Local Military News

Retired Lady's Island Marine with preleukemia among the million seeking answers

Lady's Island resident Lee Pflug receives assistance from a nurse after a chemotherapy treatment at Beaufort Memorial Hospital's Keyserling Cancer Center. Pflug, a retired Marine, was diagnosed with preleukemia last year. Pflug was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1960 to 1962, a time when the base's water was contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Though there's no conclusive evidence, some claim a link between their time at Lejeune and cancer developed later in life.
Lady's Island resident Lee Pflug receives assistance from a nurse after a chemotherapy treatment at Beaufort Memorial Hospital's Keyserling Cancer Center. Pflug, a retired Marine, was diagnosed with preleukemia last year. Pflug was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1960 to 1962, a time when the base's water was contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Though there's no conclusive evidence, some claim a link between their time at Lejeune and cancer developed later in life. Sarah Welliver/The Beaufort Gazette

A question arises whenever anyone gets cancer: Why did this happen?

Lee Pflug didn't dwell on figuring out the answer when he was diagnosed with preleukemia last year. The Lady's Island resident was set on fighting the disease.

But then he came across something on the Internet that piqued his interest. Marines trained at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina were claiming a link between their service there and the cancer they developed later in life.

Pflug was stationed at Lejeune from 1960 to 1962, so he researched a bit more. For about 30 years ending in the late '80s, dangerous chemicals leaked their way into some of the base's water supply. Some of these contaminants were known carcinogens. Estimates say as many as 1 million former Lejeune residents could have been affected. Was he one of the million?

The discovery made Pflug curious about the answer to that ever-present question, not only for his sake, but for Marines like him and their families.

But like many others have found before him, the situation is complicated and, for many, frustrating, leading to more questions than answers.

LEJEUNE ORIGINS

Construction of Camp Lejeune started in 1941 in response to the military buildup during World War II. The 246-square-mile site came to house Marines, sailors, retirees and their families. It has schools, day care centers, a hospital and dental facility, and nine housing areas.

Eight treatment plants supplied water to the base. Two of those plants had been supplying water laced with chemicals. From 1957 to 1987, some base residents drank, swam and bathed in the water containing trichloroethylene (or TCE, a solvent used for cleaning metal parts), tetrachloroethylene (or PCE, used in dry cleaning and metal degreasing), benzene and vinyl chloride, among other chemicals, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, which is charged with investigating the contamination.

The chemicals seeped into the water supply from a variety of sources, leaked from storage tanks and buried drums or dumped into storm drains. An off-base dry cleaning service was suspected of improperly disposing chemicals. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel are estimated to have been lost from an on-base storage facility over three decades.

Water from the Hadnot Point Treatment plant had levels of TCE that were 280 times higher than acceptable levels, according to the agency. The cleaning business contributed to levels of PCE nearly 40 times the standards in the Tarawa Terrace Treatment Plant water.

In the early 1980s, after the EPA issued limits for several of the chemicals, testing started indicating the high levels of chemicals in the water at Lejeune. By 1985, two contaminated water systems were shut down.

PFLUG'S DIAGNOSIS

When Pflug retired from an industrial surfacing equipment business, he and his wife, Margie, bought a motorcoach and drove the Southern coast and the Midwestern plains. Their daughter moved to Beaufort. They've been stopping by regularly for about 10 years to visit their two granddaughters.

Pflug went for an annual spring checkup at his veterans hospital last year. He had a spot taken off his back. It didn't heal.

He was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or preleukemia, in September. His form of cancer is not uncommon but not as common as other types, said his doctor, Majd Chahin at Sea Island Medical Oncology.

He elected to undergo treatments at the Keyserling Cancer Center instead of his native town outside Pittsburgh. He and his wife settled on Lady's Island. He goes in for a week of chemotherapy and takes three weeks off. He'll go through about six sessions.

He isn't down about it. He doesn't grouse. He remains steadfast in his fight. And he believes he will win.

"The biggest question no one's ever answered is 'How did I get it?'"

HARD EVIDENCE

Since the plants at Lejeune were shuttered in the '80s, the debate has raged about exact effects of the chemicals on the people exposed to them and the responsibility of the military in helpiem cope.

Both benzene and vinyl chloride are known carcinogens. PCE and TCE have been classified as potential carcinogens, according to the National Toxicity Program.

The chemicals have been linked to a host of health problems, including several forms of cancer. Studies have connected PCE and TCE to birth defects and leukemia in the children of women who drank water contaminated with the chemicals.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is compiling a water modeling study that aims to figure out the level of contamination to which Lejeune residents were exposed.

But can there ever be a conclusive study? Can cancer in an individual be linked to his or her time at Camp Lejeune? Whether that's the case, groups of former Camp Lejeune residents are pushing to force government and military officials to acknowledge a link does exist and to take responsibility in helping them deal with the effects.

A FATHER IN MOURNING

Sgt. Jerry Ensminger's daughter was diagnosed with leukemia in 1983. Janey was 6 years old. His little girl, with the short mop of dark hair and glistening brown eyes, was given a slim chance of survival. Janey died two years later. She was gone so quickly. What happened?

More than a decade later, Ensminger was watching a nightly news cast in 1997. He was carrying a plate of spaghetti when he heard it: Water contamination at Camp Lejeune, potential links to childhood illness. The plate slipped from his grasp and crashed to the ground.

Ensminger's family lived in the Tarawa Terrace housing development for two years while he worked at the Drill Instructor School on Parris Island. His wife was pregnant with Janey when she was there. They eventually moved off base, but the family continued to visit Lejeune's swimming pools.

The water his wife drank when she was pregnant, the water they bathed in, the water they swam in -- all of it may have been tainted. He was positive he had the answer to the questions about Janey's death.

Since, Ensminger, now a North Carolinian, made himself into an advocate and investigator, hell-bent on seeking justice for the victims of Camp Lejeune's contaminated water.

He co-founded The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten website -- www.tftptf.com -- a clearinghouse for those looking for information and fellowship. He's testified on Capitol Hill three times.

He wants recognition from the government. He wants a compensation fund that can help those who've been affected with health care costs. Mostly, what he wants is simple. He speaks about it with an emotion that's still raw.

"I want them to tell the damn truth," he said.

FORCING ACTION

For Ensminger and the others, getting straight answers has been a battle.

It's been fraught with bureaucratic wrangling, double takes by military and governmental agencies. The Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry two years ago retracted a 1997 report that claimed adults were unlikely to get cancer from the water after discovering benzene contamination was wider spread than previously thought.

More recently, the Marine Corps has agreed to revise information distributed to the public in print and online that the agency and several Congress members said downplays the danger of the contaminated water.

It was only three years ago that a law passed requiring the Department of Defense to send out notification about potential contamination to veterans through the IRS.

Congress members have introduced legislation that would provide assistance to Lejeune veterans exposed to the water. Previous bills have died before coming to a vote. Sen. Richard Burr, D-N.C., introduced "Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011" in February that would provide health care to veterans for conditions caused by the contaminated water. The bill has not yet made it out of committee.

Other former residents have filed lawsuits. Hundreds have signed a class action lawsuit against the Department of the Navy, which includes the Marines, alleging the military ignored the myriad health issues that arose because of the toxins in the water.

A former wife of a Lejeune Marine who developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma filed a civil lawsuit in 2009. The suit is still pending; a federal judge last year denied the Navy's motion to have the case dismissed. A North Carolina man who battled breast cancer sued the federal government earlier this year. A National Research Defense Council scientist said at a Senate hearing earlier this year that about 70 former male Lejeune residents during the 30-year period of potential chemical exposure have been found with breast cancer, a high rate for the disease in men.

While military officials, Congress members, scientists and others debate the issue, some progress has been made from the perspective of the Lejeune residents.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has started awarding disability benefits to a few residents who claimed exposure to the contaminated water. At the end of last year, the department had close to 200 disability claims that listed the contaminated water as a cause for their ailment, according to a McClatchy-Tribune News Service report. Thirty-two of those have been approved.

Most veterans wait to see if widespread change is ahead. The Marine Corps has established a registry for former Lejeune families to receive updates. About 160,000 have signed up.

PFLUG'S TREATMENT

In Pflug's case, he doesn't want money. He doesn't want recognition. He wants awareness. He wants the other people who lived on base in that era to know the risks they may face.

He had two friends diagnosed with cancer after they left Lejeune.

Why did this happen? Everyone asks that question when mortality faces them, when disease threatens their life. Most, like Pflug, focus on beating the disease. But the question lingers. What's the cause? It could be contaminated water but it could be so many things.

"There's no way of proving that it is," Pflug said. "But I want to warn people.

"Marines watch out for Marines. Always did."

Beaufort Gazette photographer Sarah Welliver contributed to this report.

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