Bob Rees’ family had no history of cancer, certainly not of the acute myelocytic leukemia that – in just a few months -- took him from a 180-pound Marine vet to a man who spent his last summer confined to a hospital bed.
His sister, Betsy, remembers their last conversation.
“ It was the hardest conversation I've ever had. I went in and talked to him and we talked about how bad he was feeling and that there was no quality of life and that there was probably really only one way he was going to leave that hospital room. And I told him that I would always love him, that I would always miss him, but I loved him enough that I didn’t want him to suffer anymore and it was OK to go. And he asked who was going to do this for me and who was going to that for me and I told him that I was resourceful, and I would figure it out. And he made me promise I would do three things for him..that I would always wear my glasses, that I would always wear my seatbelt and I would always take care of mom. And I promised him I would do that. And then he asked me to leave.”
After his death, Betsy and their mother, Eugenia Sexton, packed away his Junior Olympic Swimming medals, his letters from Camp Lejeune, his report cards, year books, even a letter he wrote to Santa when he was 8.
Still, they both continued to wonder what had killed Bob Rees so fast and so young.
In June of 2010, they clipped a news article about a Marine with male breast cancer. He’d been stationed at Camp Lejeune. And he’s now one of 74 men who share breast cancer and a connection to the North Carolina base that’s been on the federal Superfund list since 1989.
Despite the differing diagnoses, Betsy Rees says the article made a connection with her brother.
"And he believes that his cancer is linked to the water contamination. I read this article, it was the first time I had that concrete piece that tied the contamination to an adult.”
So Gene Sexton and Betsy Rees set out to find out more. They began with internet research, and that led them to Jerry Ensminger and a lot of information about chemicals with names like benzene, trichlorethylene and perchloroethylene.
Ensminger is a retired master sergeant who still lives about an hour from Camp Lejeune. He’s also become the face of those stationed, working and even born on the base who developed largely unexplained illnesses and birth defects.
"I didn't even find out about it until after I retired. And only because I retired close to Camp Lejeune. I've been fighting this thing for 14 years."
Ensminger's 9-year-old daughter Janey also died of leukemia in 1985, just two weeks after Bob Rees. But it wasn’t until 1997 that he heard a story on the evening news about links between contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune and childhood cancer.
Ensminger wants the same thing that Gene Sexton and Betsy Rees want. They want all of the federal agencies and the U.S. Marine Corps to develop a system to identify, document and treat the Marines and their families who were exposed to the contaminated water. Betsy Rees feels for those other families.
“Bob was 28 when he died. Sometimes I wished that he’d gotten married and that he’d had children and there was a piece of him that was still here. Well knowing what I know today, there’s a really good chance in the way people have been affected they’ve passed it on to next generations. So today I’m glad he never had children.”
She says this risk was a great unknown for them all.
"When people go into service and they go into service during a time of war and they know they’re in combat there’s always a risk of chance of a loss of life -that’s a known. But to me, this is like being killed by friendly fire.”
What everyone agrees on is that the contamination of the water at Camp Lejeune was linked to fuel storage tanks, a dry cleaner and the dumping of everything from used batteries to pesticides. Two of the three main chemicals identified – benzene and trichloroethylene – are human carcinogens.
The reason for the ongoing studies is to find out just how extensive the contamination was and who may have suffered for it.
Spokeswoman and Capt. Kendra Hardesty says the Marine Corps' main job now is outreach and notification. A Marine registry now has 175,000 names on it.
“The Marines and sailors, civilians, their families they all deserve to hear the whole story, it’s an incredibly complex issue”
The Department of Veterans Affairs says the issue is complex because individual responses to chemicals vary, and because it takes time, the correct data from all parties, and money to produce studies that draw a clear line from Camp Lejeune to those who were exposed.
Dr. Christopher Portier is director of the agencies trying to sort it all out, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He says a key piece of the study is scheduled to be released some time this year.
“With the water modeling exercise we’ll be able to know of the two big water systems on Camp Lejeune that appear to be affected by this, we’ll know, we’re estimating the average contamination levels for every month ..if we know when someone was residing at Camp Lejeune we can actually estimate exactly how much they got.”
After the water model is complete, the next step will be a population study to determine if the rates of cancer and other illnesses are higher than the national average.
In 2010, the VA opened an office in Louisville, Ky., where eight employees are dedicated to evaluating each Camp Lejeune case to determine if benefits are paid.
Marine spokeswoman Hardesty says the whole effort has the Marines’ support, but by definition, that’s limited.
“To be honest with you the Marine corps is limited in this particular situation about what we can do because the Marine Corps doesn’t do tort claims; that falls under the department of the Navy. As far as medical care, the Marine Corps doesn’t do that either..if you’re out of the Marine Corps it falls under the Department of Veterans Affairs and if you’re still in the Marine Corps if falls under the Department of the Navy."
Some 2,900 lawsuits have been filed. So far, the family of Bob Rees is not among them.
But Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who sits on the Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel, says the links are clear.
"..and so at that time the water system, depending on where he was living, was contaminated with differing amounts of PERC and trichlorethylene, TCE and PCE are the two nicknames, and so trichlorethylene is now called a human carcinogen and PERC is called a probable human carcinogen, and there are studies of people exposed to both of those chemicals that got leukemia, so I think that this family has a good case."
Gene Sexton says it’s not about a lawsuit. It’s about her son’s life and many others.
"I remember this really adorable little blond-haired boy that I could see when he was going to school how smart he was and what potential he had and I thought what are you going to be like when you grew up and I think about where he might be today and who he might be, and when all of this stuff came out last year I started to see that here was an answer."
It’s an answer that has helped to ease the loss of a first-born son and big brother, even though will be many more years before the full extent of the water contamination is known.
NOTE:Semper Fi: Always Faithful - award-winning documentary premeires on MSNBC Friday Feb.24 at 10PM
VA Facilities in Ohio http://www2.va.gov/directory/guide/fac_list_by_state.cfm?State=OH&dnum=All&isflash=0
VA Benefits Handbook http://www.va.gov/opa/publications/benefits_book.asp
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Camp Lejeune Info http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/lejeune/index.html
United States Marine Corps Camp Lejeune Site - register if you were lived or worked at Camp Lejeune https://clnr.hqi.usmc.mil/clwater/index.aspx
The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten http://www.tftptf.com/
Semper Fi: Always Faithful - award-winning documentary premeires on MSNBC Friday Feb.24 at 10PM http://semperfialwaysfaithful.com/
File a VA claim for benefits online https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits-portal/ebenefits.portal?_nfpb=true&_portlet.async=false&_pageLabel=ebenefits_myeb_vonapp1