JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Eric Holford joined the Marines young, at just 18-years-old. He also died young, at age 53. He didn’t die in combat, but his widow Michelle James believes his service cost him his life.
“He died of bladder cancer, colon cancer, and MS,” James said. “And he also had kidney disease as well.”
His battle with cancer ended in 2019, but his wife’s fight continues. She's now advocating for the Marines of Camp Lejuene and their families who were exposed to toxic water while stationed at the North Carolina military base.
“It was a cocktail of chemicals that were released in the water, which has been proven to cause cancer,” James said.
The water was tainted by industrial solvents and other hazardous chemicals disposed of off-base by a dry-cleaning company and industrial activities on base. By the government's own estimate, one million military and civilian staff and their families may have been exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune.
The VA acknowledges people who spent as little as 30 days between 1953 and 1987 may have been impacted.
Veterans with eight diseases including Parkinson's may be eligible for compensation, and veterans or family members with fifteen conditions including miscarriage may be eligible for health care benefits.
“My husband, unfortunately, wasn't one that was made aware. And even up to this day, there are a lot of people who were at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, they're not aware that they have been exposed to toxic water,” James said.
She and others want additional illnesses on the list, and they want the VA to create a registry to track just how many people have been sickened.
“They can build up this registry and get a tally of the amount of people that have come in with different illnesses,” James said. “I'm finding that more and more people are going forward to colon cancer, but colon cancer isn't one of those that is on the list.”
In March the U.S. House of Representatives passed a wide-ranging bill, the Honoring our PACT Act, that includes The Camp Lejeune Justice Act which would give those harmed a two-year window to sue for compensation. On Wednesday, senators announced a bipartisan agreement had been reached on historic toxic exposure legislation that includes the Camp Lejeune Act.
It’s legislation Republican Senator Marco Rubio supports.
“They shouldn't have to be fighting their own government to be compensated for the wrongdoing of their own government,” Senator Rubio said. “And always the opposition to it is money. But, you know, my view of it is that we owe these people for their pain and suffering after serving our country and being hurt by the negligence of government.”
James believes that had her husband known about the toxic water at Camp Lejeune sooner, he could have been diagnosed earlier and possibly still be alive.
“There are Marines, they're suffering right now,” James said. “They put their lives on the line for their country. You would hope that at the end of it, there'll be some recognition for the sacrifice that they made, considering this was no fault of their own.”
Once the text of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 has been finalized, it will be put on the floor for a vote in the Senate. After it passes the Senate, the legislation must be passed by the House before being signed into law by the President.
In a statement to First Coast News, VA Spokesperson Terrence Hayes said:
"VA does encourage all Veterans who may have served at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River in North Carolina for at least 30 cumulative days from August 1953 to December 1987 and suffer from adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Parkinson's disease to file a claim,” Hayes said. “Scientific and medical evidence has shown an association between exposure to these contaminants during military service and development of certain diseases later on. If you have qualifying service at Camp Lejeune and a current diagnosis of one of these conditions, you may be able to receive disability benefits.”
As for whether the VA plans to create a registry, Hayes said, "VA does not have a registry dedicated for Camp Lejeune Veterans, however, we will continue to look for ways to improve and expand how we collect data and information for Veterans to ensure timely access to care and delivery of benefits."
"I was very ecstatic to learn the news that the Senate had reached a bipartisan deal," James said. "We just hope it does go through and passes the Senate and the House and is finally signed into law. Then we can get the justice we deserve."