In 1982, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) discovered elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC.
Built in 1942 as a training facility for troops entering World War II, Camp Lejeune is still one of the largest military bases on the East Coast. Though most of the contaminated wells were shut down by 1985, the exposure is believed to have occurred since the early 1950s.
That means that for more than three decades, people on base could have come into contact with the dangerous VOCs. Today, Camp Lejeune toxic water survivors want their stories heard. As new legislation looms in the distance, we’re sharing a few of their courageous tales.
If you were stationed at Camp Lejeune at any point during the contamination period, some of these stories might mirror your own. We can help you understand the connection, fight for your rights, and find your voice.
What Happened at Camp Lejeune?
Before we dive into some of the survivor stories, let’s recap the basics of the Camp Lejeune water contamination issue.
From the 1950s through February 1985, the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) claims that more than one million individuals could have been exposed to toxic VOCs through the drinking water on base. You can read a detailed breakdown and timeline of events in our recent post.
The contamination was limited primarily to three water treatment plants: Tarawa Terrace, Hadnot Point, and Holcomb Boulevard. Though concentrations varied at each location, the primary contaminants include:
- Trichloroethylene (TCE)
- Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)
- Vinyl chloride
TCE and PCE are industrial solvents that are also known to be common groundwater contaminants. Benzene is a refined petroleum product and a known carcinogen. Vinyl chloride is a gas used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products including pipes, wire coatings, vehicle upholstery, and more.
Primary Sources of Contamination
These chemicals entered the groundwater at Camp Lejeune through various means.
For instance, the PCE found at the Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant was traced back to improper waste disposal practices carried out at ABC One-Hour Cleaners, a dry-cleaning facility located off-base. The TCE, PCE, benzene, and vinyl chloride found at Hadnot Point entered through supply wells contaminated by multiple sources, including:
- Leaking underground storage tanks
- Spills around industrial areas
- Improper practices at nearby waste disposal sites
The wells at the Holcomb Boulevard plant were not direct contaminated. However, this plant relied on the water supply at Hadnot Point to serve as its backup during times of peak demand. There was also a brief period of time (January 27 to February 7, 1985) when Holcomb Boulevard shut down, and the residents that the plant served used Hadnot Point water instead.
Dangers of Elevated VOC Levels
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for issuing chemical contaminant rules. These rules regulate the concentrations of the following substances in drinking water:
- Inorganic Contaminants (IOCs) (including arsenic and nitrate)
- Volatile Organic Contaminants (VOCs)
- Synthetic Organic Contaminants (SOCs)
As part of these regulations, the EPA sets Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for each substance. For example, the MCL for both PCE and TCE is five parts per billion (ppb).
When the water contamination issue was brought to light in 1982, the ATSDR found elevated levels of these VOCs in the drinking water on base, at levels that far exceeded the EPA’s standards.
At Hadnot Point, for instance, the maximum TCE level detected was 1,400 ppb, discovered in May 1982. At Tarawa Terrace, the maximum PCE level detected was 215 ppb, discovered in February 1985.
While this level of elevation is significant, it’s not shocking considering just how much of the base’s water supply was affected. According to one report, as many as 1.1. million gallons of fuel are suspected to have leaked from underground storage tanks into the groundwater supply at Camp Lejeune. This was quite the jump from the 20,000 to 30,000 gallons that officials first estimated.
The CDC has clearly stated that elevated levels of the VOCs in question can increase an individual’s risk of developing certain medical conditions, including some forms of cancer. The specific health effects are clearly outlined in this ATSDR summary.
Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Survivors: A Look at Their Stories
It’s one thing to talk about the technical details surrounding the Camp Lejeune water contamination issues. It’s important to understand just how elevated the levels of chemical exposure were, where they came from, and how many people were potentially affected.
However, it’s equally critical to put personal stories behind these facts. Our law firm is helping victims find the courage to stand up and step forward to claim what’s rightfully theirs, and solidarity can help.
While many of the affected individuals have kept their names private, there are some who are actively speaking out. We will highlight both types of stories in the sections that follow.
A Sister’s Fight for Acknowledgement
In this moving article from South Carolina’s Statehouse Report newspaper, Rose Ann Boxx describes how her brother, Robert Thomas, was diagnosed with colon cancer in the 1970s, at the young age of 32.
The diagnosis came as a shock to the family. Robert was relatively young, and there was no history of cancer in his family. Yet, like thousands of other children, both Rose Ann and Robert spent their formative years at Camp Lejeune, where their father was stationed in the late 1950s.
Though he went through several rounds of chemotherapy in an attempt to slow the cancer’s spread, Robert eventually passed away on September 30, 1982, at the age of 37.
In the years that followed, Rose Ann would go on to experience her fair share of medical issues. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and then spent years going in and out of the hospital for several other procedures, including radiation and a double mastectomy.
Now, she’s made it her mission to prove the link between her time on base and her family’s health struggles. In the article, she explained that she recently discovered a report card from her time in grade school on base. It showed that she was absent a substantial number of times due to illness.
Though she is now cancer-free, Rose Ann explained that she still suffers from the lasting effects of her chemotherapy, including brain fog that affects her memory.
A Son’s Lifelong Battle
Mike Partain was born at Camp Lejeune, and a photograph from 1968 shows his mother cradling him in a hospital bed on base. Sharing his story with North Carolina Health News, Partain explains that his health problems likely began right at the moment of his conception.
In the photograph, there’s a gut-sinking scene: Next to Mike’s mother, Lisette, there’s a glass of water, along with a partially-filled baby bottle.
Mike believes it was the water in that glass, as well as the water in his bottle, that catalyzed a lifelong battle he continues to fight to this day. He not only drank the water at Camp Lejeune, but he regularly bathed and played in it.
When he was 39 years old, he was diagnosed with male breast cancer. Not only was the disease rare, but it was also especially questionable for someone so young. After a total mastectomy and extensive chemotherapy treatments, Mike explains that he is now cancer-free.
However, his physical ailments are not completely gone, and he continues to grapple with ongoing pain. Still, as he explains to NC Health News, he considers himself lucky to still be alive. He mentions a cemetery at Camp Lejeune called “Baby Heaven”, where gravestones mark the too-short lives of babies born on base during the contamination period.
Many of these babies were born with, and soon died from, terrible birth defects that ranged from cleft palates and cranium loss to protruding spines. Since 2007, Mike has been fighting to have his voice heard and ensure that the USMC takes responsibility for the unimaginable pain that the contamination caused.
A Father’s Tragic Loss
In the same NC Health News Article, USMC veteran Jerry Ensminger shares his own story.
For 11 out of the 24 years that Jerry was in the military, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune. There, he built a life with his first wife. While they had four children, only one was conceived and carried on the base.
That child’s name was Janey. She was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 1983 at age six. She died in 1985, at only nine years old.
For more than a decade, Jerry wondered how the illness originated. Then, he saw a CBS news report in 1997, where Dan Rather highlighted the water contamination issue at Camp Lejeune and linked it to potential health issues. Specifically, Rather explained that the chemicals present in the water could cause childhood leukemia.
That link sparked a fight in Jerry, and he’s been working tirelessly ever since to make sure his family’s story gets told. In fact, he’s become one of the most prominent voices in the fight to unveil the extent of the contamination.
Jerry has created an advocacy group for the cause, campaigned in Washington, and regularly speaks at events. His story was conceptualized in the Sundance-backed documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful.
One of the most important achievements to come out of his outreach? In 2012, then-president Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act. Part of the larger Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, this piece of legislation provides health care benefits to veterans and family members harmed by exposure to the contaminated water on base.
A Widow Searches for Answers
When Eric Holford joined the Marines, he was only 18 years old. It was a young age to enlist in the service, and his life would end in a similarly early manner.
In 2019, when he was only 53, Eric passed away after a long battle against multiple ailments, including colon cancer, bladder cancer, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Though he did not die in combat, his widow Michelle James believes that it was his time spent at Camp Lejeune that led to his untimely death.
As she told reporters at First Coast News in Jacksonville, FL, it was the “cocktail of chemicals” that Eric was exposed to on a daily basis that triggered these adverse health effects. Michelle explains that Eric was never made aware of the possible connection between the water contamination and his illnesses.
She believes that if he had known about it earlier, then he could have gotten diagnosed sooner. Ultimately, she said, it might have saved his life. As such, she’s now pushing for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to compile a registry to accurately track exactly how many people might have been affected over the decades of contamination.
Her theory? Knowledge is power, and the more we learn about the possible health connections that the issue could have caused, the more people can visit their doctors and undergo proper testing. To date, no registry exists at the VA, though the article does mention that the agency is working toward ways to improve its approach to data collection.
A Sibling Seeks Justice
Many of the stories detailing the effects of Camp Lejeune water contamination issues center around one individual. However, there are many tales that involve whole families who suffered the consequences of unknowingly drinking, bathing in, or cleaning with the water for years.
That’s the case with Kitty Worthington, who lives in Hampstead, NC. As she shared with WECT News 6 in Wilmington, NC, Kitty lived at Camp Lejeune for multiple years throughout the 1960s. Though she was not born on base, her two younger siblings were.
Their names were Annie and Ronald Costantino. They both died from cancer before they turned 40. Just a short time after her two siblings passed away, both of Kitty’s parents, Ronald and Pat Costantino, also succumbed to their own cancer battles.
While all of her family members were stricken with different forms of cancer, they all have ties to the water contamination on base. She acknowledged to reporters that having such a large portion of her family stripped away not only affects her physical circle but has taken a long-lasting emotional toll, as well.
Grief-Stricken Parents Make a Connection
When Jerry Ensminger’s story made national news and became a well-received documentary, scores of families with similar stories came forward. One of them was Mary Byron.
In 1982, a few months after early USMC tests confirmed the presence of contaminated water on-base, Mary moved to Camp Lejeune with her husband Jeff. He worked as an air traffic controller in the Marines.
Mary became pregnant on the base. Over time she had two daughters: Andrea and Rachel.
Andrea was born with a rare bone marrow disease that greatly impacted her quality of life.
Rachel was born with several different birth defects, including a cleft palate which required surgery to correct. She also suffers from an arachnoid cyst on her spine that doctors say is congenital from her birth. In addition, she also has spina bifida.
Hearing the news, Mary said, lifted decades of guilt and shame off their shoulders. They wondered what they could have done, or what might have happened to their daughters. Now, they know.
A Daughter’s Battle to Be Heard
Patty Metzler’s father Dave Metzler served in the USMC. For 34 months in the 1950s, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune. In 1959, he left the Marines with the rank of Seargent.
He took a job as a machine repairman, working at the General Motors plant in North Jackson, OH.
Only one year later, he started experiencing trouble with his balance. Patty remarked to CBS News that her dad started to stumble not long after leaving the base. A short while later, he lost his hearing.
Eventually, his health issues meant that Dave was unable to continue with his job at GM. His work was manual in nature and required expert coordination and sensory capabilities. The company saw his failing health as a liability.
This heaped depression onto Dave’s already-suffering form. Unable to care for his family, he filed a disability claim with the VA. In the claim, Dave argued that the neurological problems he was experiencing traced back to his time spent at Camp Lejeune.
The VA denied his claim twice, once in 2014 and again in 2015. Patty shared that not only did the rejection make her father angry, but it also led him to attempt suicide.
A nurse practitioner by trade, Patty started performing background research of her own. In 2017, she brought her case in front of a judge. In a promising twist of fate, the VA rejected its previous refusals and granted her father 100% disability.
In the CBS News article, Patty said that Dave’s disability letter now hangs on the wall in her dining room. Unfortunately, her father died only 14 months after the successful ruling.
Before he passed, he told his daughter to keep fighting, which is exactly what she plans to do.
A Woman Reflects on Long-Term Exposure
Antoinette Scott and her family lived on Camp Lejeune for the majority of the 1970s and early 1980s. In a story published by Spectrum Local News in Charlotte, NC, she described her childhood growing up on base.
Antoinette explained that at first, she was impressed with the surroundings in Jacksonville. The base housing was nice, and she enjoyed being surrounded by lots of new friends and families.
As a kid, she didn’t just drink the water in her housing unit. In her words, she grew up “covered by it.” She said her family made Kool-Aid with it, took baths in it, and used it on a daily basis.
In 2011, doctors diagnosed Antoinette with stage-four thyroid cancer. Although she ultimately beat the disease, she isn’t free of the long-term effects. Even today, her voice is unnaturally low and gravelly due to the aftermath of the surgery.
While her medical bills were covered by her husband’s military insurance, Antoinette understands that thousands of people have had their claims denied. Adding to the frustration is the VA’s strict statute of limitations.
She says she was outside of the window before she even knew about the contamination. While the state law eventually changed, it wasn’t retroactive. That meant that she couldn’t take legal action against the government.
A Marine Takes Action
Dan Bailey was a U.S. Navy corpsman stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1983. Although he only spent three short months on base, he immediately noticed that something didn’t seem right with the water.
Recounting his experience to The Daily News, Dan remembered that it smelled funny, almost as though it had an extensive amount of chlorine in it. Now, he says he suffers from adverse health effects that stem back to his time in service there.
In addition to ongoing pulmonary issues, he also has a brain tumor on his pituitary gland. In addition, he experiences regular tremors, as well as memory loss, tooth decay, and skin rashes.
However, despite all of these afflictions, the VA has yet to grant him disability benefits. The agency told him he needs scientific proof that his health issues are linked to his time on base.
In 2020, Dan joined forces with another former Marine, Marine Brian Amburgey, to create an online petition. The petition calls for the VA to create a medical health registry to identify and support potential victims of the Camp Lejeune water contamination. It’s similar to the registry that Eric Holford’s wife Michelle is also urging the VA to establish.
As Dan notes, there’s a registry that allows the VA to track military personnel exposed to Agent Orange, as well as a separate registry for victims of burn pit exposures.
A Military Child Joins the Fight
In the same news story by The Daily News, another victim of the Camp Lejeune contamination spoke out. Her name is Samantha Via, and she lived on base from 1976 to 1987 while her family worked for the USMC.
In the years since, she explains, every single member of her family who lived on base during that time has experienced significant health defects. She’s battled reproductive issues and has fought breast cancer two times. Doctors told her the cancer was not genetic.
Like Dan Bailey, Samantha is pressing the VA to create a comprehensive registry of potential exposures.
A Veteran Story Inspires
To rally support around his case, Jerry Ensminger has enlisted the insight and assistance of other veterans who share stories similar to his. One of those was a Florida Marine named Tom Gervasi.
Gervasi passed away in 2014, The Ledger reports. Before he lost his battle with male breast cancer, he served as a powerful inspiration and paved the way for others in his shoes to receive the VA benefits and compensation they deserve.
Tom had his left breast removed in 2013. His service time at Camp Lejeune ended six months before the cutoff date for the VA’s statute of limitations. As such, the agency denied his disability claim twice. In an interview given to USA Today before his death, Tom explained that he was seeking benefits mostly to support his wife, Elaine, after he passed.
In April 2013, he received the letter he had been waiting for. The VA confined that the contaminated water he drank on base contributed to his illness. Though he did not live to see the full extent of his benefits, his wife explained that his actions helped lay the foundation for other veterans to come forward as he did.
Victims Bond Together to Speak Out and Spread Awareness
These are only a handful of the hundreds of personal accounts that people have shared about their time at Camp Lejeune and the health problems they’ve suffered in the years since leaving the base.
In 2017, GateHouse Media put out a call to Camp Lejuene survivors, asking them to share their stories if they felt comfortable doing so. In response, they received more than 150 letters.
While some of the anecdotes came directly from the affected individuals themselves, they also came from loved ones and relatives of victims who had passed away from their afflictions. Some letters described how entire families fell ill almost immediately after drinking the water. In others, the conditions didn’t flare up until years down the road.
The stories shared with GateHouse Media did not include names. If you are interested in reading the full, comprehensive account, you can check those out in this article.
Current VA Disability Eligibility
Until new legislation passes, the only veterans who can claim VA disability benefits due to their time at Camp Lejeune are those who meet the following conditions:
- Served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days from August 1953 through December 1987
- Did not receive a dishonorable discharge when they separated from the military
In addition, they must also suffer from one of the following ailments, which the VA has determined to be presumptive conditions linked to the contaminated water exposure:
- Adult leukemia
- Aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Parkinson’s disease
Veterans (and their family members) who meet all of the conditions above can apply for health care and compensation from the VA. In addition, these benefits also extend to reservists and guardsmen who served on base.
The VA also explains that it may pay back some out-of-pocket costs incurred during treatments for the following conditions:
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Female infertility
- Hepatic steatosis
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Renal toxicity
As you can see, both of these lists are far from exhaustive. They fail to include all of the different conditions, health issues, and diseases that have plagued USMC members and their families since the contamination began. As they’re so limited in nature, they prevent a majority of veterans from seeking the compensation they rightly deserve.
What’s Being Done to Date
The stories and recollections that these veterans, workers, and their family members have shared are undoubtedly inspiring. They are also maddening.
With all of this knowledge and evidence, it’s natural to wonder what the government is doing to spur progress and bring about resolution. Though it’s slow, the good news is that there is a degree of progress being made in Washington.
When it is passed, The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 will be significant for Camp Lejeune survivors. If President Biden signs it into federal law, then it will bring new benefits to the veterans and families whose lives have been forever changed by the toxic chemical exposure they endured. To potentially qualify for disability, healthcare, and compensation, individuals must be able to provide evidence that they suffered a serious illness, miscarriage, or birth defect that stems from their time on base.
Specifically, they must be able to show that they lived, worked, or spent time at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days from August 1, 1953, to December 31, 1987. There will be a two-year timeframe from the date that the law is enacted, allowing victims to come forward and commence legal action.
Find Your Voice, Speak Out, and Fight For Your Rights
We’ve shared these stories from Camp Lejeune toxic water survivors to spotlight the hundreds of thousands of individuals who may have walked similar paths.
If you or someone you love has experienced adverse health effects due to the water contamination at Camp Lejeune, we encourage you to get in touch with our legal team. We know the process can seem complicated, so we’ve put together this checklist to walk you through the steps to take when you’re ready to file a claim.
We can help you fight for the benefits you deserve. Contact us today to learn more.