The name of Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in Onslow County North Carolina, may ring a bell because of the water contamination that exposed veterans and their families to health risks for several decades.  This story stirs emotions because of the damage done to those who already make so many sacrifices on behalf of the country.  Efforts are ongoing to provide victims of the contamination with the health care they need.  If you lived at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 and suffer from certain health conditions, you may be eligible for benefits.

What Happened at Camp Lejeune?

According to the official timeline, the military’s first awareness of water contamination at the camp began in the early 1980s, although it is estimated that the contamination began in the early 1950s.  The base did not begin testing the water for some of the most prominent chemical contaminants until 1980, following the publication of new EPA guidelines for TCE limits and regulations requiring water tests.  Dangerous levels of over 70 contaminants were discovered in several wells supplying drinking and bathing water to the base.  Some of the most prominent chemical contaminants were TCE (a metal degreaser), PCE (a dry cleaning agent), vinyl chloride, and benzene.  Possible sources of pollution included dump sites for drums and fly ash; an open storage pit; an industrial area; a former on-base dry cleaner; a burn dump; a fuel tank sludge area; and a former fire training area.  Most of the contaminated wells were shut down prior to 1985.  However, a fuel spill at a clean water distribution plant caused one of the contaminated wells to be brought back online for a nine-day period in January 1985, causing further toxin exposure to several areas of the base.  In 1989, the EPA listed Camp Lejeune on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List.  A detailed timeline of events, including images of relevant documents, is available on the VetsHQ website.

A number of health conditions have been associated with the contamination at Camp Lejeune, including miscarriages, birth defects, Parkinson’s disease, and certain forms of cancer.  Limited historical evidence hinders scientists’ ability to draw conclusive connections between the contaminants and health effects, which has led to controversy about the military’s responsibility for providing aid to those exposed.  Many former residents who themselves suffered health effects or whose families were impacted feel betrayed and believe the Marine Corps was too slow to admit there was a problem and to begin addressing it.  Some feel the military has exerted too little effort to notify former Camp Lejeune residents of the dangers they may have been exposed to and the benefits that may be available to them.  Veterans groups such as “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten” have formed to promote awareness, hold the military accountable, and help those who might be eligible obtain benefits.

Benefits for Those Impacted by Water Contamination

The Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 established the benefit of cost-free health care provided by the VA or medical care reimbursements to veterans and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune and suffer from certain health conditions.  To qualify, the veteran must have served at least 30 days’ active duty at Camp Lejeune between January 1, 1957 and December 31, 1987.  Instructions for seeking this health care benefit can be found on the VA website.  Health conditions that qualify a veteran or family member for this benefit include:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Female infertility
  • Hepatic steatosis
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Miscarriage
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Neurobehavioral effects
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Renal toxicity
  • Scleroderma

In January 2017 the Department of Veterans Affairs also published the “Camp Lejeune presumptive diseases” rule. Veterans who meet the standards of the presumptive diseases rule are eligible for VA disability benefits.  Information about applying can be found on the VA website.  The rule applies to active duty, reserve, and National Guard members who served at Camp Lejeune or MCAS New River, NC, for at least 30 cumulative days between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987.  To qualify, the veteran must not have been dishonorably discharged.  In addition, he or she must currently have one of these eight presumptive diseases:

  • Adult leukemia
  • Aplastic anemia and other myelodyspastic syndromes
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease

More information about both types of benefits available to Camp Lejeune veterans and family members can be found here.

What If Your Condition Doesn’t Appear on These Lists?

Claims related to the Camp Lejeune water contamination are still ongoing, and it is possible that other medical conditions will be added to the list of presumptive diseases for disability benefits.  If you have a significant health condition and resided at Camp Lejeune during the contamination period, it would be wise to file a claim for disability benefits even if you believe you will be denied.  This is because of the Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs precedent. As a result of Nehmer, when new medical conditions are officially attributed to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, the VA is required to grant benefits to all veterans or survivors who were previously denied benefits for those conditions – and the amount of the payment is calculated back to the date of the denied claim. There is reason to believe that the same rule may be applied as scientists connect additional diseases to the chemical contaminants found at Camp Lejeune.

If you or a loved one served at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 and have a significant health problem, it’s worth investigating whether VA benefits related to the water contamination may be available.  Paying out-of-pocket for significant long-term health conditions can be an enormous challenge for the whole family.  If you think you may qualify and want to learn more, please give us a call.  Our elder law attorneys are VA-accredited and would love to help you get access to the resources you need to pay for care.