VA ruling on former Marine's illness may affect thousands
By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 27, 2010
A government decision to give disability benefits to a former Marine sickened by toxins at Camp Lejeune, N.C., could have far-reaching effects for thousands of other families who lived and worked at the military base over the years.
Paul Buckley, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma four years ago, received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this month stating that “all reasonable doubt has been resolved in your favor.” Buckley’s incurable bone marrow cancer “was directly related to military service,” the letter continued.
“This is not the type of cancer you get from smoking or eating French fries,” said Buckley, 46, who now lives in Hanover, Mass. “I was too young to get this illness and I didn’t have any of the risk factors.”
But in the 1980s, Buckley was assigned to Camp Lejeune, where scientists found the presence of the degreaser trichloroethylene, or TCE, the dry-cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, and the carcinogen benzene in the drinking water.
His doctors believe exposure to those chemicals was the likely cause of his cancer − a claim the U.S. government repeatedly denied until he received his letter from the VA on March 8.
For Buckley, the sudden reversal means that he can start collecting VA benefits, which will extend to his wife when he dies.
The VA’s ruling could have much broader ramifications: By some estimates, up to 1 million people lived or worked at the base between 1957 and 1987.
“I think this has enormous national implications and is truly a breakthrough,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. “The government has acknowledged, at long last, that there is clearly a causal relationship between the contaminated water and the cancer that afflicts Mr. Buckley.”
The letter, Delahunt said, will establish a precedent.
“It’s highly significant,” for the thousands of others, according to Joseph Anderson, a Winston-Salem, N.C., lawyer representing a woman who lived at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s and suffers from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His client, Laura Jones, recently won a small battle in federal court when a judge ruled that her case against the Navy could go forward. The Navy had argued that the statute of limitations had expired.
“[The VA decision] can help us as we fight on behalf of families,” said Anderson, adding his office receives an average of 30 calls a day from military and civilians and families who once were stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Katie Roberts declined to address the department’s letter to Buckley or the reason for the reversal.
While not addressing the Camp Lejeune case specifically, Roberts stated that generally, the VA is working with the Defense Department on a number of exposure-related concerns, and the two departments have created a data-sharing agreement to let researchers cross-reference data and information.
She declined to speculate on whether the department’s decision would affect other veterans’ claims for benefits.
There are 2,044 pending legal claims by people who lived and worked at the Marine base, the Navy said Friday. In 2007, Stars and Stripes reported there were 853 claims pending.
For years, Marines have blamed their and their families’ ailments on the contaminated tap water.
The presence of TCE and PCE in the camp’s water sources was discovered in 1982. Yet some of the wells that supplied the water were not shut down until 1985. An environmental engineering company found benzene in a well near the base’s Hadnot Point Fuel Farm at levels of 380 parts per billion when water was sampled in July 1984; the EPA has established that levels more than 5 parts per billion in water is dangerous to human health.
As the health effects continue to be examined, the Marine Corps is trying to reach between 500,000 to 1 million people who lived and worked on the base during the three decades, according to Capt. Brian Block, a Corps spokesman. The Corps’ search for former base residents was spurred, in part, by health officials’ needs to conduct tests to determine whether exposure to the contaminated drinking water is causing ailments.
To date, 160,000 people have registered, which can be done online at https://clnr.hqi.usmc.mil/clwater or by calling (877) 261-9782.
Buckley hopes the letter he received will lead to help for more Marines and their families who lived at the base.
“I’m hoping the VA will loosen up, and maybe, just maybe, this means I can help a million people or so,” he said. “Giving hope to somebody is a wonderful thing.”