The Obama administration finally caved in and agreed to provide over $2 billion worth of disability benefits to veterans formally stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune who were exposed to contaminated water. The decision was made after years of lobbying and waiting for the veterans affected by the toxic water.
The department of Veterans Affairs called the decision historic. This is because it is one of the few instances that former military personnel not deployed for war became eligible for disability cash payouts.
Bob McDonald, the outgoing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary, determined that there was sufficient medical and scientific evidence to establish a strong link between the exposure to contaminated water at the camp and eight medical conditions. He said that the government has a responsibility to take care of its soldiers and veterans who were exposed to harm because of their service to the nation. McDonald added that the decision by the VA would allow veterans to receive the benefits and care they deserve.
Camp Lejeune military training complex was established in 1941. It sits on an expansive land covering 246 square miles. The newly passed federal rule includes Marine Corps Air Station New River and Camp Lejeune. It also includes housing areas and satellite camps.
As early as March 2017, the approved disability benefits may supplement the VA health care presently being provided to all eligible veterans stationed at the North Carolina Marine base for at least 30 days for the period between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987. However, to be eligible, veterans must submit evidence of their service information and diagnoses.
The total estimated taxpayer cost of the benefits is $2.2 billion to be paid over a five-year period. It is reported that almost 900,000 service members were exposed to the tainted drinking water. However, the VA estimates that only 23,000 veterans will qualify for the payouts. Unfortunately, some of the service men affected by the water have already passed away waiting for the benefits.
Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Master Sgt. Said that the VA’s decision was good news for the veterans. His daughter, Janey, was born in 1976 when he was stationed at the camp but died from leukemia aged nine. He added that it had been a long and hard battle that is far from over because he believes that the government must cover additional diseases. Ensminger presently heads a veterans group called The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten that advocates for people seeking disability compensation across the country.
Who Qualifies for the Benefits?
The VA’s rule covers active duty, National Guard, and Reserve members who developed any of the following eight diseases: aplastic anemia, adult leukemia, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The rule also allows veterans to receive government disability aid due to toxic harm sustained at a garrison. In 2015, Secretary McDonald also agreed to compensate veterans not on the ground but who developed medical conditions as a result of exposure to the residue of Agent Orange found on aircraft used during the Vietnam War.
VA’s chief health consultant Dr. Ralph Erickson said that the award’s decision was a major first since most disability awards involved exposures which occurred during deployment. Erickson also formerly commanded the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Brenda Burpee aged 65 is now eligible to receive widow’s benefits since her husband, Donald Burpee, died aged 58 from kidney cancer. Burpee was stationed at the military camp in the early 1970s. Brenda said that her husband, a long-distance truck driver, was always healthy before his diagnosis in 2007. His initial claim for VA benefits was denied, but the Burpees later appealed and won. However, benefits payment was halted until the new rules were finalized.
Scientists believe that almost one million people were exposed to toxic chemicals and carcinogens at the camp. This makes it the worst mass exposure to contaminated drinking water in the US. What’s more, the contamination stretched for over 50 years and affected residents presently scattered across the country.
According to Marine Corps figures, about 14,000 affected veterans and their family members reside in Florida making it the second highest total behind North Carolina.
Why the Benefits Were Awarded
According to documents uncovered by various veterans groups, the response of Marine leaders was slow after tests discovered evidence of groundwater contamination at Camp Lejeune during the early 1980s. Eventually, between 1984 and 1985, some water wells were closed. Further testing confirmed that the groundwater was contaminated by an off-base dry cleaner and leaking fuel tanks.
However, the Marine Corps is adamant that the contamination was not intentional and occurred when federal law did not limit toxins found in drinking water.
In 2012, Congress passed a bill extending free VA medical benefits to affected veterans as well as their families. President Barrack Obama later signed the VA medical benefits bill into law. Under the law, however, veterans were not provided survivor benefits or disability aid automatically. This has resulted in lawsuits by various veteran’s organizations, which argued that military personnel stationed in camp Lejeune cooked, drank, and bathed in the contaminated water for years.
Ensminger has credited North Carolina Republican Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr for their relentless efforts in pushing forward the bill. Burr introduced the bill in 2012 to provide free and accessible VA medical care. In response to the VA news, Burr said that it was about time. He added that the affected veterans were negligently poisoned in service to the nation and should, therefore, receive compensated.
The Way Forward
All affected veterans stationed at Camp Lejeune are required to submit their applications for benefits. Already, around 1,400 disability claims related to the camp are pending. According to the VA, they will be reviewed immediately.
Vietnam Veterans of America’s Executive Director Rick Weidman said that the expanded coverage by the VA was a step in the right direction. However, he added that it was equally important to find out if the government was purposely leaving some people out.