The US army’s century-old practice of storing dangerous materials and substances near or on military base grounds exposed numerous servicemen and women across the country to severe and long-term health hazards.
Even though contamination wasn’t intentional, soldiers’ families stationed in the same locations were likewise exposed to a broad range of toxins known to produce deadly and debilitating conditions.
North Carolina’s infamous Camp Lejeune is perhaps the most well-known case of extensive toxic contamination, with up to 1 million marines and their relatives stationed at the site being unwittingly exposed to unsafe substances for the better part of three decades starting in the early 50s.
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is aware of the base’s harmful legacy and its effects on soldiers and their loved ones, it has repeatedly denied affected veterans and their kin justified compensation and benefits by repeatedly rejecting toxic injury claims.
Camp Lejeune’s Extensive Contamination
An unfortunate and rarely discussed issue is that most US army veterans have been exposed to toxic substances in different combat and non-combative capacities throughout their service. Among the most dangerous toxins they came into contact with regularly are “forever chemicals” like per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), agent orange, and asbestos.
From 1953 until 1987, approximately 1 million troops and their families that lived on Camp Lejeune’s grounds were exposed to 70 different contaminants in concentrations that exceeded safety limits by 240 – 3400 times, stemming from the volatile organic compounds in oil, solvents, degreasers, industrial chemicals, and even radioactive waste. Some of the most severe health hazards include carcinogens like:
- Vinyl chloride
- Halogenated hydrocarbons
- Perchloroethylene (PCE)
- Trichloroethylene (TCE)
Continuous exposure to and contact with such substances leads to their progressive buildup in the body, over time leading to life-threatening diseases like multiple types of cancer, liver issues, infertility, congenital disabilities, miscarriage, and debilitating neurologic illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease.
VA’s Questionable Experts Reject Veterans’ Toxic Injury Claims
Taking note of Camp Lejeune’s history of rampant contamination, the US Congress passed two sets of legislation in 2012 providing suitable medical and healthcare benefits to affected veterans and their loved ones. Consequently, the VA set up guidelines delineating the eligibility status of toxic exposure claims, using subject matter experts to evaluate if said claims are, in fact, service-related.
After reviewing the VA’s personnel records, an investigation brought to light disquieting facts about the “experts” that the Department employed to determine the validity of toxic injury claims. Most notably, some of the so-called experts were general and preventive doctors with no adequate expertise in evaluating the types of conditions that Camp Lejeune veterans were confronting.
What followed was a drastic drop in claim approvals from an average rate of 25% to less than 5%. Attempting to dispute these facts, the VA provided its own figures starting from 2011, which did nothing but confirm that toxic claim approvals plummeted since allowing subject matter experts to establish eligibility. From 2013 to 2016, only 1% – 4.5% of toxic claims stemming from Camp Lejeune’s contamination were approved nationally.
In 2017, Congress and the VA categorized 8 diseases as presumptive conditions resulting from Camp Lejeune’s contamination, slightly increasing claim approval rates to an average of 17% over the last 10 years but still hovering below the former 25% average. Although veterans recognize the significance of this slight improvement, they believe it isn’t sufficient and that the list should include a wider array of illnesses linked to the base’s toxic contamination.
Camp Lejeune Justice Act Passes Congress as Part of the Honoring our PACT Act
By 2016 Camp Lejeune victims sought to consolidate more than 800 lawsuits into an MDL in North Carolina. Unfortunately, due to the state’s statute of repose, the MDL class action was eventually dismissed. After running out of appropriate appeal avenues against the MDL’s dissolution, thousands of veterans and their families felt betrayed by the convoluted bureaucracy denying them their rightful compensation.
After Joe Biden began his tenure as President in early 2021, the US military’s historical issues with toxic exposure finally received the recognition it required. In March of the same year, Matthew Cartwright submitted the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 to the House for consideration. Even though it was seldom discussed and its progress was ultimately stunted, the bill was redrafted the following year and received strong support from both democrats and republicans.
Seeking a more inclusive and expeditious resolution, the bill was merged into the broader Honoring our PACT Act of 2022, which set out to ensure that veterans adversely affected by toxic exposure would be afforded proper compensation and adequate benefits. The bill eventually passed both Congress bodies’ votes with solid bipartisan support and was signed into law in early August by President Biden, who expressed his unwavering support.
The bill allows affected Camp Lejeune veterans and their families to bypass North Carolina’s troublesome statute of repose and submit federal lawsuits in the state’s Eastern District. Affected individuals are provided a period of 2 years to file their cases, either from the date of the bill’s passing or since they received a relevant Camp Lejeune-related diagnosis. Furthermore, an additional 23 diseases are now recognized as presumptive conditions. At the same time, the plaintiff’s burden of proof was significantly mitigated, as they can cite a relevant and valid study demonstrating a connection between their condition and the contamination at Camp Lejeune as satisfactory evidence.
Even though the US Army’s long-standing toxic contamination issue is finally being comprehensively addressed through definitive measures, progress was a little too late for affected veterans who passed away before they had a chance to witness it. The Honoring our PACT Act of 2022 represents a step forward for millions of veterans and their loved ones who can now access the support and compensation their struggles entitle them to.
About the Author
Jonathan Sharp serves in the capacity of Chief Financial Officer at the Birmingham, Alabama-based Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm specialized in cases of toxic exposure that helps veterans adversely affected by hazardous substances on military bases including Camp Lejeune.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Free Press.