Sick Marine still waits for the help he was promised
SEATTLE -- In spite of a personal promise from the secretary of veterans affairs to examine his claim, a local Marine Corps veteran with a fatal disease still waits for help.
In October the KOMO Investigators asked Secretary Robert McDonald about Spike George. He's battling a disease the VA already determined is service related. But not only is the VA not paying him disability, it's also stopped answering any calls or questions about his case.
Spike George can't wait much longer. He suffers from scleroderma. It's a progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe and impossible to eat. He's so weak he can't really walk anymore. George has been in and out of the hospital for successive surgeries and bouts of pneumonia this past year. We had to ask him to drop his normally stoic demeanor to tell us how he's really doing. George admits, the reality is harsh. "There's times that I think how long? How long do I have to put up with this? How long am I going to be here ... suffering?"
George's scleroderma is one of 15 diseases the Veterans' Administration determined could have been caused by contaminated drinking water at Marine base Camp LeJeune. And Congress passed a law in 2012 so anyone who served there between 1953 and 1987, and who has one of those diseases, is automatically eligible for VA health care.
George served at LeJeune from 1984 to '88. Despite that, the VA denied him healthcare benefits until the KOMO Investigators got involved last summer. And the VA is now paying for his health care. But he's still waiting to see if the VA will pay him disability. "This disease happened to me because I got exposed." George's 20-year career as a King County corrections officer ended last January because of the disease.
His doctors tell him he has maybe two years to live, though he'll need to remain on a feeding tube and have constant medical attention. Then we had to give him the bad news that the VA has removed scleroderma from the list of Camp LeJeune diseases that trigger automatic disability payments. "Wow," George shook his head in disbelief. "Talk about a slap in the face."
We interviewed VA Secretary Robert McDonald and asked him why the change? McDonald said the VA has a dual role. One is to take care of veterans. The other, to be good stewards of the public's money. "And so what we're looking for in all of these cases," McDonald told us, "is the science."
But the science is in conflict here. According to the Federal Register, the Camp LeJeune Science Liaison Team recommended keeping scleroderma on the list indicating there is suggestive evidence linking the toxic chemicals in LeJeune's water to the disease. However the VA's Technical Work Group opted against that saying suggestive evidence isn't enough.
Even so, Secretary McDonald says anyone can still apply for disability, though they'll have to provide much more evidence of a link. "And to the degree that they can show causality, that they were at Camp LeJeune, that their condition came from being at Camp LeJeune and ingesting that water, they would be able to avail themselves of disability benefits."
George did apply for disability four years ago. He's now on his second appeal. Still no word from the VA. "Why would you put me through this and then just cut me off at my knees?" asks George. "Why would you do that to me?"
George now worries he'll lose his home, leaving his family with nothing when he dies.
The KOMO Investigators reached out to Congressman Dave Reichert's office. He has spoken with senior staff at the VA asking them to expedite George's case and rule in his favor. We will let you know when we hear more.