TAMPA, FL (WFLA) – Tracey Byrd, age 40, has suffered from serious illnesses all of her life but had no idea why.
“I figured I was just a sickly kid,” Byrd said.
Then last year, while going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, she read about tainted drinking water at the Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina.
“I though OK, this pretty much explains my life,” Byrd said.
By then she was buried in medical bills and in danger of losing her home.
Byrd is now one of about 20,000 former Camp Lejeune marines and their family members currently living in Florida who are on a registry of people exposed to cancer-causing chemicals such as PCE, TCE, DCE, benzene and vinyl chloride in the base drinking water. VA assistance is just now kicking in to pay some of the cost of her care.
The problem has become one of the military’s biggest environmental embarrassments since the Agent Orange controversy in Vietnam and, like Agent Orange, the government has been slow to admit wrongdoing or take ownership for the health impact on legions of victims.
Polk County resident Mike Partain was born on the base, suffered male breast cancer later in life and has become one of the most outspoken advocates for victim benefits. When Congress passed legislation in 2012 that first enabled health benefits, Partain was in the Oval Office when the President signed that legislation into law.
Just last week the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – part of the CDC – issued a statement acknowledging a link between the Camp Lejeune water and a number of cancer ailments and other diseases.
“It’s like the fireman finally coming out and telling you your house is on fire,” Partain said.
Experts say chemical dumping and leaking underground tanks polluted Camp Lejeune’s drinking wells from the 1950’s until 1985. But the Marine Corps and federal government have only recently owned up the legacy of deadly diseases and birth defects caused by the tainted water. So far, no individuals have taken personal responsibility for the pollution or an attempt to cover up the problem now surfacing 30 years later.
“If somebody walked in my house and shot me they would be held responsible,” Byrd said. “But if somebody walks in my house and poisons me they’re not. How is that fair?”
Byrd had a twin brother, but he died at birth and ended up in Camp Lejeune’s “Angel” cemetery along with countless other stillborn infants at the base.
“My mom had several miscarriages prior to me being born,” said Byrd.
Byrd now lives outside of Lake Wales with her husband and daughters, ages seven and nine. She is a deeply faithful Christian who insists she doesn’t worry about dying from cancer or the other diseases she has battled all of her life.
“Dying didn’t scare me,” Byrd said. “What scared me the most is my kids not having a mother. The possibility of them being raised without a mom devastated me.”
Byrd says mounting medical bills almost pushed her family into foreclosure, but they managed to keep paying the mortgage with the help of friends, family and fundraisers. Then last year, she happened to read a story about Camp Lejeune and signed up for benefits afforded former residents of the base.
She recently met another former base resident who suffered birth defects and had no idea about the base drinking water issue until meeting Byrd. “It’s not fair, they did this to so many people.”
During her darkest days last year when she was facing a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Byrd divided up her jewelry and along with her daughters planned her own funeral.
“But once we did that, we started living,” said Byrd.
Byrd credits her religious faith, supportive husband and desire to see her girls grow up with getting her through the breast cancer battle. Every time she had a treatment or passed a milestone, Byrd and her daughters would plant a flower or bush in her yard to mark the moment. “It was just something to give my daughters hope,” Byrd said. “I wanted them to know there was hope in all of this.”
Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will take testimony on the Camp Lejeune issue as advocates push for an easier process for former marines and their families to collect benefits. It will be streamed live here.
Dec. 11 from 9 a.m to 2:30 p.m. there will be a panel discussion followed by a public forum on Dec. 12 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Embassy Suites in Tampa hosted by the ATSDR. For those who cannot attend, there will be a livestream.
Partain says those meetings are the latest attempt to get the word out to people like Byrd who have suffered a lifetime of illness without knowing why.
“If we’d relied on the Marine Corps and the Navy we’d never have found out,” Partain said.
It would be easy for bitterness to consume Byrd after the loss of her twin brother, her many illnesses and ongoing financial hardship, but she’s determined to remain positive.
“It’s sad,” Byrd said. “But I don’t hold ill will, I just don’t. It’s all in Gods’ hands.”