TAMPA -- The Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged water at a North Carolina Marine Corps base was contaminated with dangerous chemicals for decades, but many veterans and their families still are having trouble getting the medical care they need.
On Saturday veterans previously stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., attended a Community Assistance Panel meeting at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay where researchers with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explained their work and answered questions about the effects of exposure to contaminated drinking water.
The drinking water can be tied to 15 health conditions including several types of cancer, miscarriage, infertility and leukemia, according to Veterans Affairs.
In 1982 the Marine Corps discovered "volatile organic compounds" in the drinking water in two water treatment plants on base, according to ATSDR. High levels of perchloroethylenes, or PCEs, and trichloroethylene, or TCE, were found.
It is estimated about 1 million Marines, their spouses and their children potentially were exposed to the chemicals between the late 1950s and 1985.
Veterans and others who lived on the base and suffer ill-effects from exposure to the contamination are eligible for VA benefits, but many people at meetings Friday evening and Saturday said their claims have been denied.
"Unfortunately a lot of these people are going to die before they see any help," said Jerry Ensminger, a Marine veteran who lived at Camp Lejeune.
Ensminger, whose daughter was born on the base and died of leukemia at age 9 in 1985, said he didn't find out about the water contamination until 1997. While the research has given him some answers about what happened to his daughter, he said the military isn't doing enough to take care of those effected.
"One of my initial thoughts was the Marine Corps that I served would step up to the plate and do what was right," he said. "It didn't take long for me to realize through their actions that not only were they not stepping up to the plate, they were doing everything in their power to cover it up."
Ensminger is a local advocate for victims of the contamination.
A study comparing 150,000 Marines and Navy personnel who served at Camp Lejeune and 150,000 who served at Camp Pendleton in Southern California between 1975 and 1985 revealed those who served at Lejeune were more likely to die of various cancers.
Ensminger said Veterans Affairs experts who review Lejeune medical claims often deny them, forcing sick veterans and their families to go without appropriate care.
President Obama signed the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act in August 2012, which authorized those who lived or served on the base between 1957 an 1987 to receive VA medical care. But Ensminger said there is still a long way to go.
"Unfortunately, good science takes time," he said.
The two-day session was staged at the Grand Hyatt at 2900 Bayport Drive so Tampa Bay area residents could hear from and speak with federal health officials. A similar meeting was held this year in Greensboro, N.C.
Kim Ann Callan of Lakeland was born at Camp Lejeune and said she has been diagnosed with leukemia and diabetes, and has a slew of other health issues. She said the Veterans Affairs experts who review claims override family doctors' recommendations, and sick people shouldn't have to do heavy legwork to get care.
"It's very frustrating and it's very hard to come into a room like this where you have 300 sick people," Callan said. "A lot of older population who, you know, they just want to know why they cant get help."
Callan said ATSDR did good work on its research, but Veterans Affairs hasn't done enough to act on it.
"It's shameless the way our country has treated veterans," she said.
Her brother, mother and father all have had medical issues that Callan believes are connected to contamination at the base.
Callan said she wants Veterans Affairs to begin making incremental changes to address the needs of those who served or lived on the North Carolina base, and to educate medical professionals.
"Private doctors don't even know about it," she said. "Unless it applies to you, you don't know about it."