The following is a personal story submitted to Civilian Exposure and published as part of our new series: “Contamination Chronicles: Personal Stories of Exposure”. If you would like to submit your story, you may fill out our form here or send directly via email to share-@-civilianexposure.org.
I posted to Civilian Exposure a long while back after my husband passed away. He was a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1965-1968. He was also sent to Camp Hansen, Okinawa for thirteen months during that period. He was a heavy equipment mechanic on both bases. I joined him at Lejeune for seven months with our eight month old daughter. We lived on base at Tarawa Terrace while we were there. When he was sent to Okinawa, our baby and I returned back to Florida and lived with my mother. When my husband left the service with his honorable discharge in 1968 we were again starting our life together.
Over the last past forty nine years, my husband had three different cancers and cardiovascular disease (10 stents in his body when he died). The first cancer he had was rectal cancer, a very rare form of cancer according to his civilian doctors. The treatments were very aggressive: surgery, chemo, and radiation.
He went from a strong, strapping man of 190 lbs. to 132 lbs. and almost gave up his life then.
He was young and strong and he beat the cancer but the resulting side effects from the treatment left him with terrible problems. But he was alive and that’s what mattered to me and our children.
He was not in the VA then but he joined and was accepted shortly after this first bout of cancer. Three years later, he was complaining about a backache and went to his civilian doctor instead of the VA, as he was sure it was just something a chiropractor could take care of.
His doctor found several blockages in his arteries and sent him directly to a heart specialist. The doctors immediately put him in the hospital and performed the insertion of two stents into two of the major arteries near his heart. His heart was strong as a horse but his arteries were clogging. We changed his diet according to doctors recommendations, he stopped smoking and never picked up another cigarette. This disease started in the late 70s and he seemed to be doing very well until he got very dark circles under his eyes which seemed to appear quite suddenly after his first bout with the cardiovascular disease.
He went to the VA and the doctors found several more blockages, stents were put in, and he was released. This went on for the next ten years until he had a total of ten stents in his body. In 2010, we sold our home in Florida and decided to fulfill our dream of living in Colorado. We moved to Colorado and during our three and a half years that we were there, he developed a sore on the palm of his right hand. He had nicked it on something he was working on in our garage. It wasn’t a big cut, just a small scratch that I cleaned up and put topical on it with a band-aid. Two weeks later, I looked at his hand and the tiny scratch had grown to a large hole the size of a quarter. I told him that he had to have it looked at by his doctor at the VA in Albuquerque, NM, which was the closest to where we lived.
He went to the VA, they looked at his hand, cleaned it out, put some antibiotic cream on it and bandaged his hand. He got home with his bag of meds and instructions on how to clean and re-bandage. Two weeks later, the hole grew to the size of a fifty cent piece. This time I went with him to the VA. I asked the doctor if they took a biopsy of the wound the first time he was there.
They said no, it wasn’t necessary.
This time they did and found that it was squamous cell cancer on the palm of his hand. Oddly enough, this type of cancer is usually associated with too much sun. Golfers, fishermen, people who are in the sun get this type of cancer usually on the head, face, arms and the top of hands. He was not a sun worshipper and he did not walk around with the palms of his hands facing upward.
The doctors kept him at the hospital and he had surgery on his hand to remove the cancer. They also did a skin graft from his chest to cover the wound. With his arm in a cast for six weeks to assure that he did not disturb the graft healing process, he recovered from this cancer.
In September of 2013, we decided to move back to Florida. I thank God we did as we were only here for six months when he found out that he now had small cell lung cancer. We found out one month after we bought our house. We had to live in Gainesville for the next nine months while he received another six rounds of chemo and radiation. We only came home to our house on weekends. Thank God for the Fisher House and the American Cancer Society (Hope Lodge) for giving he and I a place to stay during this time.
He was constantly sick.
Sometimes he couldn’t walk or make it to the commode in time. The complications from the treatments were ongoing and, some weeks, he could not leave the hospital. It was horrible for him and I was helpless.
We were never informed by the Marine Corps that he may have become ill due to his stint at Camp LeJeune washing, bathing and drinking contaminated water. And he was never informed about his exposure to Agent Orange that was on the heavy equipment that came out of the jungles of Viet Nam covered with contaminated vegetation. I still have pictures of the guys using huge pressure sprayers to clean off the vegetation from the equipment that they worked on at Camp Hansen in Okinawa. They were never given any protection to cover their bodies, arms, legs, hands and faces to keep the vegetation from getting on them.
We never received a letter from the Marine Corps, nothing.
We found out about it while we were living in Colorado, from the local news station. All these years, every VA that he was assigned to and his doctors who had his records, never mentioned one word about the contamination at Lejeune.
When we found out about the contamination on the TV news, we filed for compensation. This was in 2011, while we were in Colorado. Our paperwork, which was endless, was lost twice by the assisting officer who helped us to file! Refiling was a nightmare. We kept getting notices that they didn’t have enough information from our civilian doctors, wrong forms, etc.
It was a nightmare.
He was denied three times. Lung cancer was from smoking. Rectal cancer wasn’t listed as a disease from Lejeune contamination. Cardiovascular disease wasn’t from exposure to the contamination from either Okinawa or Lejeune. Squamous Cell on his hand wasn’t related to any of the contamination to which he was exposed.
It’s been seven years now. He’s been gone three of the seven years.
The last glimmer of hope that I received from the VA was in 2016 – it was a hearing date scheduled at the Regional VA, Bay Pines, FL. I confirmed the appointment immediately, three months ahead of time. I set up my witnesses that were to go with me, gathered all of his medical records and all of the files that we accumulated of the past twenty five years, testimonials, etc. One week before the hearing, I received a letter from the Regional VA stating that my hearing was moved from the Florida VA at Bay Pines to another VA in Alabama. I received this notice four months after my husband died and there was no possible way I could afford, physically or financially to go to Alabama, let alone have my support team that I assembled to go with me.
I was totally devastated.
I called and asked why was it changed and was told that the VA had moved all of these cases to another state to blah blah. I really don’t remember what their reasoning was.
I gave up.
Today, I still in my heart know that my husband’s illnesses were directly related to his exposure to the contamination at Camp Lejeune and Camp Hansen in Okinawa.
I am basically penniless from trying to keep my head above water since my husband passed away. The VA and the USMC have kept this horrendous disaster a secret from its veterans for years and some of us were never notified. Only by watching the news did we find out. Now, it’s too late for my husband and countless other veterans, and, too late for me to try to right this terrible wrong.
We were married for 49 years.
Note from the Editor: The author currently resides in Florida. The account/editorial is verbatim from the author without edit, with only the omission of their name to preserve anonymity.