CBS Evening News, 6:30 PM
ANTHONY MASON: For 30 years, Marines and their families drank contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Today, many have cancer and other illnesses they blame on that water. Now they're battling the Veterans Administration for disability benefits. Mark Strassmann reports the Marines face an uphill fight.
FRANK RACKOWITZ (PH) [U.S. Marines]: That's my boot camp graduation picture.
MARK STRASSMANN: Where is you?
RACKOWITZ: My God, there I am.
STRASSMANN: Frank Rackowitz served 26 years in the Marines. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, between 1977 and 1986 when the water on base was toxic. Rackowitz now has stage four kidney cancer.
STRASSMANN: In what ways did you think you were exposed?
RACKOWITZ: Well, took showers aboard the base, drank water aboard the base on a daily basis so it was obvious to me I was a prime candidate for someone who had been poisoned by the drinking water aboard Camp Lejeune.
STRASSMANN: Fuel and chemicals had seeped into Camp Lejeune's primary water system for 30 years. The Navy shut down the wells in 1987. Multiple environmental studies by the Navy, EPA and Congress have concluded the water was highly contaminated. Chemicals like benzene, PCE and TCE were as high as 280 times the level considered healthy. The Federal Agency for Toxic Substances says those chemicals can cause leukemia, bladder, kidney and breast cancer.
What's the status of the cancer now?
RACKOWITZ: Right now I have incurable, inoperable cancer. I'm terminal.
STRASSMANN: Rackowitz filed a claim with the Veterans Administration to designate his cancer as a service related illness. That would provide his wife, Ruth, with an extra $1,100 a month in survivor benefits.
RACKOWITZ: I want to make sure she's taken care of when I'm gone.
STRASSMANN: And that's the number one worry.
RACKOWITZ: That's my number one worry.
STRASSMANN: The VA has denied 75 percent of these claims â€“ 1,200 more cases are pending. No one with the VA would go on camera, but a department statement said, â€œscientific and clinical evidence is not sufficient to establish a presumptive association between service at Camp Lejeune and any subsequent development of particular diseases.â€
RACKOWITZ: The doctor who told me I was terminal in November said without a doubt that this is what caused your cancer. He was convinced. And he wrote me the linking letter.
STRASSMANN: The letter that linked Rackowitz's cancer to his exposure at Camp Lejeune convinced the VA. On February 22nd, his claim was approved. But he worries about sick Marines still waiting.
RACKOWITZ: You would like to think that their number one priority would be taking care of the troops and that's what I always believed happened.
STRASSMANN: Congressional reports estimate Frank Rackowitz was one of nearly one million Marines and their family members who drank Camp Lejeune's toxic water.
Mark Strassmann, CBS News, Jacksonville, North Carolina.