Camp Lejeune, located in North Carolina, is one of the Marine Corps’ largest bases, and is also the location of possibly the worst public drinking-water contamination in the nation’s history. Despite what we already know, the military, the government, scientists, and the medical profession, are still trying to understand the full extent of the contamination, and the long-term effects of the contamination on those who may have been affected.
By way of background, it is estimated that from the 1950s through the 1980s, up to a million people, including military service members, their families, and civilian workers were exposed to contaminated drinking water. However, according to studies performed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), it is possible that the water contamination could have started as early as 1948. The primary chemicals found in the water included Perchloroethylene (PCE) (a dry cleaning solvent), Trichloroethylene (TCE) (a metal degreasing solvent), Benzene (a component in gasoline), and vinyl chloride. This list is not all inclusive, there were many other chemicals discovered. Unfortunately, all of these chemicals are either known or highly suspected to cause cancer, leukemia, and a host of other ailments.
If you are a veteran who served at Camp Lejeune, it is important to know that you may be eligible for free health care through the VA (regardless of your service-connected status) and/or VA disability compensation benefits. Below is a breakdown of the key eligibility criteria for healthcare and/or VA disability benefits:
Camp Lejeune VA Healthcare Benefits (pursuant to The Janey Ensminger Act):
- Must have an eligible discharge
- Must have served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for not fewer than 30 days between January 1, 1957, and December 31, 1987.
- Must have one of 15 listed conditions to be eligible for free VA healthcare- see VA Publication IB 10-449 for the complete list
- If a family member, you must show eligibility under the law as described in the link above. Unfortunately, family members are not able to receive care at this time until the regulations and funding are put in place.
Camp Lejeune VA Disability Compensation Benefits:
- Must have an eligible discharge
- Must have served at Camp Lejeune during the period of contamination (August 1953 through December 1987)
- Must have evidence (i.e. a medical opinion) that you have a current disease that is a result of exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.
A common misconception is that The Janey Ensminger Act granted presumptive service connection for the 15 listed medical conditions, similar to the VA’s regulations for Agent Orange exposure. Unfortunately, this belief is incorrect because the law currently only grants eligibility for health care benefits, not presumption for service-connected compensation benefits.
Another common misconception is that veterans should wait until the VA grants presumptive service connection before filing disability claims for conditions they believe are related to the water contamination. This too, is incorrect; veterans should file claims right away if they believe they have a disability that is related to Camp Lejeune. The VA will simply adjudicate each claim for service-connection on an individual basis. Furthermore, assuming the VA does eventually grant presumptive service connection for the contamination, as they did for Agent Orange, filing right away may preserve the effective date for benefits, even if the claim is denied under the current laws.
For veterans and their families, understandably there is a lot of confusion regarding the water contamination, and what benefits, if any, which may be available as a result of Camp Lejeune service. My hope is that this post will be helpful in understanding some of these issues.