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A bit of hope for sick Camp Lejeune veterans after VA agrees to pay benefits for one

Paul Buckley got the thick envelope in the mail last week and initially didn't open it, figuring it was just the latest refusal by the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay him benefits.

Buckley, suffering from an incurable cancer of the bone marrow, is one of perhaps thousands of veterans whose claims that their illnesses were caused by polluted water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., have been rejected by the VA.

"You figure they're going to delay and deny until the veteran dies," said Buckley, 46, who lives in the Boston suburb of Hanover and served at Lejeune in 1985.

But in a decision with ramifications for veterans nationally, the VA finally agreed to pay benefits to Buckley based on his exposure to a chemical, benzene, found in fuel that leaked into the ground at the Marine Corps base.

"All reasonable doubt has been resolved in your favor," the VA said in a letter to Buckley, listing him as 100 percent disabled.

While the VA has paid a few health claims based on Lejeune's polluted water, Buckley's is believed to be the first linked to benzene, a carcinogen found in Lejeune tap water in the 1980s.

The fact that benzene was in base water has been publicized nationally recently, providing veterans with perhaps the first such knowledge.

Other VA claims have been typically based on exposure to industrial cleaning solvents found in the water, compounds that are probable — not known — carcinogens.

Benzene, some say, may provide veterans with an easier way to link contamination to illness.

"The past argument was that there was no proof these chemicals caused diseases," said Mike Partain, who serves on a panel advising the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry. "But there are known links between benzene and diseases like cancer. It opens the door for veterans."

Partain, who was born at Lejeune in 1968 and was diagnosed with rare breast cancer he believes is linked to the water, said veterans who hadn't known benzene was in the water might now amend or refile VA claims.

Both the VA and Marine Corps declined to comment.

Buckley said he fell ill in the spring of 2006 when he collapsed into a coma. He awoke and learned he had multiple myeloma. He received a bone marrow transplant and may undergo a kidney transplant.

Buckley's initial claims with the VA were rejected because the agency said he could not establish a link between chemicals found in water and his cancer.

Then Buckley heard benzene was part of the brew at the base.

Buckley said he provided his doctors with newspaper stories, including one by the St. Petersburg Times, detailing the presence of benzene, which the Marine Corps acknowledges was in the water. That was enough for his Harvard oncologist.

So the doctor wrote the VA a letter linking the benzene exposure to Buckley's illness. The VA agreed, though its order also noted other probable carcinogens in the water. Buckley was awarded a $2,800 monthly health pension.

"I was just a regular guy," said Buckley, who worked as a dispatcher for a private delivery service. "I didn't work with chemicals. I didn't work in factories. None of that stuff. I worked in an office."

Other veterans said the decision in Buckley's case gives them renewed hope.

More than 150,000 Marines or family members have signed up for a Marine health registry. Of those, more than 12,000 are from Florida, the second-highest total nationally behind North Carolina.

Charles Corbett, 56, a St. Petersburg resident who served at Camp Lejeune in 1974, said he is convinced neurological problems he suffers, including a loss of balance and vision problems, are caused by polluted water. The VA rejected his claims, none of which mentioned benzene.

"I'll give benzene a try," Corbett said. "I just want to try to get some answers. Something caused my illness."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

A bit of hope for sick Camp Lejeune veterans after VA agrees to pay benefits for one 03/19/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 21, 2010 4:38pm]

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