Retired Master Sgt. James Kithcart was 17 when he enlisted in the Marines. In the two years he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, from 1980-82, he noticed, from about six months in, what he calls “extreme fatigue.”
And it wasn’t just him – his fellow recruits were feeling the same.
In a December 2016 interview with Cleveland radio host Todd Allyn, Kithcart said he and the other enlistees were constantly taking naps.
“Here you’re talking about 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old Marines that were always exhausted … you always felt like your battery was constantly drained … but you never knew what was going on,” he told Allyn.
According to Kithcart, Marines would go to the medical facilities on base where they were told that nothing was wrong with them and that they should fight what was probably dehydration by drinking water. This was before the days of bottled water, he noted. And so, being Marines, they did what they were told.
After retiring from active duty, and for the next 32 years, Kithcart suffered from sleep apnea, insomnia, constant joint pain, mysterious skin rashes and renal toxicity with one kidney the size of a 7-year-old’s, and the other the size of a gorilla’s.
Then, in September 2014, he received a letter from the Veterans Affairs Administration that indicated the dry cleaners on the base at Camp Lejeune had been pumping dirty water into a reservoir. Instead of that water going into a separator, it was going right back into the drinking supply. Kithcart, and what the VA is now admitting could be as many as 900,000 service members from a period between Aug. 1, 1953 and Dec. 31, 1987, were potentially exposed to the tainted water.
On Friday, a new rule was announced by the VA that “covers active duty, Reserve and National Guard members who developed one of eight diseases: adult leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease,” The Marine Corps Times reported. Those eligible can receive disability compensation beginning in March. They merely need submit evidence of their diagnoses and their service information proving 30 cumulative days on the base during the time period the water was contaminated.
The cash payouts will total more than $2 billion.
For Kithcart, that’s only a start considering the denial rate from the VA to Marines that had been stationed at Camp Lejeune during the affected period was above 95 percent, a statistic the VA recently admitted he says.
“The worst part is when you’re told there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, adding that his medical records were lost three or four times and that he was told by the VA that he should be happy he wasn’t overseas fighting or dying in Iraq.
According to The Marine Corps Times, veterans who believe they were affected may now submit applications for benefits. They estimate roughly 1,400 disability claims related to Lejeune are pending and will be reviewed immediately. The cost to the taxpayer will be approximately $2.2 billion over a five-year period.
"This is good news," said retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, whose daughter Janey was born in 1976 while he was stationed at Lejeune. Janey died from leukemia at age 9. Ensminger now heads a veterans group, The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, which advocates for those seeking disability compensation.
"This has been a hard, long slog," said Ensminger, who argues the government must go further in covering additional diseases. "This is not the end of the issue."
Kithcart notes that Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune during the 50s may not even be aware of the claim, and so word-of-mouth is crucial to make sure all those affected have the chance to be compensated.