Veterans express frustration to VA over Camp Lejeune benefits

Camp Lejeune veterans and community members listen to epidemiologists discuss tainted water at the base during a panel hosted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Camp Lejeune veterans and community members listen to epidemiologists discuss tainted water at the base during a panel hosted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Published Dec. 6, 2015

TAMPA — Robert Shuster of Hudson stood up Saturday at a public meeting with the Department of Veterans Affairs and federal scientists studying the health effects of polluted drinking at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

He held up two pieces of paper. One was the surgical pathology report Shuster sent to the VA that diagnosed him with sarcoma. The other document was a letter from the VA denying his claim for benefits, saying in stilted language the disease did not exist in him — he didn't have a malignancy.

"How can it not exist?" Shuster, 54, asked plaintively.

About 150 Marine Corps veterans and family members crowded a room at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay for a town hall meeting to hear VA officials and federal scientists provide an update on work studying contamination at the North Carolina base.

The VA representatives heard great frustration from veterans about their difficulties in getting the agency to provide benefits for those who were sickened by the water.

Up to a million veterans were exposed to what scientists consider one of the nation's worst episodes of water contamination. Drinking water at the base was tainted with a stew of industrial solvents and components of gasoline for at least 30 years ending in the 1980s.

Tens of thousands of those veterans and their family members now live in Florida, the state with the second-highest number of potential victims behind North Carolina, federal figures show.

The meeting included epidemiologists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the lead agency studying health effects. The agency has concluded through a number of studies that contaminated water created a variety of health effects, from birth defects to some types of cancer.

But for veterans who came to the meeting, most of their concern was directed at the VA.

"You're not helping us, you're hurting us," said Camp Lejeune veteran Paul Maslow, 64, of Daytona Beach, who said he has inoperable tumors on his spine and elsewhere in his body. "The more you delay, the more of us who are going to die. And we thank you very much for that."

Some expressed pointed anger at the VA "subject-matter experts" who often weigh in on claims, they said, without seeming to pay particular attention to the evidence veterans submit to get benefits.

Gary Skogsbergh Sr., 66, of Ocala was stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1970 and later became a nurse working for the VA.

"This is a tragedy," he said. "I'm telling you the longer you take, the more of us who are going to be dead. Now is the time for the VA to step up."

Brady White, the VA program manager for Camp Lejeune, said the agency would take to heart the concerns expressed by former residents of the base.

"I've heard a lot of talk and what we can do better in the VA, and we certainly need to hear that and we need to take it back with us to our leaders and for those who work with us and make sure they understand some of the frustration that we hear out there," White said. "You also need to know the folks I work with on my team are truly extraordinary.

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"The people who work on it care very, very deeply about you, what you're going through and want to make sure they're doing the best job they can. When they don't do that, they are held accountable. I've personally fired people at the VA. I know it's hard to believe."

Scientists for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said their work studying the health effects of the water will continue, noting they are planning a comprehensive "cancer incidence" study that may help show if veterans and family members who lived on the base experienced a higher rate of cancer. But they said that requires getting data from cancer registries in individual states, which is a time-consuming task.

One woman who lived at Lejeune while her husband was stationed there asked scientists how much water it would take to make her sick — a glass a day?

Epidemiologist Richard Clapp, who is consulting for the toxic substance agency, said that with cancer, any exposure to the chemicals increases the risk.

"There is no threshold," he said, "where it's safe."

Contact William R. Levesque at Follow @Times_Levesque