Life was about to take a sudden, shattering turn as Paula Twitty Bushman stood in her green, dress uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps, ready for another day in traffic court at Camp Lejeune.
The young Marine was a paralegal and four months pregnant. Suddenly, she felt discomfort below her waist and saw blood running down her leg and onto her black patent-leather shoes. A colonel at the court saw a burst of fear cross her face.
When Bushman awoke at the base hospital, confused and uncertain, a military doctor told her the news: The child wasn’t right. We had to take it.
The 1983 loss began years of torment that included another child stillborn at eight months, and health problems that continue to plague her.
“Something was stolen from me,” said Bushman, now 55. “Something was stolen without me ever saying it could be taken.”
As many as a million people stationed at the Marine base from 1953 to 1987 became part of one of the darkest chapters in the Corps’ history. Toxins linked to miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and neurological behaviors polluted the drinking water.
Those exposed not only drank the poison water, they used it to bathe, swim, cook, wash clothes — and mix baby formula.
Georgia now has one of the largest concentrations of Lejeune veterans and dependents in the country with 10,561 on a national registry of those exposed to the contamination. Nearly 259,000 men and women across the country have joined the list.
“We were there to do a job and we did it, and now 30 years later we’re all sick,” said Crystal Dickens, a Lejeune Marine veteran in DeKalb County who lost two babies in pregnancy and now suffers from chronic health conditions. “Even the daycare, the mess hall, everywhere you went the water was contaminated and we didn’t know.”
Reluctantly, Congress in 2012 extended cost-free VA health care coverage to veterans and a more limited plan for family members suffering from conditions linked to the polluted water, acknowledging for the first time the harm it caused. The Obama administration followed in January 2017 with a plan to provide $2 billion in disability benefits to Lejeune veterans.
But many family members and dependents suffering from the poisoned water say the programs don’t do enough to help them. Under the law, the VA only pays their health claims when private insurance won’t.
Out of 2,519 family members who have filed insurance claims between Oct 2014 and the end of last year, only 463 have received reimbursement, according to VA figures. By contrast, the VA has treated 49,937 Lejeune veterans, including 3,165 treated specifically for conditions linked to the toxic water.
And family members get none of the disability payments, even though they drank the same toxic water and suffered from many of the same conditions and traumas. VA has consistently fought to deny health problems are linked to the water and limit benefits, they charge.
“Sometimes I just cry because these people really need help and the red tape keeps coming up,” said Bernard Hodore, an Atlanta Marine veteran who served at the base and sits on the Lejeune Community Assistance Panel (CAP).
The assistance programs are expected to be a major topic when the panel, administered by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control, meets in Atlanta on Tuesday. The VA declined to make an official available to interview for this story.
Despite years of publicity and efforts to reach those who served at Lejeune, many still don’t understand the risk until it’s too late, said Hodore, who blames the water for the neurobehavorial conditions he developed while serving at the base in the mid-1980s.
“I talk to people and they don’t even know there was poisoning at Camp Lejeune,” he said. “God knows how many people died that didn’t know they were being poisoned.”
Years passed before Bushman learned the source of her medical troubles. In all, she had 10 pregnancies, but only two resulted in live births — both years after she left the base. Her son and a set of twin girls were born prematurely and all had chronic respiratory conditions that made it impossible to get private health insurance.
Bushman’s own list of chronic health conditions include fatigue, respiratory problems, heart palpitations, memory loss, liver disease, an immune system disorder and early menopause at age 37. A disease specialist determined many of her ailments can be linked to Lejeune, but the VA denied her disability claims for nearly a decade until last September.
Still, the VA benefit office wouldn’t acknowledge the connection to the toxic water at the base. She sees her struggle as part of a larger injustice.
“This is about all the women that went through the same stuff, the same losses,” she said. “Some of them never recovered.”
Birds falling from the sky
Denise Ramsey married a Marine based at Lejeune in 1979 and moved into family housing at Tarawa Terrace.
One of the first things she noticed was the tap water: It smelled like cigarette lighter fluid. The odor was so strong that she and her neighbors used Tang, lemonade mix or instant tea to make it drinkable.
After taking a hot bath, it took a minute or two to shake the odor away.
“I will never forget that smell,” she said.
Other peculiar features of base life: She’d look out the window and see birds fall from the sky. Sometimes wild animals would wander into the yard and just die, she said.
During the couple’s first year, Ramsey became pregnant at age 17. To stay healthy, she regularly swam laps at the base pool. Her son, David, was born in June 1980 at the Naval hospital on base.
When he was six months old, David developed a series of chronic illnesses — bronchitis, strep throat, sinus problems and ear infections. It was the beginning of a series of health problems, including a bone tumor at age six, that plagued him into adulthood.
In 1983, after leaving the base, the family was stationed in Holy Loch, Scotland, where Ramsey became pregnant. Six months into the pregnancy, she started hemorrhaging. The baby boy was stillborn in her bathroom.
“It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through,” she said. “But it wasn’t the only one.”
Ramsey miscarried two more times in Scotland.
The couple eventually moved back home, and Ramsey gave birth in Florida to a healthy baby girl after seeing an infertility specialist.
The trauma of the three failed pregnancies and the depression that followed, however, took its toll on her marriage. In 1989, she divorced.
Meanwhile, her own medical problems mounted. At age 27, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a full hysterectomy.
She suffers from a number of serious medical conditions, including hypothyroidism, chronic nerve pain throughout her body, chronic urinary tract infections and weekly migraine headaches that started when she was living at Lejeune. She said she suffers from depression and PTSD from losing her babies.
Now 55, Ramsey is in the process of applying for the Lejeune family plan. But she says it will never be enough for all that she lost.
“We thought we were getting married and going into normal housing, and a safe place to live,” she said. “In every aspect, we found out it was not.”
Fewer than 1,000 people lived in Jacksonville, N.C., in the early days of World War II when the military bought more than 100,000 acres of untamed land near town. The base’s miles of coastal beaches made the area ideal for practicing amphibious assaults.
Today, 170,000 service members, their families, civilian workers and others populate the base and surrounding community.
The Marine Corps touts Lejeune as a place where “Marine families are taken care of,” and its website highlights family-friendly services such as childcare, fitness centers, swimming and schools.
Yet it wasn’t always so. The base’s growth during the Cold War laid the foundation for the contamination of the drinking water. Fuel storage tanks leaked. Industrial waste leached into the ground water, along with chemicals from a dry cleaner. Base officials knew about the contamination for almost five years before the base stopped drawing from contaminated wells in the mid-1980s and started taking it from non-contaminated sources.
Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger called what happened at Lejeune “quite possibly one of, if not the worst, drinking water contamination incidents in modern world history.”
His nine-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia after her family lived at the base. Her death prompted Ensminger to wage a nearly two decades-long campaign for the government to take responsibility for the contamination and help veterans.
Congress finally acknowledged the correlation between the polluted water and base residents when it passed the Lejeune health plan in 2012. The law, named for Ensminger’s daughter, listed 15 health conditions linked to the poison water and covered by the VA. They include cancers, infertility, neurological conditions and miscarriages.
Ensminger said the law didn’t satisfy everyone in the Lejeune community, but it was a major step forward.
“I said the day it was signed ‘This ain’t the epilogue. This is just the end of the first chapter,’” he said. “The law was a start. The law was an admission.”
Today, the graves in a section of the Jacksonville city cemetery stand as a record of loss. So many children died after birth that those in the military community dubbed it “Baby Heaven.”
Many of the headstones measure lives that lasted days and weeks, not years.
Scientists have studied the links between serious birth defects and Lejeune’s toxic water, but no formal study has ever tried to account for the children who died. Activists such as Kim Ann Callan, who was born at the base in 1958 and has faced chronic health problems, try to fill the gaps.
She and other Lejeune activists have counted graves and gathered birth certificates of infants who died during the years of contamination.
“You had all these babies that died within a day of their birth,” said Callan. “Why wasn’t anybody (back then) saying, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
‘Poisoned by my government’
Many of the Lejeune families have experienced two generations of serious health problems.
Kristi Chapin married a Marine and lived on the base in the 1970s.
She has few memories from that period, but some things she can never forget. There was the time a black cloud of roaches came pouring out of her water heater. And the memory of her friend and neighbor, Barb, who was devastated after losing two babies late in the pregnancies.
Chapin gave birth at the base hospital to a seemingly healthy boy, Chris, in 1974.
In the years after the family left Lejeune, Chapin developed chronic health problems, including a rare skin disease that discolored her face, and at 62 she has severe arthritis, tendinitis and bursitis. Several years ago, her son Chris Orris, who is 43, nearly died before doctors discovered a rare heart defect he had carried since birth. The family blames his condition on the water Chapin drank during pregnancy.
Orris now serves on the Lejeune community panel, which has met since 2006 to share information and provide a forum to those impacted by the contamination. He’s tried to advocate on behalf of spouses and children who he says have not been treated fairly by the government.
He thinks the families got left behind in the political process and notes that family members can’t even sue. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that effectively blocked Lejeune families from seeking relief through the courts. A Lejeune veteran or family member would have had to file a legal claim by 1994, when many weren’t even aware of the problems.
“Whether it was a willful act or not, I was poisoned by my government,” Orris said. “They’ve spent my whole life trying to hide it and cover it up.”
Because his own heart condition doesn’t fall in the health categories linked to the toxic water that the government recognizes, Orris has received no help covering the medical costs for his treatment. He had three surgeries last year totalling $350,000. Everything that his private insurance doesn’t cover, his family has had to pick up.
He also worries about his 22-year-old son. The VA’s assistance programs have no provisions for later generations.
A few years ago, Orris walked through the national cemetery in New Bern, N.C., about 50 miles from Lejeune. He was examining graves of Union soldiers from the Civil War when he stumbled upon hundreds of graves of infants. No one knows how many died because of toxic contamination at Camp Lejeune.
“It was just grave after grave of babies born in the sixties and seventies,” said Orris. “It really brought it home for me. Why wasn’t I one of those children?”