In the fall of 2005, I went to see an oncologist in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was recovering from prostate cancer surgery and had just been diagnosed with a grade II brain tumor in my right frontal lobe. As both cancers were primary, I asked the oncologist if it was common for people to be diagnosed with two primary cancers in such a short period of time. He said that it was rare, but possible if the underlying cause of the disease was related to environmental or genetic factors.
I conducted some initial research on causal factors for both brain and prostate cancer, but eventually my brain cancer began to worsen and seriously impact my life. I was forced to medically retire, and by the end of 2007, my brain tumor was surgically removed. I then received radiation and chemotherapy treatment. During the sixteen-month chemotherapy regimen I continued to research why I had endured two primary cancers at the same time. I found that the brain tumor was linked to Sarin gas exposure during Desert Storm, and the prostate cancer linked to the water contamination at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The evidence for both was readily available.
During the early stages of chemotherapy I discovered a website that outlined the issues and details of the water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The website was called “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten” and it stood as a testimony to the incredible efforts of retired Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger and others to reveal the truth about the extent of the contamination. The website was a mine of information that helped me to prepare a claim for service-connected disability with the Veterans Administration (does he mean Veterans Affairs?). I was able to assemble a sound scientific link between my exposure to the carcinogens at Camp Lejeune and my prostate cancer. All of the evidence I gathered matched the diagnosis and timeline for cancer latency. It also met the criteria for service-connected disability.
Full of optimism and naivety, I strutted down to the St. Petersburg Regional Veterans Administration Office convinced that I had met the requirements as a veteran to link my illness to service. My claim was denied almost instantly for both brain and prostate cancer. I was dismayed and distressed, but also very angry. For four years I had built a solid body of evidence linking my cancers to military service. When the Veterans Administration summarily dismissed my claim, I was overtaken by a deep sense of determination to prove my case. I submitted an appeal immediately and conducted further research on the matter.
I became even more involved with Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger’s efforts to raise awareness about Camp Lejeune’s contamination. I was appalled that the contamination wasn’t receiving more attention, and that our veterans and family members from Camp Lejeune were suffering such horrendous illnesses as a result of their exposure to contamination. I began to help in the only way I knew how. I started writing articles about Camp Lejeune for online media outlets. I wrote numerous letters to my Senators and Congressman, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and various General Officers to elicit their support for our veterans and family members. Sadly, the response from the Marine Corps leadership was totally lacking. The only correspondence I received in reply was a form letter outlining how I could sue the government for damages!
And there were many more attempts, letters written, complaints filed—to the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, elected officials, distinct members of the veterans administration—all of which went unanswered, highlighting the inexcusable flaw that in the entire system for veterans, communication went only one way. A veteran has almost no venue, save for a toll-free number, to correct an error or even ask a question.
Communication with the Commandant of the Marine Corps proved even worse. Two separate Commandants, Generals Conway and Amos; have ignored my queries regarding Camp Lejeune. This underscores the basic failure of leadership at Camp Lejeune. Senior military and civilian leaders have failed our veterans and family members. They continue to do so to this day. Jerry and I are Marines from the old school where we were taught from our days in Boot Camp to look after your fellow Marine. We did not think that this ethos ended when we retired and we will continue to fight for the truth and support our veterans and family members who live with the horror of illnesses caused by contamination at Camp Lejeune.
As I built a more detailed body of evidence, I was able to solicit the assistance of doctors from my medical team. They were able to review the evidence pertinent to my cancers and prepared detailed nexus letters on my behalf. These letters supported the link between my cancers and the exposures at Camp Lejune and Desert Storm. I submitted this additional evidence as part of my appeal to the Veterans Administration and was recently awarded 100% service-connected disability. I believe that the principal reason for receiving my award was that the claims and appeals for Camp Lejeune have been centralized at the Louisville Regional Office. This is a result of the pressure applied to the Veterans Administration by elected officials like Senator Richard Burr, who have supported our fight for the truth. If my appeal had stayed in St. Petersburg I would still be writing letters to my Senators and Congressmen today.
Camp Lejeune may prove to be the most contaminated site in U.S. environmental history. The personal tragedy of serious illness and disability imposed on those veterans and others who were assigned to Camp Lejeune could potentially be a bigger scar on the American psyche than Agent Orange. The Marine Corps and the Navy will be forced to face the responsibility of doing right by those who were made ill as a result of their exposure to contamination. The total failure of leadership is demonstrated by the fact that no one has stepped forward to support the thousands of ill and dying veterans except for Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger and his small band of determined Americans.
US Marines, Retired