Barely clothed Marines huddled exhausted next to their coffin-style bunks stacked to the ceiling below deck on the USS Boxer after midnight in March 2016. They were extremely tired after a long day resupplying their ship, moving crate after crate dropped off by helicopter.
A couple of the Marines got up from their ad hoc campfire -- gathered around a flashlight -- to grab a drink from a nearby water fountain.
But something was off.
The pungent smell of diesel fuel radiated from the tap. The poison was flowing from their sinks and permeating the laundry machines, the odor filling the mess hall. They’d been told the water was safe, but the Marines reached another conclusion.
"The ship is actually trying to kill us," Travis Sellers, a 20-year-old lance corporal, summarized at the time.
"The fumes were overpowering. You smelled it when you washed your clothes in it, showered in it, when you flushed the toilet," said Sarah Blanton, a former Marine sergeant assigned to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "The smell was in my hair. I had a friend braid it because I thought it would keep me from smelling it in my sleep."
The men and women didn't know it, but the fuel running through the water lines on the ship wasn't caused by a faulty valve or a corroded pipe. The crew had done this to themselves.
A years-long investigation reveals that the Boxer unintentionally compromised its own water supply in 2016, when it intentionally and potentially illegally dumped diesel fuel into the ocean and immediately sucked the noxious liquid back aboard the ship and into its water supply. Those conclusions can be revealed by Military.com for the first time after interviewing key personnel on the ship at the time of the incident, as well as through a review of documents obtained from sources.
A Military.com Freedom of Information Act request from 2018 shows that the Boxer underwent a significant upgrade to its internal network system that inadvertently deleted emails and email addresses of former Boxer members. Those emails may have mentioned the fuel in the water supply.
The Navy had never publicly acknowledged what happened on the ship and repeatedly responded to document requests by saying that no official paper trail outlining the incident existed.
Now, the service is acknowledging the water contamination for the first time, in a response to this reporting.
“USS Boxer (LHD 4) identified traces of fuel in the ship's potable water system while on a deployment to the Indo-Pacific in 2016,” Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesman for the Naval Surface Force, said in a statement to Military.com on Wednesday. “USS Boxer’s leadership and crew took immediate and appropriate measures to restrict access to the ship's potable water. After conducting a thorough flush and inspection of the ship’s potable water system, fresh water was restored.”
The ship has not experienced any additional water contamination since 2016, according to Abrahamson. “The health [and] safety of our sailors and Marines remains a top priority and clean and safe drinking water is paramount for operational readiness,” he said in the statement.
Some veterans who endured the episode have been left struggling to get help years later, several having their disability claims rejected by the the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In interviews, former Boxer crew members described ailments to Military.com they believe were caused by the diesel. Gastrointestinal problems, skin rashes and burns were all reported in the immediate aftermath of the fuel dump, and conditions such as irritable bowel, excessive menstrual bleeding, lung cysts and even a rare form of lung cancer have all surfaced for the crew in the years after the exposure.
Edwin Emerson, a former Boxer crew member who worked in the ship’s oil lab that was responsible for the fuel dump, told Military.com there's a good reason documents detailing the jettisoning of fuel don't exist: “We can't document that because the captain would get fired.”
"The captain would have never known about it because, when you're doing something that illegal, you're not telling anybody," Emerson added, who served as one of three "oil kings" on the Boxer during the 2016 deployment. "You're not supposed to dump fuel into the ocean. … It does [happen], but it's not legal."
Contacted by Military.com on multiple occasions, no reply was returned from Navy Capt. Michael Ruth, the Boxer's commanding officer at the time of the incident. Capt. Terrance "Terry" Patterson, who at the time was the chief engineer of the Boxer, declined to comment for this story, citing his active-duty status.
Brig. Gen. Anthony M. Henderson, who commanded the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit as a colonel, declined an interview for this story.
Other mid-level officers and senior enlisted from the Boxer who continue to serve on active duty or are now veterans also declined to be interviewed or did not respond to inquiries from Military.com.
The USS Boxer is the flagship for the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group. The large, boxy ship carries more than a thousand sailors as crew and around 1,500 Marines. The ship's largely hollow interior is typically packed with dozens of armored vehicles and amphibious craft the Marines would use to land and operate ashore, while the flight deck holds some combination of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, Harrier jets or Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters.
All of this gear and equipment is designed for one goal -- to enable the Marines to respond at a moment's notice to conflict or disaster.
In 2016, the ship deployed with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit to participate in naval exercises around Pohang, a port city off South Korea's east coast. It was moving through that area in the days prior to March 15.
On the 15th, logs from the Boxer and a nearby supply ship -- the USNS Wally Schirra -- say the two met up about 100 miles off the coast of both Japan and Korea in the southern part of the Sea of Japan at 8am and the amphibious assault ship took on nearly 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel for itself, as well as jet fuel for its aircraft. The deck logs for both ships were obtained by Military.com via Freedom of Information Act requests.
After the resupply was done, around 1p.m., according to the Schirra’s logs, the Boxer continued sailing north into the Sea of Japan. The Boxer then turned west to head back toward the Korean coast and Pohang, its own logs show.
Through the day, the data in the logs say that the ship was never further than 150 mi from the shores of either Korea or Japan and its last log entry for the 15th shows it about 80 miles off the coast of Korea. This puts the ship well within both countries' economic exclusion zones -- an area that typically extends out 230 miles from the coast in which a country has rights and responsibilities over natural resources.
For part of that day Machinist's Mate Chief Michael Gonzales, the oil lab's leading chief petty officer and one of the three oil kings on the Boxer, was also serving as the engineering officer of the watch, a rotating responsibility that entails primary responsibility for the main propulsion plant of the ship, including the oil lab.
Gonzales called down to the oil lab where Emerson, one of the other oil kings on the ship, was on watch.
Shannon Arms and Alexander Casto, both former machinist's mates second class, and Hayley Blair, a former junior officer, who worked in the Boxer's oil lab told Military.com that Gonzales ordered the sailors to dump diesel fuel. The exact reason for the dump is unclear, but those in the oil lab suggested they would typically dump when the fuel became contaminated, most commonly with water or sediment. Emerson confirmed that the order came from Gonzales.
All of the sailors described dumping fuel as a common procedure on Navy ships, typically an uneventful action where fuel dissipates into the surrounding water as the ship steams on. They all also said they believed it is illegal to dump fuel, although they couldn't point to a specific law. Outside legal experts consulted by Military.com said that the legality is unclear for warships.
Arms said that, before dumping fuel, the oil lab would usually ask for permission from the engineering officer of the watch, who would then ask permission from the bridge of the ship.
"I remember because the person on watch, Emerson, asked: 'Do we have permission?'" Arms explained. "He [Gonzales] said, 'I'm giving you permission.'
"We came on watch. And I want to say, maybe 10 minutes into watch, he told us to go ahead and align and start dumping."
Arms and Emerson told Military.com that Gonzales told the oil lab to dump the fuel off the starboard, or right, side of the ship. On the left side of the ship, evaporators are routinely sucking up seawater to turn into potable water. To avoid contamination, the sailors explained, it's paramount to keep the ship moving.
Shortly after the fuel was dumped, an "all stop" order came from the bridge, cutting the engine's thrust.
Arms described a mad scramble as the crew in the oil lab realized that the ship would almost immediately start sucking up the fuel as it sat in stagnant waters.
The ship's log notes that the officers on the bridge ordered the ship to come to a complete stop twice that day. The first instance was at 1:36 a.m. and lasted about 20 minutes. The second was at 9:46 p.m. and it didn’t start moving again until 11:38 p.m. Crew members who spoke to Military.com said that, seven years later, they couldn’t recall the exact timing of the fuel dump.
"Once we started feeding from that feeding tank [for potable water], the entire ship was contaminated," said Casto. "It's in all the lines. It's in everything. You cook with it, you bathe with it. You drink it."
The Boxer creates its own fresh water through a fairly basic and simple process of evaporation. Seawater is heated and then condensed, leaving the salt behind in the process.
However, if there is fuel in the mix, the fuel will evaporate alongside the water and contaminate the system.
Once the fuel was in the water, it would not have been easy to get it out, according to Arms and Casto. Expelling that much water would affect the overall stability of the ship and, even if dumped, the water storage tanks themselves would need to be flushed -- a process that did not occur until two months later, when the ship pulled into the Port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, just south of Dubai, for a mid-deployment voyage repair.
Arms gave another reason for not dumping the contaminated water: "They would now have to admit that someone f----- up," he said.
Gonzales, who retired from the Navy as a chief warrant officer, said he did not recall any water contamination during the 2016 deployment.
"I would say fuel didn't get into the water supply, because I remember correctly, all the water chemistry was sanitary. As far as I can remember, and I have a pretty good memory, there was no dumping of tanks or anything," Gonzales told Military.com.
Multiple Marines and sailors said then-Navy Lt. Dana Lilli, the Boxer's senior medical officer at the time of the incident, informed the ship that the water was safe to drink. Military.com reached out to Lilli, who is now a lieutenant commander, multiple times. She did not respond.
Gonzales added that, "There never would have been any water, unsanitary water, that would have gotten into the system. It's impossible. … This is probably just a mess deck rumor."
However, in addition to interviews with the crew, Military.com obtained documentation proving that fuel was in the Boxer's water supply.
Aaron Rawlings, a former Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine reconnaissance platoon who continues to work in health care, printed out an email from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit that shows fuel had gotten into the water supply on the USS Boxer. The document was authenticated by other Marines who served on the ship.
The email, dated for March 15, 2016, has the subject line "fuel in the water" and is categorized as being of "high" importance. It's signed by the watch officer and tells the crew: "Be advised, there is fuel in the water. There is bottled water on the mess decks for consumption."
Rawlings told Military.com that he was concerned for his Marines after being exposed to fuel in their drinking and bathing water. He wanted the incident documented in case their exposure created health issues later on, so he placed a copy of the email in each of his Marines' medical files.
It is unclear how the oil lab would have explained the sudden drop in fuel for the daily "Fuel and Water Report" -- a detailed accounting of all the diesel and drinking water use submitted to the ship's commander.
Military.com filed requests for those logs but was told that they are retained by the Navy for only three years and have since been destroyed.
Fuel in the Water
When the crew began to notice the pungent smell of fuel coming from the taps, the Boxer found itself unprepared to deal with the tainted water.
The ship provided a small ration of bottled water, but it ran out quickly. Crew members were told that if they wanted drinking water, they could buy it from the ship's store but soon that ran out too.
Nikolas Ross, a former Navy corpsman, and more than a dozen other Marines and sailors -- both officer and enlisted -- interviewed by Military.com said the ship repeatedly claimed the water was safe to drink. Ross said he remembers "the smell and taste, making you feel nauseous."
Problems with drinking water aboard Navy ships is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is a delay in a ship acknowledging issues to a crew. Experts and myriad former sailors regularly relayed anecdotal accounts of fuel contamination while serving aboard ships throughout the Cold War and into the present day.
A December 1975 report from the Government Accountability Office detailed how dumping fuel into the ocean was a common practice for Navy vessels. Congress requested information after the USS Independence dumped 8,900 gallons of aviation gasoline off the coast of South Carolina, which garnered widespread media attention at the time.
Last fall, the Navy had two high-profile instances of water contamination aboard aircraft carriers. One, aboard the USS Nimitz, involved jet fuel -- often referred to by its official designation JP-5 -- getting into the water supply after the crew tried to clean a water tank that they didn't realize contained the substance.
The other involved bacteria in the water system aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln. In that incident of E. coli contamination, videos posted to social media revealed that ship's commander telling her crew amid the crisis that she purposely took a shower on the ship and that it "was marvelous."
"I even tasted the water," she said, adding that it was "good to go."
A subsequent investigation into both incidents, released by the service earlier this month, revealed major systemic issues that hamper a ship's ability to deal with fuel contamination, including the fact that Navy ships don't carry test kits to determine if petroleum products like diesel or jet fuel are in their water.
Meanwhile, the Navy found that there were four missed opportunities for sailors on the Lincoln to identify and flag the bacterial water contamination before it spread and that the leadership waited overnight before alerting the crew.
One main difference between these two more recent cases and the Boxer, however, is that the contamination came from inside the ship and didn't involve any dumping of fuel overboard -- an act that is legally murky.
International treaties such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, commonly called MARPOL, clearly prohibit commercial vessels from dumping fuel into the ocean.
The sailors that spoke with Military.com also believed that laws prevented them from just dumping fuel overboard. A 2017 Department of Defense regulation bound Navy warships to that international convention but with a major carveout -- "so far as is reasonable without impairing the operations or operational capabilities of such ships."
Dr. Salvatore Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University and a former merchant mariner, said that, while "port states will prosecute people within their waters, if they catch them doing it," enforcing the law on a Navy warship is tricky.
"The problem you have is Navy vessels have sovereign immunity," he said, referring to the understanding that countries cannot stop or search ships of another nation or interfere with another state's property.
Military.com reached out to the embassies of both South Korea and Japan as part of our reporting but did not receive a reply.
Because getting fuel out of water tanks requires completely draining them and washing them, the ship needed to pull into port to fix the problem.
Casto said when the ship pulled into Hong Kong, it still had dirty water. Casto and others interviewed said the ship didn't fully flush and clean out the contaminated tanks for two months.
"We ported in Dubai to fix this," he said. "We sat in Dubai for probably a week, me and my colleagues were on watch 24/7 as water trucks came in to fill up and dump these tanks. … Workers came in and cleaned the tanks."
A video posted online by the U.S. Navy shows the Boxer was in that port from June 23 to June 30, 2016.
Years later, more than a few members of the crew say they have ongoing health problems related to two months of living with fuel in the water.
Blanton said she began experiencing extremely heavy periods right after the exposure -- irregularities that continue to this day. Without regulating her periods with oral contraceptives, she bleeds for weeks at a time.
"I worry that it has affected my fertility, but I haven't really tested. I don't know that I want the answer," Blanton said in an interview.
Casto, who worked in the Boxer's main propulsion aft, told Military.com that he and his spouse are undergoing testing for infertility.
"Me and my wife are having trouble conceiving," he said. "And my genes are not -- my family is not known to have that issue, let's just put it that way."
Veterans may apply for health care and disability compensation with the Department of Veterans Affairs based on whether their illnesses or injuries were related to their military service.
The VA maintains a list of diseases definitively linked to the military depending on service location and era, but for all others, the VA requires that veterans prove a connection that their military service caused their illness or injury, known as "service connection."
This usually requires proof that includes service records; details of any incidents, operational events or accidents; and a letter from a physician, known as a "nexus letter," that connects an illness or injury with that event.
A former Marine who asked not to be named, attempted to obtain documentation of the incident via the Boxer's official Facebook account but was denied after the ship spoke with an unnamed senior medical officer aboard the Boxer, per screenshots given to Military.com.
Without evidence of the mishap, the Boxer veterans are at a disadvantage. Blanton filed a VA claim in 2018 and was denied. She decided not to pursue it because she figured the Navy "would never be held accountable."
At least one veteran who filed a disability claim tied to symptoms they believed were related to the fuel incident was successful, but others have faced similar headwinds to Blanton.
When Nick Croushore, also a former Marine, met with a VA claims representative as he left the service, he told the rep he had an eye problem he knew was the result of fuel exposure.
Croushore had been disposing bags of trash on the ship when he got something in his eye. He ran over to the eyewash station, where he bathed his eyeball with fuel-tainted water.
"I treated myself with an eye patch because I went to the corpsman and he just told me to come back if it got infected. ... To this day, I can't wear contacts in my left eye, and my vision is kinda messed up," he said.
He filed a VA disability claim and was denied for his eye conditions and chronic chest pain. He also was denied for a claim tied to the skin issues he attributes to the fuel exposure.
"I wasn't really mad about my eye or my chest -- people were worse off than I was -- but could we have gotten a little bit of acknowledgment that it happened?" Croushore said.
Much research has been published on the effects of diesel exhaust on the human body, but little is available on the effects of human consumption of petroleum products, including diesel, or having prolonged direct contact with fuel-contaminated water.
Exposure to military fuels causes kidney damage or kidney cancer in male rats, but scientists question the results of animal testing in relation to humans. Research indicates that exposure to jet fuel or diesel can cause acute and chronic central nervous system symptoms in humans like dizziness, headache, nausea, sleep issues, depression and memory impairment, but the findings conducted on this topic are inconclusive, according to a 1996 National Research Council report.
Navy policy on fuel contamination is difficult to find. A Navy medicine publication on water quality aboard ships notes that the crew is responsible for testing the pH and salt content of the water, as well as making sure it is free of E. coli and similar bacteria, but it makes no mention of testing for other compounds.
When the crew of the Nimitz was trying to remove jet fuel from its water supply, the investigation report into the incident said Naval Sea Systems Command -- the unit tasked with ship design, construction and maintenance -- told the ship "to utilize a limit of 0.266 [parts per million]," suggesting the Navy will tolerate some, minimal, level of water contamination with hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons are a broader chemical category to which substances like jet fuel and ship’s diesel fuel belong.
Chemicals such as benzene that are a natural component of petroleum, as well as toluene and naphthalene, have been linked to long-term health problems, and those are among the biggest concerns when discussing the effects of military fuel exposure on service members and their families, according to Chelsey Simoni, a former Army aviation medic and registered nurse who studies toxic exposures for the nonprofit HunterSeven Foundation.
Simoni said the toxicity of exposure largely depends on the amount encountered and whether the vapors were inhaled, absorbed or ingested. Ingestion is the "least worrisome" because human kidneys are efficient at flushing out toxins, while bathing in water tainted with fuel creates significant risk because warm water opens the skin's pores, she said. Breathing in fuel fumes may pose risks because the particles tend to hang around in the lungs.
"Considering the rates of cancers, especially blood cancers, in diesel mechanics and those in the fuel and fuel-related industries by absorbing alone, the risk is somewhat obvious," she said.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the actual effects of diesel ingestion or inhalation on the body, many of the sailors and Marines on the Boxer have been left wondering whether the incident had anything to do with every unexplained ache, itch, health anomaly and, in at least one case, a death.
Marine Sgt. Daniel Pedersen died on Nov. 26, 2019, at the age of 25 from a rare form of lung cancer called a neuroendocrine tumor. Risk factors include advanced age, a previous risk of cancer, smoking and chemical exposure.
Pedersen's family did not respond to requests for interviews, but Blanton said the death of a respected and loved colleague struck his fellow Marines hard and left them questioning the cause of his illness.
"He was super strong, super athletic and, all around, a good freakin' person, and out of nowhere came this cancer. He didn't smoke. No one who is this healthy should be gone this quick," Blanton said.
Fuel contamination on Navy ships often is discussed on an anecdotal level but, for the roughly 3,000 sailors and Marines assigned to the Boxer in 2016, the poisoning was real and, according to those interviewed for this story, didn't have to happen.
"It was preventable," said Arms. "That's what makes it more infuriating."
But like many incidents that occur aboard U.S. Navy vessels, an expectation to tolerate adversity along with a loyalty to the ship's captain and each other kept the truth secret for more than seven years.
"The Navy's neglect is raising questions about the worth of serving," said a former Marine who worked in aviation on the Boxer and who first provided the tip to Military.com that launched this investigation. "How many more will be put at risk before the Navy takes responsibility for their mishaps?"
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that a source worked in the main propulsion aft on the ship.
-- James LaPorta covers national security for The Messenger and is a former investigative reporter for The Associated Press. A veteran of the Afghanistan war, he served as a U.S. Marine infantryman and intelligence cell chief.
-- Konstantin Toropin is the Pentagon reporter for Military.com and a veteran of the U.S. Navy, having served five years in the surface fleet as a signals intelligence analyst. Prior to Military.com he covered breaking national news for CNN.
-- Patricia Kime covers veterans and service member health for Military.com. She previously was a senior writer for Military Times, specializing in health care and medicine. She is also a military spouse.