Tainted Water at Camp Lejeune: Veteran Fights for Disability

Camp Lejeune sign

RAYMOND -- On the one hand, the Department of Veterans Affairs attributes the lung disease that has sickened Terrence Mulligan to the contaminated tap water the former Marine drank while stationed at Camp Lejeune in the 1970s.

So the VA provides his medical treatment, which includes about a dozen medications, doctor appointments, an oxygen tank and a likely lung transplant.

On the other hand, the VA has told Mulligan that he shouldn't expect the VA to compensate him anytime soon for his inability to work.

The result: The 59-year-old said he struggles to pay his bills and could eventually lose the home where he and his wife have lived for 10 years.

"I've been trying this for years, filling out the paperwork, sending it off, getting a rejection," Mulligan said this week, just days after the VA rejected his latest request. "You almost get the sense they're waiting for more people to die off."

Mulligan's plight is one faced by thousands of Marine Corps veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987.

In 1999, the Corps started to inform Camp Lejeune Marines that the water used at the base was contaminated with volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethylene (TCE), a metal degreaser, and perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry cleaning agent.

Critics say the Marines resisted owning up to the contamination for years.

"The Marine Corps has done everything in their power to shirk their responsibility to people exposed at Camp Lejeune," said Jerry Ensminger, a retired master-sergeant and founder of The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, which advocates for Lejeune Marines. "The VA, they've had to be brought to bear by dragging them in."

Late last year, VA Secretary Robert McDonald acknowledged that the evidence exists to start disability compensation for veterans such as Mulligan.

"The water at Camp Lejeune was a hidden hazard, and it is only years later that we know how dangerous it was," said Secretary McDonald. But the VA told the Stars and Stripes website in December that it will be at least a year before it writes and approves regulations needed before the disability program can start.

It means more delays for people who have long suffered from the tainted water.

15 diseases treated

In 2012, President Obama signed a law named after Ensminger's daughter, who died of childhood leukemia. The VA released a list of 15 diseases that the VA will treat for any Marine who lived at Lejeune for 30 days or more.

They include cancers of the esophagus, breast, lung, kidney, bladder and leukemia; multiple myeloma and scleroderma, female infertility, miscarriage and neuro-behavioral problems.

Nationally, nearly 245,700 people have registered with the Marines as former residents of Camp Lejeune. That includes 1,459 in New Hampshire, according to the Marine Corps website.

"I never thought twice about using it or drinking it," Mulligan said about the water he drank at Lejeune for about 1 1/2 years.

Since leaving the Marines, he worked in construction and as an X-ray technician. He was a long distance runner and finished one marathon.

But about eight years ago, doctors diagnosed him with scleroderma in his lungs, one of the diseases the VA attributes to Camp Lejuene water.

Mulligan said he battles lupus, arthritis, low platelet counts, and Reynaud's disease, all auto-immune problems caused by the scleroderma.

He has also battled bill collectors. Unable to work for eight years, he filed for bankruptcy five years ago, along with his wife. He expects to come out of bankruptcy in about a year, he said.

He owes about $6,000 in unpaid mortgage payments, he said, and worries that his bank will eventually come after him. He said he wouldn't be able to pay it.

Pressing the VA

Mulligan has contacted U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who wrote him last month to say she was sorry that the VA could not approve his claim at the time.

In a statement to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Ayotte's office said she is committed to ensuring veterans received the care and benefits they've earned.

"I am pressing the VA to resolve the issue that is currently affecting Mr. Mulligan, and will not rest until he receives the care and benefits that are owed to him," the Republican said in an emailed statement.

Another six constituents have contacted Ayotte about Camp Lejeune water, her office said.

Mulligan lives on Social Security disability, which provides about $1,640 a month. His wife, Linda, retired from her job as a school teacher earlier this year to care for him.

He said a VA disability check would provide about $3,000 a month.

"They should put me on disability," he said. "They should accept the fact they poisoned us."

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