VA could cover more illnesses tied to water at Camp Lejeune
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 4, 2015
WASHINGTON — After a decades-long fight by troops and family members sickened by toxic water at Camp Lejeune, the Department of Veterans Affairs has announced a major step toward covering more illnesses connected to exposure at the North Carolina base.
The decision Monday to review its disability coverage paves the way to adding more conditions with a presumption of service connection for those who spent at least 30 days at the Marine Corp base between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987. The VA already considers 15 conditions as connected to the tainted water.
For years, former Marines and family members have said deaths and illnesses were connected to chemicals in the water, including industrial solvents and fuel.
“This is what we’ve been fighting for,” said Mike Partain, who developed rare male breast cancer that he believes was linked to the water at Camp Lejeune, where he was born in 1968. “It’s vindication that what we’ve been saying is true.”
The VA has come in for harsh criticism for what former Lejeune residents and lawmakers say was a reluctance to acknowledge the connection, and several senators recently pressured the agency to make it easier for vets to get disability benefits and care.
“I’m disappointed that we had to pressure the VA to do the right thing for our veterans in the first place,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who has long advocated for Lejeune victims getting VA benefits, said in a released statement. “The scientific research is strong and the widespread denials of benefits will soon end. Now, these veterans and their family members will not have to fight for benefits they are due.”
VA officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Partain, 47, works as an insurance investigator in Florida and has been cancer-free for eight years. But he says he’s never fully regained the strength that was sapped by chemotherapy, and he worries that the cancer could return.
“I went from being a young man to an old man, but I’m alive and I’m thankful,” he said. “What this means is these veterans are no longer going to have to fight for the benefits that are due to them.”
Retired Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, whose daughter died of leukemia while he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, has been a leading advocate for Lejeuene families. He said the Marines slow response to family’s like his has shaken his confidence in an organization he once held in esteem.
“When something like this comes up, I see the leadership of the Marine Corps backpedalling, denying, lying — it’s just sickening,” he said. “We’re finally getting to the point now where they’re stepping up to the plate and starting to see justice.”
For more information, veterans and family members should contact the nearest VA health care facility. Call (877) 222-8387 or visit www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/camp-lejeune. For information on Camp Lejeune and the conditions covered by the VA, go to www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/camp-lejeune/index.asp.
For those who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune before 1987, you can register for notifications at https://clnr.hqi.usmc.mil/clwater.