Tara Craver had packed her suitcase in the back of her black pickup truck on Sunday, ready for her 10-hour trip from South Florida to the VA offices in Atlanta, but the government shutdown foiled her plan.
Craver has been on a mission to help Marines poisoned by toxic drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C. A community meeting on the issue was scheduled at the CDC on Tuesday, but the government’s closure meant the Lejeune Community Assistance Panel couldn’t meet.
Craver, whose husband was a Marine and died in 2014 from esophageal cancer, wanted to come to town early so she could demonstrate outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center on Monday and raise awareness of the problem. The expense of traveling to Atlanta didn’t make sense with no meeting scheduled.
“This will just delay any resolution to this issue,” she said. “These veterans — a lot of them don’t have time. They literally are dying.”
In March, VA leaders rolled out a new disability program for the veterans harmed by the toxic drinking water and touted their commitment to help those in need.
Yet nearly a year after the program launched activists such as Craver are criticizing the VA for not doing enough to educate veterans and their families about the program and benefits that may be available to help them.
The CDC, which has been studying the effects of the poisonous water supply at the base, holds periodic community meetings so Lejeune veterans can have a voice and bring issues forward.
Jerry Ensminger, a Marine whose daughter died at age 9 from leukemia after the family lived at the base, sits on the panel. His advocacy group — The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten — has been advocating for Lejeune veterans for years. He has testified before Congress and the 2012 law is named after his daughter.
Ensminger said he has received reports from across the country that the VA’s efforts in the past year to notify veterans about the disability program has fallen short.
The VA launched an education campaign last year through posters and information on electronic billboards in its network of more than 150 medical and benefit centers. But some facilities have failed to carry out the plan while others have given it lackluster support, including the Atlanta VA Medical Center, according to Ensminger.
He says the communication failures have gotten so bad that some veterans are making flyers and handing them out. He said even VA hospital staff and officials often don’t seem to know or understand the programs. It’s time, he said, for VA Secretary David Shulkin to get directly involved to ensure the VA’s communications are carried out competently. He was expecting the VA to “get blasted” at the Tuesday meeting because of the problems.
“I guess they figure the fewer number of veterans that know about it, the less the government will have to pay,” he said.
Veterans were planning to come from several states to attend the meeting. The panel’s next scheduled meeting is in April in Pittsburgh, but Ensminger said he hopes officials will reschedule the Atlanta meeting before then.
“This government shutdown is but one more small bump in the road in attaining justice for the affected Camp Lejeune community,” he said.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, as many as a million people at the base had been exposed to water polluted with chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. It took decades for the military to acknowledge its complicity and for leaders to extend specific health and disability benefits for those harmed.
The new program, adopted in the final days of the Obama administration, committed $2.2 billion for disability payments for veterans with eight presumptive cancers and other health conditions linked to the toxic waters. That measure, coupled with a 2012 law that extended additional health benefits to Lejeune veterans and their families, was greeted with great fanfare as the government tried to make amends for years of secrecy and denials.
“Establishing these presumptions is a demonstration of our commitment to care for those who have served our nation and have been exposed to harm as a result of that service,” Shulkin said in a release at the time. “The Camp Lejeune presumptions will make it easier for those veterans to receive the care and benefits they earned.”
VA officials say the assertion that they’ve not been effectively communicating the disability program to veterans is untrue. The agency has sent out press releases, mailings to more than 200,000 Lejeune veterans and posted notices on VA websites and social media channels.
“VA has conducted an extensive national information campaign to help inform veterans and their family members about Camp Lejeune health care and disability benefits,” said Curt Cashour, an department spokesman in Washington.
But VA emails reviewed by the AJC show that the the VA central office never issued specific requirements for how local hospitals display the materials and execute the education campaign. And the national campaign has run into local policies for displaying posters and communicating through electronic video screens in the hospitals.
‘Excuse, after excuse’
The Atlanta VA is one of the facilities specifically identified by Ensminger’s network of advocates as failing to carry out the campaign. Tony Hightower, a Marine veteran in Atlanta, said he’s been trying for more than a year to get officials at the facility to display the information.
He has chronic pain, has had three strokes and is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. He’s at the Atlanta VA hospital and clinics several times a week. He also served as a public ambassador at the facility. He said he has repeatedly asked officials to display posters and to improve communication about the Lejeune health and benefits programs. Nothing ever gets done and many staff at the facility don’t seem to know about the program, he said.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “It’s excuse, after excuse. It could be incompetence. It could be they don’t want veterans to have the additional benefits to which they are entitled.”
Atlanta VA officials said they have been posting information. Last Thursday, the hospital’s billboard monitor system showed advertising of the Lejeune panel meeting and a social media post that day promoted the Lejeune benefits program, according to information provided by the VA. A hospital spokesman said it started advertising the Lejeune panel meeting the day after Christmas.
A protest cancelled
Craver had planned her demonstration Monday because she doesn’t think to VA is doing enough to get the word out.
She and her sister and a few others were going to be outside the medical center and benefits office with protest signs and information fliers for veterans. She wants veterans to know about the risks and about the health and disability programs available to them. She said the panel meeting that had been scheduled is one way to hold VA to its commitments to veterans in need.
Craver and her husband had no idea he was at a higher risk for cancer after serving at Lejeune. He died 10 weeks later after his diagnosis for esophageal cancer.
“If my husband and I had known about this, he could have had more screening,” she said. “My husband might still be here, but he is not.”
After his death in 2014, she lost her home after fighting the VA for years for her widow benefits that were just approved last September. She said she’s lost sleep the past couple days over the shutdown and has wondered if it will delay the $1,237 payment she receives at the beginning of each month.
The money is critical to her well being and helps keep a roof over her head. Without it, she could lose her home again.
“It might as well be $12,000,” she said. “It’s a lot of money to me.”
UPDATE: Sen. Johnny Isakson’s office on Monday said the survivor benefit payments will continue during the government shutdown. The Georgia Republican chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.