Curtis Neal Crawford (L) and Brian Amburgey (R), stand by signs at an outreach event for survivors and their families in Jacksonville, NC on Sunday, Oct. 10. The two former Marines have both experienced serious health impacts they say are the result of toxic water exposure at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s. Photo by Lewis Kendall. 

Standing down the road from the source of the contamination that decades ago altered the course of their lives, a group of veterans and their families gathered Sunday to make yet another push for recognition, outreach, and compensation.

Behind a large flag bearing the seal of the U.S. Marine Corps, the group, braving the day’s intermittent rain, had posted a bright red sign: “If you served at Camp Lejeune between 1953-1987 you were exposed to highly contaminated drinking water.”

The group is part of a larger cohort of as many as one million military and civilian staff and their families affected by decades of toxic water at the Camp Lejeune base. Contaminated with carcinogenic substances such as benzene and trichloroethylene (TCE), the water increased the risk of cancer and a handful of other serious health effects for those who consumed it or had otherwise been exposed.

Positioned on the corner of a major intersection near downtown Jacksonville, Sunday’s event aimed to promote awareness of the issue and find more veterans, workers and dependents who may have lived on Lejeune.

One of the organizers, Samantha Via, is among those dependents. Via’s father Maynard Sinclair served in the Marines for 24 years and was stationed with his family at Lejeune from 1976 to 1988. Both Sinclair and Via’s mother died of what the 46-year-old understands as effects from the water, while Via herself has gone through multiple bouts of breast cancer, as well as other significant health impacts over the years.

Since 2009, Via has been spearheading, performing outreach, and fighting for proper acknowledgement from the military and government. An administrator for the 17,000-member “Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Survivors” group on Facebook, Via says the lack of action from the Marine Corps has been nothing short of shameful.

“My father died an angry man because he served for 24 years and had to watch his family slowly die and get sick while blaming himself,” she says. “Am I angry? Absolutely. We have been betrayed by our own country and leaders (who) do not want to take accountability or take care of our veterans and their sick loved ones.” 

Samantha Via and her father, former Marine Maynard Sinclair. Both experienced serious health impacts Via says are the result of toxic water exposure at Camp Lejeune. Sinclair died in 2020. Photo courtesy Samantha Via.

The group is pushing legislators to pass two bills. The first, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, would allow anyone exposed to contamination on the base between 1953 and 1987 to sue the government for damages. Another, the Toxic Exposure in the American Military, or TEAM Act, would provide health care for veterans exposed to a number of toxic substances, including those at Lejeune. Despite recent setbacks, advocates remain hopeful that both bills will receive a vote in Congress.

“This is three decades overdue,” Via says of the legislation. “If it doesn’t get approved, that is more blood on our government’s hands.”

Events like the one in Jacksonville have proven successful at drumming up support. And Via’s network has helped spawn similar outreach efforts across the country that have tracked down thousands of affected people. In Kentucky alone, the group has gained some 600 new members over the past three years, according to state organizer Brian Amburgey.

A former Marine, Amburgey, 55, spent time at Lejeune beginning in 1984, and now has a low white blood cell count and experiences emotion regulation issues, as well as tremors that he believes may be indicative of Parkinson’s. Clad in a black ball cap with “Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Survivor” stitched on the front, Amburgey took a plastic water bottle, crumpled it up and threw it on the ground.

“That’s the way the government treats their veterans,” he says. “They’ll use you up, take everything from us and throw us in the trash.”

But while vets at least signed on the dotted line, Amburgey adds, family members and dependents—like his wife and three sons—did not. As we talked, a car pulled into the nearby lot and Amburgey went to meet the man: a Marine who has lived at Lejeune since the 80s but who had only recently learned about the contamination.

“I’m not going to stop until everyone gets justice,” Amburgey says. “Not just for those who worked on base, but also their families.”

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