From August 1953 through December 1987, thousands of American men and women serving in the U.S. Marine Corps passed through Camp Lejeune or the adjacent Marine Corps Aviation Station.
Many were exposed to toxic chemicals in the water at the New River, North Carolina, military facilities. One of them is Robert Hannold, now 84, of Sigel.
Hannold was stationed at Camp Lejeune from July 1956 to July 1958, except for 30 days at Quantico, Virginia, and also served an additional four years in the Marine Corps Reserve. In 2004, Hannold developed prostrate cancer and heart disease, which he believes are a result of the tainted water.
“The VA never contacted me. I contacted the VA. The letters I got were from Camp Lejeune. They knew I was in the Marine Corps.”
The conditions that developed from the water at Camp Lejeune also affected some Marines’ dependents. Hannold said his oldest son and daughter both have spina bifida, a birth defect in which there is incomplete closing of the spine, and his younger son had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“My son didn’t know he had spina bifida until he applied for a job. It didn’t bother my son, but my daughter has been treated for MS,” he said. “The children get their blood from their father, so it may have come from me.”
Hannold said he filed a claim with the VA five years ago and that his case is pending. He provided his marriage certificate to the VA because, he said, his wife could also be covered.
Judy Zerbe, the VA representative in Clarion County, has been aware of the Camp Lejeune situation.
“This is just starting,” she said. “I filed eight claims last week. I had two widows and the VA had denied their husband’s claims so we filed for dependency, indemnity compensation claims.
“One husband died from liver cancer and the other from lung cancer. Their claims would have been included in the new presumptives.”
How it began
The problem stemmed from two on-base water wells that contained trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride and other compounds.
TCE is used primarily to make refrigerants and other hydrofluorocarbons and as a degreasing solvent for metal equipment, according to the National Cancer Institute.
PCE is a solvent used in dry cleaning operations; in metal manufacturing, it cleans and degreases metals, according to ChemicalSafetyFacts.org.
Benzene is used primarily as a solvent in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, as a starting material and an intermediate in the synthesis of numerous chemicals, and in gasoline, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Vinyl chloride is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, wire coatings, vehicle upholstery, and plastic kitchen ware. Higher than normal levels of vinyl chloride could be present inside new cars as the chemical evaporates from new vinyl products, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Those on-base wells were shut down in 1985 and, according to Zerbe, the military has since been using a municipal water source there.
Zerbe said it wasn’t until 2021 that these veterans became eligible for benefits. “I believe the VA knew all along that there were going to be additional conditions.”
The VA, in its information sent to veterans, could reimburse them for out-of-pocket health care costs that were related to any of the following conditions: aplastic anemia, birth defects, bladder cancer, breast cancer, cardiac defects, esophageal cancer, fatty liver disease, female infertility, hepatic steatosis, kidney cancer, kidney injury/failure, leukemia, liver cancer, liver injury or failure, lung cancer, miscarriage, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes, neurobehavioral effects, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, renal toxicity, scleroderma, systemic sclerosis, throat cancer, along with other organ cancers and other serious diseases.
The claims could also be filed by dependents of the Marines who were using the water. Certain benefits could also extend to the children of the Marines.
“It is only a matter of time before more conditions are added,” Zerbe said. “Everything is running slow with the VA. It will be getting a lot slower because we are piling more on the adjudicators to look at.
With the recently adopted Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, which ensures veterans can receive high-quality health care screenings and services related to potential toxic exposures, dates have been established when the claims will be effective, according to Zerbe. “That way, they (VA) are not getting slammed all at once.”
The PACT Act includes additional Camp Lejeune presumptives, additional locations for Agent Orange exposure and new presumptives for the military burn pits that contained toxic materials.
According to Zerbe, hypertension for veterans will be banked until 2026. The immediate claims are for the terminally ill with extreme financial hardship.
“The VA will be slammed for money, so they kind of need to pace themselves for these payouts. They will have more claims and they will need more people to work the claims,” she said.
“VA reps will be taking one-day training this fall on the PACT Act because we know we are going to be slammed. It’s a nightmare. People have been dying before they were approved. How many veterans have we already lost?”
Part of the filing process is a medical exam, Zerbe said, and the VA has identified three private companies for health examinations. “They must be within a 100-mile radius of the vet’s home. Some of them are as close as DuBois and Butler.”
Word is getting out to the veterans.
“The Marine Corps League is sending out letters to all the Marines,” Zerbe said. “The conditions are listed on the letter, and if they have any of them they need to file a claim. They are being very proactive.”
She said veterans can join a class action suit, but the attorney’s fees can be high.
“They can take a long time to settle and, unfortunately, many of the vets have terminal conditions and they won’t be around to see it resolved,” Zerbe said. “The VA would rather see the claim filed through them. If they have any questions, they can contact their local VA office.”
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