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 [email protected]
The United States Marine Corps is responsible for the death of my entire family.
I am a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the government. Outside of those directly affected by the Camp Lejeune water contamination, few Americans have heard about the worst environmental disaster in American history. A Trust Betrayed by Mike Magner reveals how the Marines and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune were poisoned for decades. This article is about the impact the water contamination had on my family as a result of the decades-long failure of Marine Corps leadership to ensure the health and well-being of the people entrusted to their care.
My parents Rodger and Grace were stationed at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina in the mid-1950s, where my father was assigned after the Korean War as a combat engineer. They lived in the base housing unit at Tarawa Terrace and loved being there during the Happy Days era. My father was a career Marine, having enlisted at the age of 15 in World War II and eventually retiring as a Master Sergeant after Vietnam. My mother would become pregnant six times. She had two early miscarriages before my brother Joey was born in 1956. Within a few months, it became apparent that he was not a normal baby and was profoundly mentally retarded, with a severe intellectual disability and an IQ of around 30.
Joey would require a lifetime of constant care, unable to dress or bathe himself. My mother was the strongest person I have ever known and she refused to send him away, as many people advised her to do. She once told me that it really hit her what it was going to be like raising a mentally retarded child on a Marine Corps base when Joey was six and there was a birthday party for one of the neighborhood children. Joey was the only one not invited.
In 1961, my sister Hope was born and was the apple of my father’s eye. But she would die of a brain tumor when she was only eighteen months old. My father was never the same after losing Hope. Growing up in the Depression, losing both of his parents as a teenager, and seeing combat in the Pacific and Korea did not break him like holding his dead child. Everybody grieves differently with the loss of a loved one, particularly a child. My father chose to cut and run, taking an unaccompanied tour in Okinawa and leaving my mother to attend to my brother’s care alone. He was not able to deal with the grief of Hope’s loss.
Between my father’s tours in Vietnam I was conceived. According to other family members (I have no way of confirming this now) my mother begged my dad for another child, but he was understandably hesitant. With the increasing Marine casualty rates and the very real possibility of being killed in action, he agreed. I was born in Falls Church, Virginia in March of 1967, two months premature and weighing three pounds four ounces. The doctors prepared my mother for the worst, as they assumed that I would not survive infancy. Indeed, it was touch and go for the first few weeks. I was born with very poor eyesight, severely pigeon-towed feet, and an underdeveloped respiratory system, but none of this could stop me from enlisting and serving a twenty year career in the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, my other brother Michael was born in 1969, but only survived four days.
The fall from grace was unforgiving. My parents were (according to family) blessed when they found each other. My father looked like Robert Mitchum (I thought Sgt. Carter from Gomer Pyle was a better example) and my mom was a blue-eyed redhead, often compared to Maureen O’Hara. The trauma of losing their children, along with the constant care required for Tim, destroyed both their marriage and them as individuals. Alcoholism, depression, abuse, and infidelity was the home that I grew up in. Each parent blamed the other for what happened, along with hating God for the pain and suffering they endured. My mother died of cancer in 1993, with Joey passing a few months later. To the day she died she never understood why her life turned out the way it did.
As for myself, the big family that I had always wanted was not in God’s plan. After two miscarriages and with my family history, I decided that it was not fair to risk a child coming into this world with so many risk factors against them. Because of Joey, I was quite active in Special Olympics when I was younger and I saw the struggles parents and families had with special needs children.
Just prior to leaving office, President Obama authorized a $2.2 billion outlay for the service members poisoned by the water at Camp Lejeune. I applaud this, as I personally know six Marines who have cancer from being stationed there. They have all tried to work through the VA system with limited success. The government playbook for dealing with such issues is the same today as it was for Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome: run out the clock and hope that the few people left alive don’t live too long. There is currently nothing in place regarding compensation for the family members or civilian workers who were impacted by being poisoned by the government.
Recently, I watched members of Congress be publicly outraged (rightfully so) by the Marines United scandal, where 30,000 naked pictures of female Marines were shared online without consent. This is a stain on the Marine Corps, but it pales in comparison to the injustice for the victims of Camp Lejeune. It is long past due for Congress to fix this.
Note from the Editor: The author retired from the United States Navy in 2006 and lives in Northern Virginia. On the advice of counsel, he is remaining anonymous due to pending litigation, and the family names have been changed by the author. The account/editorial is verbatim from the author without edit.