– Now federal lawmakers might step up assistance to those veterans and their families. –
By KEVIN ALLEN
When John Sullivan joined the Marine Corps after high school, he probably didn’t consider drinking water as one the dangers he might face in the military.
But that’s just what Sullivan blames for the rash of health problems he and his children have experienced during the past two decades.
The South Bend man is one of thousands of former Marines who claim their health problems are caused by contaminated well water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. As many as a million people between 1957 and 1987 were exposed to toxins from leaking fuel tanks at the base.
Military officials have stated that they’ve been working for nearly 20 years to analyze the impact of the contamination, but they have not concluded there is a link between Marines’ health problems and the drinking water at Camp Lejeune.
Now federal lawmakers might step up assistance to those veterans and their families.
Legislation called the Janey Ensminger Act is pending in Congress. It would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to veterans and their family members who have health problems resulting from well water at the base.
U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., is sponsoring the bill. Today, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, signed on as a co-sponsor.
“If they can get it passed, you would see me jumping for joy,” said John Sullivan’s wife, Eileen.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” she said. “There are immediate needs that need to be met now.”
John Sullivan, 46, was stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1984 to 1988. He suffers from seizures, blackouts, and debilitating nerve damage and joint pain, his wife said. He also has severe depression as a result of his health issues.
He has been unable to work since December 2007, when he lost his job at an Elkhart manufacturer after an accident related to his health conditions, Eileen Sullivan said.
His health care and medications cost about $5,000 per month, Eileen Sullivan said. The Sullivans have to pay at least $500 to $1,000 of that monthly cost out of their own pockets, she said.
Eileen Sullivan said her husband never had any health problems before joining the military.
“You know he had to be healthy for them to take him,” she said. “He passed all his tests with the Marine Corps.”
The Sullivans also strongly suspect their children’s health has been affected by the Camp Lejeune contamination. They lost a son to a miscarriage, four months into the pregnancy. Their daughter Christen, 13, is autistic and has mild retardation, and their other daughter Megan, 8, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Eileen Sullivan said. Veterans Affairs provides no health benefits for their children.
The financial burden is huge, said Eileen Sullivan, 40, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in computer networking at Ivy Tech Community College. The family has been surviving mostly on her student loans and help from her mother.
“I’m at my wit’s end about what to do,” she said, trying to fight back tears. “I’m doing everything I can to keep our family afloat, and it’s not enough.”
The Sullivans have also filed a $20 million civil suit against the U.S. Department of the Navy. Some 850 families have filed such suits, seeking a total of $4 billion, Eileen Sullivan said.
“We want people to be aware of how much pain and suffering these Marines are going through,” she said. “People are losing their homes over this. They’re losing just about everything.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond today to a call and e-mail seeking comment for this story.
Staff writer Kevin Allen: