Part two of a three-part series
There wasn’t much reason for hope when doctors told Bruce Furtado he had terminal cancer in July 2010.
At 48, the ex-Marine knew the leukemia would eventually kill him. He feared that as the disease took its toll, he would lose his job, then his insurance, then everything he owned, and finally his life.
Nothing would be left for his family.
But Furtado did find a faint hope on a Department of Veterans Affairs website, which discussed a correlation between certain diseases, including leukemia, and three decades of water contamination at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Furtado spent seven years there after enlisting at age 17 in 1979.
“That was a Godsend for me,” Furtado now remembers thinking at the time. “I thought, well at least the VA will help me as I begin my battle to fight this illness.”
Three years later, Furtado’s hopes have been dashed. His claim for disability benefits was rejected because VA officials concluded he could not prove it was the tainted water that caused his cancer.
He’s also learned that the strong correlation described on the VA’s website does not mean the agency recognizes it as a cause for his cancer, or any of the other medical conditions on the list.
It did not help when Congress passed a law recognizing the relationship last year and declaring an automatic service connection for veterans seeking health care from the agency.
The new law did nothing to help veterans prove their claims for disability benefits. As a result, only about one in four disability claims related to Camp Lejeune water contamination is approved by VA.
“I’ve been betrayed,” Furtado said. “I don’t even feel like a Marine. I’ve been led to believe by the government that I put my life up to protect that I would never be in this situation.”
Furtado is one of the estimated one million veterans and family members who lived and worked on the base while its drinking water was tainted by toxic chemicals, including trichloroethylene and benzene, both known carcinogens.
Recent studies by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) show the high contamination levels were present at least from 1953 until 1985, when the wells were shut down.
ATSDR is still researching specific health effects on veterans and their children with studies that are unlikely to be completed until 2014.
VA is waiting on those studies before determining whether to grant a “presumption” that the water contamination caused the diseases killing Marines who served at Camp Lejeune.
Such a presumption would allow veterans to prove their claims by showing they were exposed to the polluted water and have been diagnosed with one of the listed illnesses known to be associated with the contaminants. They would no longer have to prove it was the water and not something else that caused their disease.
Furtado lived on the base for four years. After his discharge in 1986, he had no serious health issues and paid little attention to the percolating concerns of his fellow veterans about the water contamination.
After he was diagnosed with leukemia in July 2010, he began researching the disease and the water issues. With such strong correlations listed on the VA’s own website, Furtado thought getting his disability claim approved would be a “slam dunk.”
But VA officials were skeptical from the beginning, refusing to acknowledge any connection between Camp Lejeune and cancer, he said. One VA doctor told him “the situation at Camp Lejeune is as clear as muddy water,” according to Furtado.
“I left there just as disheartened as the day I was diagnosed,” he said.
It took 20 months for VA to reject Furtado’s disability claim.
Furtado has hired a lawyer and is appealing, a process that typically takes more than three years. He is not even sure he will still be alive by then.
“I’m disgusted,” Furtado said. “I’m disheartened. There is no fight. The bureaucracy attached to the VA is such that you just wait and wait and wait. And hope.”
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.