A technical sergeant is taking legal action against her command, hoping to reverse a line-of-duty determination, for health conditions she said are related to her service in the Air National Guard.
Tech. Sgt. Yolanda Winston, who serves as a dual-status military technician in the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, is no stranger to line-of-duty (LOD) determination, which is the administrative process that ensures injuries suffered during service will qualify for future medical treatment and disability compensation.
Her health services management specialist role in the Air Force includes assisting guardsmen with LOD determination packages.
But Winston, 45, is now in the midst of a legal battle to obtain health benefits from her command for mental health conditions she maintains were caused by her military service. The 188th Wing of the Arkansas ANG argues that Winston’s ADHD, depression and anxiety disorder are not service connected.
“Ms. Winston has over 16 years of satisfactory service, and it is preposterous for her command to believe that these conditions were pre-existing and were not caused by her time in service,” said Marc T. Napolitana, a military attorney with Tully Rinckey’s Washington, D.C. office, who is representing Winston. “For the past seven months, Tech Sgt. Winston’s command has refused to allow a neutral party to reconsider that decision.”
‘I kept getting anxiety attacks’
Winston, who has been on medical leave since March 2020, claims her mental health conditions arose while enrolled at the All Source Intelligence Analyst course at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas from August 2017 to March 2018. Though she passed the written portions of the course, she failed the briefing segments multiple times.
“I kept getting anxiety attacks during the course because I failed four times and after the fourth failure you can get discharged from the active-duty course,” Winston said. “On the fourth failure, there’s documented medical evidence I reported anxiety, depression and I was unable to sleep prior to leaving the school. I made it through seven months, until five days before graduation.”
Winston, who has a master’s degree in human resource development from Webster University, said failing the course was “career-ending” and left her “devastated.” She had enrolled in the course to take advantage of a new mission at her home base and jump-start promotion to master sergeant prior to completing 20 years of qualifying service.
Napolitana contends Winston’s LOD determinations “weren’t given a fair evaluation.” He is assisting Winston in her request for a re-evaluation of all three of her LOD determination appeals, which confirmed her mental health conditions were not service related. But a re-evaluation of those findings cannot move forward unless the 188th Wing of the Arkansas ANG submits a waiver on her behalf to the deputy chief of staff for personnel.
“Our request has always been very simple,” Napolitana said. “Can you just reconsider this and let us know that you’re reviewing all the evidence that is relevant on the conditions in question?”
Napolitana also said that Winston was never shown the evidence submitted for the LOD determinations.
“We can’t confirm. We can’t verify. A lot of this involves civilian practices’ records and we need to ensure those diagnoses and the symptoms derived from those diagnoses are being fairly considered, and they won’t verify that,” he said.
Before starting the All-Source Intelligence Analyst course in August 2017, Winston received top secret security clearance, which she points out would not have been granted if she had documented mental health issues prior to that date.
Napolitana said Winston also has filed an application with the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, which has the authority to direct a reconsideration of all LOD determinations and an independent review of the decisions.
Reversing line-of-duty determination
If Winston succeeds in reversing the LOD determinations, she will be eligible for medical retirement and entitlements such as incapacitation pay. Otherwise, she will be separated from the National Guard under the Non-Duty Disability Evaluation System.
She has received a VA rating of totally disabled based on individual unemployability. As a GS-9 National Guard technician, Winston also is pursuing disability retirement under the Federal Employee Retirement System.
Napolitana maintains Winston’s case is an example why service members must ensure the accuracy of their medical records and understand LOD determination procedures.
“You’re conditioned when you’re in the military to accept what is happening around you. To say, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am,’” he said. “[But] you get moments like this that are going to have an impact on you for the rest of your life…It’s absolutely crucial you don’t look at this as just another check in the box as you get out of the military.”
Neither the 188th Wing of the Arkansas National Guard nor the Office of General Counsel for National Guard Bureau responded to email requests for comment.