities. VA. https://www.benefits.va.gov/WARMS/docs/regs/38cfr/bookc/C57.pdf

Wilson, George. (2014, August 11). VA can help veterans suffering from old cold injuries. The Morning Call. https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-2004-08-12-3556796-story.htm

 

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