By now, most veterans know that the drinking water at Camp Lejeune was heavily contaminated with volatile organic compounds between 1953 and 1987. At the Hadnot Point water plant, the trichloroethylene level exceeded the safe exposure limit by 208 times, whereas at Tarawa Terrace, the perchloroethylene level eclipsed it by 43 times. While most of these solvents came from the nearby dry-cleaning firm ABC One-Hour Cleaners, they would also end up in the groundwater when service members would use toxic products to clean up weapons and equipment.
During the 34 years Camp Lejeune’s water contained tremendous concentrations of harmful chemicals, approximately one million people lived there, most of whom experienced toxic exposure. As a consequence, today, numerous veterans who drank tainted water at the military base struggle with awful, potentially fatal diseases, including kidney, prostate, bladder, and liver cancer. Naturally, you would think these brave people can easily access VA benefits such as disability compensation for their unjust suffering, but things are different.
The VA has been unfairly denying Camp Lejeune veterans the benefits they deserve for years. While the initial claim approval rate was 25 percent, which was already low, it subsequently plummeted to only 5 percent. One of the main reasons why these veterans had their claims rejected is that the VA has been employing “subject matter experts” since 2012. According to the findings of Yale Law School students, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Camp Lejeune veterans, most “subject matter experts” were, in fact, general and preventive medicine doctors instead of medical professionals specializing in the complex diseases the veterans were struggling with.
“Not all of them appeared to have the qualifications for the job they’re doing,” said Mike Wishnie, who runs the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. At the moment, the approval rate for Camp Lejeune claims is 17 percent, which is a cause for concern, as many veterans rely on the financial help they receive from the VA to afford the healthcare and treatment they need. On the other hand, the VA insisted that the doctors who reviewed the claims had “appropriate credentials” and received four hours of training on the issues regarding Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water.
Moreover, another discouraging finding came to light – the VA mishandled nearly 40 percent of all disability claims filed for toxic water exposure at Camp Lejeune, denying or delaying benefits for over 21,000 veterans. Out of the 57,500 claims filed since 2017 for diseases related to water contamination at the military base, the VA outright denied 17,200 instead of asking for additional information. Even worse, claims filed by another 2,300 veterans were assigned incorrect dates, denying them almost $14 million in retroactive payments.
A sliver of hope for veterans living with terrible illnesses is the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which became effective on August 11, 2022. By virtue of this new law, they can now file a claim with the government to receive financial compensation for their diagnoses. Furthermore, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act prohibits the government from asserting immunity from the lawsuits filed by veterans to ensure everyone obtains the money they are entitled to. The family members of veterans can also seek legal recourse under this recently enacted law if they spent time at Camp Lejeune and developed a related disease.
Because the claim approval rate is so low, many Camp Lejeune veterans might feel intimidated to seek disability compensation from the VA. However, since they are entitled to this important benefit, they should file their claim with the assistance of a claims agent, accredited attorney, or Veterans Service Officer. These professionals are trained and certified in the VA claims and appeals processes, so veterans will most likely be assigned a correct disability rating, and their disability claims will result in the compensation they deserve. A lawyer who has significant experience can efficiently help veterans file their VA disability claim and also seek compensation under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
Approximately half of the veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune currently struggle with a serious disease. Therefore, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act will tremendously benefit these courageous people who put their lives on the line to defend our country. Even though veterans are less likely to experience poverty than the general population, roughly 1.5 million live below the federal poverty level. For these veterans, VA disability compensation is of utmost importance if they developed a crippling illness due to spending time at contaminated military bases such as Camp Lejeune. For veterans to receive the benefits they deserve, the VA has to employ medical experts who have vast knowledge about toxic exposure and the health problems it can result in.
Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure, assisting Camp Lejeune veterans who struggle with diseases caused by drinking toxic water.
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