Thousands of sick veterans — including many from New York — who believe they've fallen ill because of contaminated water at one of the nation's legendary Marine bases say the Department of Veterans Affairs is turning a deaf ear to their plight. Our Michael Herzenberg has the results of his exclusive NY1 investigation.
Mark and Rene Cifelli just got married, but they are truly living each day together as if it will be their last.
Mark is dying.
"The doctor said there's nothing we can do for you," Cifelli explains. "He was really just giving me comfort drugs."
Cifelli, who lives in North Tonawanda, N.Y., outside of Buffalo, has stage four colon, lung and liver cancer. He says his doctors blame exposure to chemicals when he was a Marine at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the 1980s.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is providing him with medical care, but it has rejected his application for disability benefits three times.
"I am angry," Cifelli told NY1. "Semper Fi, always faithful. That wasn't being faithful to the Marines that served."
Cifelli is among thousands of Camp Lejeune veterans who have filed disability claims alleging they got sick because of exposure to the toxic chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and other contaminants.
The VA acknowledges that in 7,300 of the claims, there is "limited or suggestive evidence of an association with the contaminants in the water." But NY1 has learned that VA medical experts denied nearly 6,500 of those claims, an 89% rejection rate.
"I've been outraged," said New York City attorney Craig Unterberg, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year.
He lived at Camp Lejeune in the early 1970s when he was a toddler, drinking and playing in the water. Now he’s working with veterans and other civilians from the base, fighting for the VA to better help those who have fallen ill.
"We need the VA to act quicker, we need them to lower the burden that is on people to try to get their claims approved."
As many as 900,000 service members, plus an unknown number of civilians, were potentially exposed to the contaminants from 1953 to 1987. The chemicals leaked into the groundwater from industrial sites inside Camp Lejeune and a dry cleaner just off the base.
President Obama signed a law four years ago making VA medical care less expensive for veterans and civilians who drank Camp Lejeune's water and suffer from any of 15 medical conditions, most of them cancer.
"This bill ends a decade-long struggle for those who served at Camp Lejeune," Obama said.
More than 21,000 vets have been helped as a result, but many like Cifelli want disability benefits, too. "Everybody's let us down, from the President on down," he says.
Some say they are overwhelmed fighting their cancer while working. Disability payments, they say, would let them focus on the fight to survive, or at least let them better enjoy their final days.
Cifelli says he doesn’t have the "energy to continue at the pace I'm going."
The VA has heard the complaints and says it will grant the disability benefits for eight medical conditions. But that new policy is not expected to take effect for at least a year. Some of the sick veterans fear they won’t live that long.
For those with illnesses that still won't be covered, like bladder or breast cancer, the same application process for disability benefits will still apply, with its high rejection rate.