Marine Corps veteran Gil Barela of Loveland, Colo., remembers the day he was rushed to the hospital, believing he was having a heart attack. Instead, Barela had emergency gall bladder surgery and was eventually diagnosed with end-stage liver disease.
Barela is one of a group of veterans that call themselves “the few, the proud, the forgotten.”
They’re veterans who served at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families, were exposed to toxic chemicals from drinking and bathing in contaminated water at the base. And many have developed illnesses like liver disease, breast cancer and kidney cancer.
Under a 2012 law signed by President Barack Obama, veterans who served at Lejeune and have one of 15 designated illnesses are eligible for free medical care for their condition. Lejeune veterans can also apply for disability benefits. Some have received medical care and disability benefits, but many more, including Gil Barela, are in limbo and waiting for help.
Barela says that despite filing mountains of paperwork, he’s had little success getting health or disability benefits. A year after submitting a disability claim, the Veterans Administration rejected it, indicating that there wasn’t proof that his condition was caused by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.
Barela is appealing the rejection and says several doctors confirmed that his condition could only be the result of toxic exposure. Barela also points out that he’s never been a heavy drinker and says he never took a pill in his life until his diagnosis.
As for medical benefits, Barela says he waited for months to be seen by a VA doctor. When he finally did get an appointment, health care workers weren't familiar with the water contamination at Lejeune. Barela says eventually the VA agreed to pay for just one of 16 medications he takes for his condition.
And Barela says he’s exhausted by the paperwork and the phone calls he’s made to try to get someone to address the issue.
"I was proud to serve, and I love the Marine Corps, but I don’t like what they did to me,” Barela says.
VA spokesman Randy Moller disagrees with Barela's assertions that VA workers aren’t informed about illnesses stemming from the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Moller says the VA has sent out training and instruction letters to regional offices and medical centers about the issue. Moller also says the VA is well aware that veterans can face long wait times to see doctors.
“We’re actually addressing that right now," Moller says. "Most of our medical centers are doing very well. I’m not going to tell you that there aren’t some that are lagging a little bit, but those have a very high level of attention right now and we’re trying to get whatever needs to be improved, improved.”
Moller also says the VA has been working to reduce the backlog for disability claims like the one Barela filed. According to Moller, the VA has reduced the backlog nearly in half and hopes to eliminate it by next year. Moller says reducing that backlog is both important for those veterans who are waiting and it’s also critical given the number of new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan the VA expects will be filing claims.
“We want to make sure we’re able to take care of them in a timely manner, so we have to make sure we make lots of significant progress on the backlog," Moller says. "That sets us up in a great position to handle these new incoming veterans who are going to be filing claims.”
Moller says appeals like Barela’s require additional time to assess.
Meanwhile, Barela says things could be worse. After his initial diagnosis in 2007, doctors gave him only a short time to live, so he says he’s already beaten the odds.
Click here for more on Gil Barela's story.