Marine veteran in a battle for justice in cancer fight

Water lines for a small unit water purification system prototype draw water from a reservoir at Camp Lejeune, N.C., May 9, 2014.


By JILL WHALEN | Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa. | Published: February 3, 2018

HAZLETON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Earl Geissler was 46 when doctors diagnosed him with bladder cancer.

It didn't make sense to the West Penn Twp. man. He was relatively young, had no family history of the disease, and as an ex-Marine, he was in otherwise healthy shape.

"At the time, there was no consensus as to a root cause for this cancer," Geissler, 74, said.

Doctors were also baffled.

He was given the ultimatum – have his bladder removed or eventually succumb to the disease.

"It changes your life. It's a complete change when this happens to you," he said of life without a bladder.

He learned to cope and continued to work as a surveyor.

Twenty years after the surgery – in 2012 – Geissler began reading reports of contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina. Marines who were stationed there, as well as their families, were reporting health problems.

And among the diseases reported was bladder cancer.

"I served (in the Marines) from 1963 to 1969," explained Geissler, 74, who achieved the rank of corporal. "I had at least 800 days stationed at Camp Lejuene."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs eventually confirmed that Camp Lejeune's well water was contaminated by volatile organic compounds like metal degreasers and dry cleaning agents, as well as vinyl chloride and benzene.

In 2014, Geissler filed a claim for the residuals of bladder cancer. It took more than a year, but he received an answer:

His claim was denied.

Not wanting to accept the answer, he filed a notice of disagreement.

This time, it was denied because medical records showed that he had been a smoker.

"When I got denied and it was for smoking, that was the farthest thing from my mind," he said.

The doctor who treated his cancer in 1992 noted that Geissler hadn't smoked since 1971, and therefore, he didn't link tobacco usage to the disease. For example, the American Cancer Society notes that after five years of quitting, the risk of bladder cancer is cut in half. Other medical studies show that after two decades of no cigarette use, smoking-related risks are that of a person who never smoked.

He mentioned that another glimmer of hope came in 2016 when the DAV agreed that there is an association between certain diseases and the contaminants found in the Camp Lejeune water supply. Bladder cancer is among the "presumptive diseases."

The presumptive status rule became effective in 2017. Geissler hoped that by establishing presumptive status, it would be easier for veterans to obtain disability benefits.

A recent update from the DAV, however, notes that his appeal is before the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

"I'm stuck in the appeal state. I can't get out of it," he said.

Now, he said, he's wondering if veterans are being systematically denied.

"When you hear about all the problems the guys are having, it's sad," he said. "The thing is, they poisoned us."

He has been told that it can take up to four years until the case is adjudicated.

"I'm not looking for any favoritism by doing this. I just want to get my story out. That's all I want to do," he said.


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