Veterans Exposed to Toxic Chemicals Fight for VA Benefits
Veterans who were exposed to toxic contaminants during their service are struggling to get benefits from the government. By Mike Magner
Veterans who were exposed to toxic contaminants during their service are increasingly becoming casualties in a war with the government—particularly the Veterans Affairs Department—which they say has a record of delaying and denying benefits promised to them by acts of Congress.
The list of victims is growing, especially among former Marines who spent time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when the drinking water was tainted with carcinogens for decades from hazardous-waste dumping at one of the largest military bases in the country.
At least two men who were assigned to Camp Lejeune when the water was contaminated died in the past year from breast cancer, which is extremely rare in males; another is dying of lung cancer his doctor says was caused by the base's poisoned water; and another says he cannot afford treatment for liver cancer he believes stems from chemical exposure at Camp Lejeune.
The tragedies are occurring despite a law signed by President Obama in 2012 providing VA health care for Marines and family members who lived at Camp Lejeune for three or more months between 1957 and 1987 and have since incurred any of 15 specific diseases, including breast, liver, and lung cancer. Not a single veteran or family member has yet received the full coverage guaranteed by the law because the VA spent two years drafting regulations for how it will be provided. The new rules were finally issued in September and went into effect this week.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the best care for veterans and families related to Camp Lejeune historical drinking water contamination, as required by law," the VA said in announcing the regulations last month. The VA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Meanwhile, victims of illnesses linked to Camp Lejeune's water who have sued the government for damages were dealt a devastating blow this month when a federal appeals court ruled that a North Carolina environmental law prevents them from filing claims more than 10 years after the last act of contamination at the base. Poisoned wells at Camp Lejeune were shut down in 1985, and even though many of the health effects from drinking the tainted water did not show up until long after 1995, the Obama administration argued that the North Carolina "statute of repose" took precedence over the federal Superfund law, which allows lawsuits against polluters for up to two years after the discovery of harm caused by their pollution. The Supreme Court sided with the government in June, effectively blocking claims filed by Camp Lejeune victims after 1995.
"Where else do you have a president who signs a law acknowledging we were poisoned by our government and then less than two years later, that same administration used a legal technicality to exempt itself from the consequences of their disregard of the environment," said Mike Partain, a Florida man who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. "Only in America."
Male breast cancer is among the many horrible legacies of Camp Lejeune, where a dozen wells serving some of the base's most populated areas contained the industrial cleaning solvents TCE and PCE, benzene from fuel leaks, and other highly toxic chemicals from at least the mid-1950s until the tainted wells were shut down in 1985.
Hundreds of former Marines who were stationed at the base when the water was contaminated blame the pollution for premature deaths and life-threatening illnesses in their families. One of the leaders of victims seeking compensation, former drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, lost a 9-year-old daughter who was conceived at Camp Lejeune to leukemia in 1985.
As many as a million people lived and worked at Camp Lejeune over the several decades that the drinking water was contaminated, and as of this summer more than 13,600 veterans and nearly 1,200 of their family members have inquired about coverage for health problems they believe are related to their exposure, according to the VA.
Many others may not even be aware that toxic chemicals at the base caused them harm years later. More than 15,000 babies born at Camp Lejeune could have been exposed in utero or very early in their lives, but neither the Marine Corps nor the VA has attempted to notify all of them, said Chris Orris, a Denver auditor who was born at Camp Lejeune and nearly died from a heart defect that was discovered three years ago when he was 36 years old.
"Between my two parents, they did 56 years in the Marine Corps, and I'd never heard about the toxic water at Camp Lejeune until 2011, when all of a sudden I started becoming weak, and nobody could figure out why," Orris said in June when he joined a panel that is advising federal health officials studying the problems at the base.
After surgery that saved his life in 2012, Orris said he learned that Obama signed a law that August guaranteeing full health coverage through the VA for any of 15 illnesses that could be linked to the water at Camp Lejeune. But it took the VA until this month to put rules into effect for providing health care—with no copayments—to affected veterans and family members. The VA said it will now begin reimbursing veterans who paid for treatment of any of the listed illnesses after Aug. 6, 2012, the date Obama signed the law, and family members who paid for treatment after March 26, 2013, the date Congress appropriated money for the program.
The coverage would have been helpful for Peter Devereaux and Tom Gervasi, two former Marines who died in the past year from complications caused by male breast cancer. Devereaux, of North Andover, Mass., died in August at age 52 after a six-year battle with metastatic breast cancer; he was stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1980 to 1982. Gervasi, who joined the Marines out of high school in Rochester, N.Y., and served at Camp Lejeune in the mid-1950s, died last December of breast cancer that had spread to his bones; he was 77.
The two were among more than 80 men who spent time at Camp Lejeune and were later diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that will only affect an estimated 2,360 men nationwide in 2014, according to the American Cancer Society. Devereaux and Gervasi were among the few male breast cancer victims the VA has acknowledged were sickened by the water at Camp Lejeune—both were granted disability benefits after years of appeals to the VA.
According to VA statistics, only 27 percent of former Marines who have sought disability payments for male breast cancer have been granted benefits, while 76 percent of women veterans with breast cancer have received disability benefits. The VA says it is still awaiting studies by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help determine whether male breast cancer is linked to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. The studies have been in the works for years.
Many other veterans are fighting the VA for help with illnesses they believe were caused by Camp Lejeune's water.
Calvin Hopper of Decatur, Ala., received a letter from an oncologist clearly stating that his small-cell lung cancer was caused by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, where he was stationed in the early 1980s, but he has repeatedly been denied disability benefits by the VA.
Another former Marine, John Flynn, wrote to the VA in September after it published the pending rules for providing health coverage to Camp Lejeune victims. "I was stationed at Camp Lejeune for approximately two years, 77-79," wrote Flynn, who did not give his home address. "I have suffered many ailments rendering me unable to work, difficult to exist. I have been diagnosed with Liver Cancer I have been told that I am dying. I haven't seen a doctor in two years. I have no insurance or Money. I need your help ASAP. please."
A slide presentation obtained from the VA suggests that staffers there are being trained to deny benefits to Camp Lejeune victims whenever possible. "If a clinician comes to the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the patient's medical condition is due to causes other than exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, then VA should not waive copayments for veterans or reimburse care for [family members]," said one of the slides prepared for staff training by Terry Walters, the VA's deputy chief consultant on post-deployment health.
Some veterans have also been met with blank stares in VA offices when they ask about reimbursement of medical costs for diseases related to Camp Lejeune.
Lea Ann Andersen, a former Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1976, said she has two of the 15 illnesses covered by the 2012 law, but was told by VA officials at the office in Austin, Texas, that they had never heard about the toxic water at Camp Lejeune. She said she is still being billed for treatment costs not covered by her own private insurance.
Walters, who trains VA staffers across the country how to handle health claims, recently told the advisory panel on Camp Lejeune studies that the education process is slow and tedious. "And I have no control over separate divisions or 15 separate VA medical centers," she said.
Camp Lejeune veterans are not alone in battling the VA for health coverage and disability benefits for diseases they believe were caused by toxic chemical exposures in the military. Former Air Force crews who flew C-123 transport planes contaminated with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War are continuing to fight for compensation for illnesses they believe were caused by the exposure.
And thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who say they have health problems caused by breathing toxic fumes from open burn pits used during the wars say they regularly are denied disability benefits by the VA.
Mike Magner is the author of A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families.