As an infant in the early 1980s, Brent Wilson lived with his family at Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine base in North Carolina.
His father, GI Wilson, a retired colonel who had a decorated 37-year military career, was stationed on the base for several years between combat assignments.
Little did the Wilson family know, simply being on that military base and drinking the water there could cause cancer.
Last year, at age 39, Brent, a former paramedic and now a physician assistant, was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic kidney cancer, which spread to the lung, possibly the liver, and eventually to the bone.
The average age of people when they are diagnosed with renal cancer is 64. It is rare in people younger than age 45, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I have not smoked, no exposure to asbestos, mining, dust, so the chances of malignancy were less than 0.5 percent based on current guidelines,” Wilson told Healthline.
He says his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxins in the water while he was a baby on the base.
Wilson, who’s married with two young children and still lives in North Carolina, underwent cancer surgery and treatment.
He’s now back to work and trying to return to some normalcy with his work, his family, and his life. But his life will never be quite the same.
“Things have been stable since July. But there is no chance of cure, best we can hope for is stable,” said Wilson.
He keeps a close eye on clinical trials of new treatments, including immunotherapies that could help his own immune system fight the cancer and extend his life.
Families have suffered for decades
Camp Lejeune has a long and storied military history.
Since the beginning of World War II, the base has been the home of “Expeditionary Forces in Readiness.” It also has become the home for the II Marine Expeditionary Force, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, and other combat units and support commands.
But Lejeune’s legacy now is also steeped in tragedy.
From August 1953 through the end of December 1987, people living at Camp Lejeune were potentially exposed to drinking water contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene, and other harmful chemicals.
Thousands of troops and members of their family have suffered from the exposure. Many have died.
In August, 2012, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The program was established for family members of veterans, like Wilson, who were stationed at Camp Lejeune within that 34-year window.
The law requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide healthcare to veterans who served on active duty at Camp Lejeune. It also requires eligible Camp Lejeune family members to be reimbursed for eligible healthcare costs related to one or more of 15 illnesses or conditions that were caused by exposure to toxins at the base.
Those conditions are bladder cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, female infertility, hepatic steatosis, kidney cancer, leukemia, lung cancer, miscarriage, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes, neurobehavioral effects, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, renal toxicity, and scleroderma.
No disability coverage
Despite efforts by the government to support those who lived at Camp Lejeune, no disability coverage is available to the families.
Current legislation for Camp Lejeune family members is only for out-of-pocket expenses for the presumptive diagnosis, Wilson said. The legislation did not include disability payments.
“At some point, my cancer, which the evidence shows is the responsibility of the Marine Corps and the federal government, will prevent me from working and supporting my two kids,” Wilson said.
“Why do family members who were poisoned by the United States Marine Corps and the federal government not have the opportunity to apply for disability benefits as veterans are able to?”
Brent’s father, GI Wilson, who fought in the first Gulf War and Somalia as well as during the second war in Iraq in 2005 and other hot spots around the globe, said that while men and women who join the military take their chances, the family members are a different story.
“When the government poisons the families of our military, that is the ultimate betrayal. It is government bureaucratic treason at its best,” he told Healthline.
Toxic bases widespread
The toxic environment at Camp Lejeune is not an isolated incident.
Thousands of American troops and their families have been exposed to a variety of toxins on U.S. military bases both in the United States and abroad, according to multiple veteran service organizations, toxic experts, veterans and their families, and the Department of Defense itself.
The Pentagon has been accused in the past of covering up just how toxic these bases are.
But last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis released publicly for the first time a Department of Defense rundown of contaminated U.S. military bases.
Given to the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon document identified 401 active installations in the United States with at least one area where there was a known or suspected release of cancer-causing compounds.
The water at or around 126 military installations reportedly contains potentially harmful levels of perfluorinated compounds, which have been linked to cancers and developmental delays for fetuses and infants.
As the Military Times reported, there were a total of 25 Army bases, 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases, and two Defense Logistics Agency sites named in the report.
Each of these bases had higher-than-acceptable levels for the toxic compounds in either drinking water or groundwater sources.
The Department of Defense also reportedly tested 2,668 groundwater wells both on and in the surrounding off-base community and found that 61 percent of them tested above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended levels.
Congressman steps in
The defense department announced it has already made safety changes at the contaminated bases, including installing filters and providing bottled water to families living there.
Pentagon officials said they will be working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) next year on a study of the potential long-term effects of exposure.
But Rep. Walter P. Jones (R-North Carolina), who is on the House Armed Services Committee and helped Wilson get set up with the Camp Lejeune Family Program, wants to know more.
“I, along with several other members of Congress, want to know where we are on this and what we can do moving forward,” Jones said. “I’m going to ask for a briefing from the Department of Defense after the July 4 break to find out how bad the situation really is.”
Jones, who called the report from Mattis “a real concern,” praised journalists who are reporting these stories.
“What will come from your work and the work of other investigative reporters is that it will increase awareness and bring this matter to a head. We simply cannot put families on a military base and not guarantee that they have clean drinking water,” Jones said.
A veteran steps up
Steve House, an Army veteran, was exposed to a variety of dangerous toxins while stationed at Camp Carroll, a U.S. military base in South Korea, in the mid-1970s just after the Vietnam War.
He said the government “has been putting troops and their families on toxic military bases for decades.”
While at Camp Carroll, House said he and several others were ordered to bury 250 large barrels of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used by the Department of Defense in Vietnam to clear brush and flush out the enemy.
Agent Orange is now presumed by the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to be the cause of 14 diseases, including multiple types of cancer.
Despite dealing with diabetes, liver disease, glaucoma, neuropathy, and other illnesses as a result of his exposure to toxins at Camp Carroll, House got on his Harley and traversed the country several times collecting evidence and documents that proved just how toxic Camp Carroll and other military bases were, and still are.
He fought with the VA for a decade to get his disability benefits.
But his relentless investigation paid off.
In 2014, Judge K.J. Alibrando, who presided over House’s disability case, concluded that Camp Carroll was contaminated with pesticides, PCBs, TCE’s and heavy metals, and that these chemicals harmed House.
The judge granted House “service connection” for most of his serious health issues.
As a result of his investigative work, House was officially named as an expert on toxic exposures for the Vietnam Veterans of America, the nation’s largest and oldest organization for Vietnam-era veterans.
House said the level of toxins everywhere from Camp Lejeune to Fort Ord in California to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida to Fort McClellan in Alabama to South Korea to Guam to Okinawa to Hawaii would “shock the American public.”
Still covering up?
While Mattis seems eager to address this problem, a different message is coming from the White House.
On May 15, Politico reported that Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis.
The study would show that the chemicals “endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe,” but the draft release was blocked because officials thought it would be a “public relations nightmare,” Politico reported.
House said these kinds of cover-ups by the government are not surprising.
“The government has known about this for years. The truth is, if you served in the military, it’s more likely than not that you were exposed to toxic materials. The government has been running from this truth for years,” he said.
House said the defense department created landfills that contained highly toxic materials on bases nationwide and worldwide.
“Every military installation here in the United States and abroad has contamination issues, contaminated soil, contaminated drinking water, contaminated equipment,” House said.
The toxins commonly found on these bases, he explained, include Aph, PCBs, dioxin, radioactive waste, herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals like arsenic, benzene, and more.
“Over the years, our military personnel have been exposed to many types of highly toxic tactical-grade compounds or chemicals during their military service. And because they were drinking contaminated water. Or handling contaminated equipment. Or breathing toxic dust or asbestos,” House said.
House said Congress has known about the severity of the contamination issue for years.
“The EPA has been keeping track of the problem for years. Superfund money was allocated to assess the problem and then clean it up, but then it mysteriously evaporated,” House said.
Meeting the VA bureaucrats
Even at bases that the government has admitted are toxic, officials still have a hard time taking care of those who were harmed.
Ailing family members instead often run into a wall of red tape.
That’s what happened to Brent Wilson.
“I applied and was approved administratively rather quickly. But I needed to be medically approved. I got a letter a few weeks later stating more medical information was needed, but the letter was very vague,” he said.
Wilson then called the program’s representatives, who he said were not very helpful in giving him the direction he needed. And this is after he went to school to be a physician’s assistant, which includes much of the same training as medical school in concentrated fashion.
His wife, Jamie Wilson, then contacted the office of Congressman Jones, whose office made a congressional request to the VA.
Within a week, Wilson had a clearer picture of what was needed.
“Congressman Jones helped facilitate the process. It took a while and several additional inquiries to get finally approved. But if it was not for him it would have taken much longer. Jones’ office was outstanding about getting things done. There were a lot of frustrating things with the VA and family program,” Wilson said.
In short, Wilson added, “The program is about 50 percent right, meaning there is a lot of improvement possible. The administrative burden on families is high. It’s not easy to get reimbursed for money paid during workup to diagnosis. It’s over a year later and we are still struggling with some portions of this.”
Jones said the effort in Congress and the White House for people who were contaminated at Camp Lejeune went on for years.
“I joined the effort on the House side to help these families. Thanks to the bill that was signed by President Obama, many families like Brent’s were supported and those who contracted cancer from the contamination were guaranteed health care,” Jones said.
Toxic bases in Michigan
Meanwhile, Michigan’s two senators recently wrote a letter to Mattis expressing concern about a possible change in military policy that would make it more difficult to get the Department of Defense to clean up air bases in Michigan and other states where toxic firefighting chemicals are threatening the health of those on the bases as well as the general public.
Michigan Live has reported that the Pentagon may be considering changing its policy on compliance with individual state drinking and surface water standards for some contaminants, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
According to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS are human-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s.
They’re listed by the CDC as a human health concern.
“We would have great concern if in fact the department or any of the individual branches were considering this action,” wrote Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, who want the defense department to clean up these contaminated bases.
“It is imperative that the Department of Defense comply with Michigan’s water quality standards and cleanup criteria and stop the movement of contamination from military installations into groundwater and surface waters,” the senators wrote.
“Communities in Michigan are not at fault for the release of these harmful contaminants, and it is imperative that the Department do whatever is necessary to address the public health and environmental risks associated with exposure to these chemicals,” they wrote.
According to Stabenow, Peters and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), they have repeatedly pushed the Air Force to accelerate cleanup at Wurtsmith. The trio stressed the importance of compliance with Michigan water quality standards in an April letter to Mattis.
The base became polluted by historic use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a PFAS-laden fire suppressant, according to Michigan Live.
The news organization also reported that other current or former Michigan military bases with PFAS plumes include Camp Grayling, K.I. Sawyer, Selfridge, Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Escanaba Defense Fuel Supply Point, Battle Creek, Grand Ledge, and Kincheloe.
“It’s a tragedy”
Few military bases have established anything like what was established at Camp Lejeune. But House hopes that awareness of this issue is on the rise.
“There are people around the country and the world on U.S. bases who are being contaminated now and don’t even know it,” House said.
As for Brent Wilson, he and his wife and their two kids are trying as best they can to get on with their lives.
“I have terminal cancer. It’s not going away and my diagnosis is not changing,” he said.
“I still have to submit reimbursement manually, I have to fax the claim in. The program only covers out-of-pocket costs. My employer had a tremendous financial burden because of the gross negligence of the USMC and federal government,” he said.
Brent’s father is still angry about what his government did to his son and their family.
“People like my son and other dependent children of those of us who served our country, the families who lived aboard contaminated bases, are left twisting in the wind by our government,” he said. “It’s a tragedy.”