Military Families Wrestle with Marine Camp Water Contamination

Camp Lejeune sign

WATERLOO -- When she was a little girl, Antonett Cox ran to hug her daddy when he headed off to war.

It was the late 1960s and they lived at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Antonett's dad was a U.S. Navy medical corpsman assigned to a Marine reconnaissance unit. He served 13 months in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart.

What her father didn't know as he headed off to the dangers of combat was there was danger at Camp Lejeune, lurking in its contaminated water. Today, Antonett, now a wife and mother, has cancer -- breast cancer, lymph cancer, brain cancer.

Antonett is surrounded at home by her mother, Dorothy Brewster, and her husband, Jonathan Cox. Jonathan is a longtime University of Northern Iowa educator and former Panther basketball player who works in UNI's Center for Multicultural Education. Antonett is receiving chemotherapy and radiation at the Hall-Perrine cancer treatment center at Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

"I have a 9-year-old son they're taking away from me. My life is shortened because of the contamination of this water. It's terminal. It's incurable," Antonett said.

Her cancer is linked to water she consumed and bathed in as a child at Camp Lejeune. It contained benzene, a carcinogen, and other contaminants. Her father, Thomas R. Jones Sr., who now lives in Springfield, Ill., also has cancer; his was detected at an earlier, more treatable stage. Both were diagnosed within a few months of each other about a year and a half ago.

Brewster moved to Waterloo from Chicago to help Jonathan care for Antonett. Brewster had several miscarriages earlier in her life.

"You're there for your country," said Jones. "That bothered me more, to know my daughter and my then-wife, my ex-wife, were affected. ... They were put in harm's way. ... To me, it's like an inside attack."

Jones contacted Kevin Dill, executive director of the Black Hawk County Veteran Affairs Commission, for help for his daughter. Dill himself was a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune for a time. Also disabled, Dill's condition is being monitored due to exposure to the contaminated water.

According to information from the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans Administration ruled in January any service member who served at least 30 consecutive days at Camp Lejeune between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, "shall be presumed to have been exposed during such service to the contaminants in the water supply."

Exposure to the contaminated water has been linked to a variety of cancers and other diseases.

Dill wants any veteran who served at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between 1953 and 1987 to contact his office at 291-2512. They may be eligible for compensation for medical care.

"I was there and have a precursor to one of the cancers that I get checked on," Dill noted.

Another issue is with dependents of veterans, like Antonett Cox. She receives medical care but does not receive monthly compensation like her father. She has secondary insurance coverage. The Coxes want Congress approve the same compensation for dependents as veterans.

Dill has written U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst as well as U.S. Rep. Rod Blum about the matter. But he said based on feedback he's received it may be years before funding is available for dependents.

"At some point will there be funding available to compensate family members who are now diagnosed with one of the listed eight cancers to receive compensation just like their parents who are veterans?" Dill asked.

Antonett had to leave her job at CBE Group in Waterloo. She converses easily but suffers memory loss due to the cancer. She talked quietly about her illness, occasionally wiping tears from her face.

Brewster was among the first to discover a connection between her daughter's illness and Camp Lejeune.

"She was going through a lot, getting sick and wasn't being diagnosed," Dorothy said. She found information online about the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. She told her daughter.

Jones was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2015. A short time later, Antonett was diagnosed.

"It's a shock because it's so personal," said Jones, now 73. "My daughter, now she goes through the same kinds of radiation and everything else that I do, but she's not covered the same way as I am. There's no difference in the cancer."

"There's such a pain. Such a pain," Jones said, knowing her illness is tied to their time spent on the Marine Corps base.

Jonathan Cox said the complications associated with processing his wife's coverage claims are an additional stress on the household. She had to fight for Social Security disability benefits.

Grassley cosponsored a 2012 legislation with Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina that granted families and dependents health care from exposure to the Camp Lejeune water.

"I'll continue to work with the North Carolina congressional delegation on its efforts to make things right for the families affected by the Camp Lejeune contamination," Grassley said.

There also are lawsuits related to the Camp Lejeune contamination working their way through the courts.

It's an issue of fairness, Jonathan Cox said.

"It's not about saying what's owed to us. It's so much more. It's what's right," he said.

"My wife, my father- and mother-in-law played, did everything by the rules," Jonathan Cox said. He said veterans deserve to be cared for their service. "But my wife, she deserves it too. All those things we as a couple planned to do, we feel like it's crumbling. And it goes all the way back to when she was a baby, a little kid."

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