SC veteran looks for justice from new law after exposure to toxic water at Camp Lejeune

Neil Derrick points to a photo, taken shortly after he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves,...
Neil Derrick points to a photo, taken shortly after he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, at his home in Columbia on Aug. 19, 2022.(Russ Congdon)
Published: Aug. 19, 2022 at 7:18 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 19, 2022 at 7:49 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Like so many others, South Carolina is where Neil Derrick of Columbia began his service as a Marine.

He spent 11 weeks training on Parris Island, the Marine Corps’ recruit training site, before being stationed shortly after at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for a few months in the early 1970s.

“We drank the water, unbeknownst to us. We took showers. And as a 19-year-old, and I turned 20 when I was on the base, I was a naïve youngster, and at that time, we didn’t know the water was tainted,” Derrick said.

That knowledge — that several types of toxic chemicals had contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s — did not become public knowledge for more than a decade after Derrick’s time there, even after he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps Reserves in 1977.

While Derrick said he may have been aware of news of the contamination after that point, it didn’t resonate until after his diagnosis of bladder cancer in 2018, despite living a healthy lifestyle, no family history of the disease, and never smoking.

“Smoking is the No. 1 risk factor of bladder cancer,” Derrick said. “I kept scratching my head, and I would go, ‘Where did I get this from?’ And I would ask Dr. Brightbill, and he says, ‘Hey I don’t know.’ Well, now the mystery has been solved.”

Bladder cancer is one of a number of cancers, along with neurological diseases, reproductive illnesses, and birth defects linked to the toxic water.

About a decade ago, Congress passed a law allowing veterans and their families to receive medical treatment through the VA for conditions connected to the water tainted by chemicals.

The new Camp Lejeune Justice Act — part of the larger PACT Act that President Joe Biden signed Aug. 10, expanding veterans’ healthcare — now allows them to sue the government if they developed one of those medical conditions following their time at the installation and potentially receive money.

It’s not just veterans like Derrick who were affected: Their family members and civilians who worked on the base also qualify, as long as they lived, worked, or were exposed to the water at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987.

“It’s about over a million people maybe impacted there at Lejeune over the time between 1953 and 1987,” Jason Luquire, special operations director for Bell Legal Group, said.

Luquire’s Georgetown-based law firm is one of many now representing people exposed to the contaminated water over that 34-year period.

Derrick is working with another firm out of New York.

“It’s not the money,” he said. “But it’s just the justification and the accountability that the one million of us — we were tainted and poisoned by these chemicals.”

The new law allows people affected to file lawsuits within two years of being diagnosed, or if that diagnosis came before the law went into effect, within two years of the president signing it last week.

It will likely take a few years for the legal process to play out, so veterans like Derrick say if they are awarded money, they don’t expect to see it right away.

“My first reaction is to get mad. But then I have to reel back and say, ‘You know, I can’t get mad about it because I can’t undo it,’” Derrick said. “I mean, it’s done, and all these other people, their health issues, they can’t take that back. So on behalf of all the other people, we have got to get justice and have accountability.

“Now it’s our turn to get what we have coming to us.”

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