Q. I have Parkinson's disease that I believe is linked to my service as a Marine at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in the 1970s. How can I claim disability through the Department of Veterans Affairs?
A. Veterans Affairs officials recently determined that eight diseases were service-connected, due to consuming contaminated drinking water at the base: kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson's disease and aplastic anemia, as well as other myelodysplastic syndromes, which are disorders caused by poorly formed or dysfunctional blood cells. Veterans who were not previously eligible for disability compensation may be eligible to receive it under the proposed changes.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald stated Dec. 17 that there will be a presumption of service connection for these conditions. This decision was the result of discussions between the VA and the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Under the proposed expanded benefits eligibility, reserve and National Guard members may also qualify for eligibility based on the VA's definition of a veteran, for benefit purposes.
Given the connection to military service history at Camp Lejeune, this may affect a veteran's ability to collect VA disability benefits. As the VA reports, "[f]rom the 1950s through the 1980s, people living or working at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, were potentially exposed to drinking water contaminated with industrial solvents […] and other chemicals." These chemicals included perchloroethylene (a dry cleaning agent), trichloroethylene (a metal degreaser), vinyl chloride, benzene, and other petroleum contaminants. During these years, these industrial solvents contaminated drinking water from leaking storage tanks on the base. As of February 1985, those wells were shut down.
The VA further reports that it has not determined the "duration […], intensity, [… and] geographic extent" of this contamination. However, the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry determined that prolonged exposure to these chemicals "increases the risk of certain health conditions," including the conditions that are presumptively connected.
However, disability benefits are not necessarily covered under the Camp Lejeune Healthcare Program. You will need to be a veteran who was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, who served at Camp Lejeune for any length of time during the period of contamination (Aug. 1, 1953, through Dec. 31, 1987). You must also have "a current disease and a medical opinion that states the disease is a result of exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune." Finally, you will normally have to undergo a VA medical examination that determines whether your disability is related to service at Camp Lejeune.
Due to these requirements, it is critical for a veteran to consult with an experienced military law attorney prior to seeking benefits. This is also important because the VA cannot grant any benefit claims based on the expanded definitions until the final regulations are issued. A military law attorney can provide the veteran with the best chance at success with his or her disability claim with the VA.