TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Hundreds of former Marines and their family members are expected to attend two public meetings that start in Tampa Friday on the toxic contamination that poisoned the drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The Marine Corps has a registry of more than 200,000 potentially affected people across the nation which includes more than 20,000 in Florida alone.
Tracey Byrd, a Polk County resident who was born at the base is one of them. “I was a twin,” Bird told 8 On Your Side in September. “My brother passed away at birth.”
Byrd has suffered from cancer and other serious illnesses most of her life and now attributes her medical troubles to the cancer-causing chemicals that tainted the Marine Base water for decades. Byrd was so sick a year ago that she enlisted her two young daughters to help plan her funeral in order to temper the blow of her death.
“Dying didn’t scare me, what scared me most is my kids not having a mother,” she said.
Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., a Community Assistance Panel made up of representatives from the Veterans Administration, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, as well as civilian advocates for Camp Lejeune victims will meet at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay at 2900 Bayport Dr. in Tampa.
Saturday there will be a town hall type meeting at the same location from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the same location with 300 people already signed up to attend.
Experts will discuss health studies that were conducted to understand the effects of exposures to chemicals such as benzene, TCE, PCE and vinyl chloride that poisoned the Marine base drinking water. The authors of those studies will be available to address questions from former base residents.
The VA’s response to all of this has been at the center of controversy on Capitol Hill for years because of the difficulty people have making claims and getting financial assistance for their illnesses. Byrd almost lost her home to foreclosure because of her mounting medical bills.
Friday, a consortium of veterans groups -The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Connecticut State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America represented by the Yale Law School – announced they’re filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to the claims process that they insist has been long withheld by the VA.
The veterans groups complain that the process that requires approval by “subject matter experts” is mired in mystery and bureaucratic ineptness that has greatly slowed the benefits approval process. “Since the launch of the Subject Matter Expert program, the grant rate for Camp Lejeune toxic water disability claims has dropped from approximately 25 percent to 8 percent,” a press release from Yale Law School stated Friday.
Advocated for medically-injured victims of the Camp Lejeune contamination are pushing for the kind of “presumptive” approval given to Vietnam Veterans suffering from various illnesses connected to Agent Orange. A “presumptive” list of poison water-connected illnesses has been winding its way through government agencies in recent months but has become bogged down in the federal bureaucracy.