Last year, Eddie Peterson lost consciousness at his home in Memphis and stopped breathing.
His wife, Lori, saved his life, performing CPR on him until paramedics arrived.
Peterson has Parkinson’s. His 76-year-old body is failing him, and has been for decades, but his mind is almost as sharp as when he was an assistant district attorney in Tennessee.
His speech is now slurred and stuttering. You can make out a few words here or there, but it’s impossible to fully understand Peterson if you aren’t familiar with him.
A man who made his living and forged his identity in the courtroom clocking 300 jury trials now struggles to get his point across, and even underwent an experimental surgery to implant a deep brain stimulator.
It helps, but we still have to check with Lori to make sure he said what we think he said.
“You’ve heard of friendly fire,” Peterson said.
“This is friendly water. It should never happen again,” he said.
Peterson’s first stop out of law school was the military. As a young man, serving as a judge advocate at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1975 to 1977, he was already ticking off two of his biggest goals in life: to work as a lawyer and to serve in the Marines.
He and as many as a million other young Marines, civilian staff and their family members who served and lived on base from 1953 to 1987 had no idea they were drinking, bathing their children and washing their clothes in water so contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and other contaminants that it would later be linked to 15 cancers and conditions, including bladder cancer, breast cancer, female infertility, miscarriage, kidney cancer, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and neurobehavioral effects, including Parkinson’s disease.
Internally, the Marine Corps confirmed there were dangerous chemicals in the water by the early 1980s but didn’t alert many former residents of the base of even possible exposure until 1999.
In 2008, Congress forced the Marine Corps to notify exposed veterans and staff of the actual risk of the chemicals they had ingested.
By then, some were long gone, gravely ill or on their way, like Peterson, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001 – a condition Lejeune veterans are 70% more likely to have than veterans who served at a post across the country, according to a recent study.
More than a decade passed between Peterson’s Parkinson’s diagnosis and his realization that it was connected to his stint at Lejeune, after he says he received a Lejeune-related health questionnaire from the Marine Corps in the mail.
By then, North Carolina’s statute of limitations for filing a claim had long expired, leaving Peterson and other potential plaintiffs without a legal path forward.
That changed one year ago, when President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law with much fanfare at a White House ceremony.
The bill provided benefits, most notably for post-9/11 veterans and surviving family members of those exposed to burn pits, but it also allowed Lejeune water victims the ability to file lawsuits against the government.
“It’s a crime against humanity. It’s a crime against everyone who was there who suffered like I have. Those that were in charge, they had a chance to stop it 20 years ago and they didn’t do it, so they need to be held responsible for their misdeeds,” Peterson said.
Sluggish pace of Lejeune cases
But while many veterans have already benefited from the PACT Act, lawsuits brought by Lejeune victims are proceeding at a crawl and, increasingly, becoming wrongful death claims.
Just over three weeks ago, the four district judges of the Eastern District of North Carolina, who are overseeing all Lejeune-related civil cases, finally named a leadership team of seven lawyers who are representing plaintiffs.
That team will work together to take certain bellwether cases to trial and to propose settlement levels for specific medical conditions related to toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune.
Ed Bell of the Bell Legal Group, who heads the leadership team of law firms that handle 85% of the civil cases currently before the Eastern District of North Carolina, including Eddie Peterson’s, will serve as lead counsel.
Eric Flynn, a partner at the firm, estimates 20% of their cases since the PACT ACT are wrongful death claims, which includes those that started off as such and those that turned into wrongful death suits.
The firm has dedicated staff to answer calls from Lejeune victims and their families. Flynn says it’s become necessary to provide mental health services to those employees because of how traumatic it can be fielding so many calls from families, which are increasingly from spouses and children calling with questions as their loved ones are dying.
Flynn says he recently spoke to the family of a Lejeune veteran just hours before he died of a rare lung disease.
“The wife wanted to know whether or not they needed an autopsy … to preserve evidence,” he said.
In the end, Flynn recounts, the daughter said an autopsy was not available.
Instead, “she emailed me pictures of his feet … in the morgue.”
She thought they might be necessary to document one of his symptoms, Flynn said.
In recent months, multiple plaintiffs have died from LeJeune-associated diseases while waiting for their cases to be heard, according to their families and Bell Legal.
Among them, Cpl. Daniel Thomas Clark, who died from kidney cancer and lung cancer in February at 63 years old. Clark served in the Marine Corps for eight years straight out of high school, then as a police officer in Michigan and, later, North Carolina, where his family said he had loved serving in the military.
In early May, Shelby Jean Sholar Hunter, a former civilian employee at Lejeune who served as the base housing clerk and librarian, died of breast cancer at 85.
A day later, 78-year-old Cpl. Alfred Eugene Benson died from bladder cancer and kidney failure. In his online obituary, his family highlights his two tours in Vietnam, his service as backup to the support staff for the first Apollo moon landing, and his time as part of the White House Communications Agency, setting up “top secret communications” on foreign presidential trips, as well as for then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger when he traveled to the Middle East for peace talks in the 1970s.
In early June, Pfc. Danny Lee Williams died from bladder cancer. Later that month, James Arthur Thomasson, from Medford, Oregon, died from kidney cancer at 63 years old.
Their cases won’t die with them, however, as family members take up the mantle in their place.
“I’ll borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday,’” Eddie Peterson said, paraphrasing a memorable moment from the movie.
“‘Life is made up of inches, and every inch counts, and it’s the one that is willing to die for those inches that survives,’ and I’ll die for those inches for Lori and my two girls. And they better watch out, because we’re coming, and we are not going to give up until justice is done.”
Justice, as it turns out, is expensive, and it’s the American taxpayer on the hook for the monumental mistakes of the military.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the PACT Act, including Lejeune claims, could cost the federal government more than $163 billion over a decade.
“The Department of the Navy (DON) remains committed to addressing the claims of our Service Members, civilian employees, their families, and others who may have been harmed by exposure to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune,” Navy Public Affairs Officer Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Keiley said in an email to CNN on Sunday. The Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy.
The Navy says it has initiated processing of more than 17,000 claims – out of more than 93,000 – received under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, and it’s working to expedite the process with more staffing and new IT solutions.
In reference to the cases in front of the Eastern District of North Carolina – like Peterson’s – Keiley said: “The Department of Justice and the Department of Navy are working to develop an early-resolution framework for the (Camp Lejeune Justice Act) claims. This framework will supplement other mechanisms for resolving claims currently available through the normal administrative claims process or litigation and will provide a voluntary, expedited option for those interested. Our aim is that this framework will be finalized soon so that those impacted can quickly receive relief.”
As of Sunday, not a single case had gone to trial.
A pattern of behavior
The CBO projection may just be a down payment, as the military appears slow and, at times, incapable of learning from its past failures exposing troops, civilian staff and family members to toxins.
As the PACT Act wound its way through Congress, a petroleum leak contaminated drinking water, sickening military families and children at the military base in Honolulu.
Initially the Navy said it would fight an order from state health officials to halt operations at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility responsible for the fuel leak, before complying the following month as congressional hearings loomed.
Military.com recently reported on Marines poisoned by water aboard the USS Boxer in 2016, which the Navy did not publicly acknowledge until reporters uncovered it in June after a five-year investigation. The Navy told Military.com at the time that the “leadership and crew took immediate and appropriate measures to restrict access to the ship’s potable water” and that there were no incidents of water contamination after 2016.
Veterans or family members in both instances have reported lasting health issues and, in the case of the Boxer, service members told Military.com the Department of Veterans Affairs had denied their disability claims. The service members say their claims were denied because they didn’t have evidence of the poisoned water – evidence that according to them, the Navy buried.
This pattern of behavior is why advocates and plaintiffs like Eddie Peterson say it’s necessary to have their day in court.
“A jury that hears this, they will be angry and we’re trying to send a message to the government that we’re not going to take this, you can’t ever take advantage of people like this,” Peterson said.
“Nobody will make me whole again. Nobody can give me back 22 years, nobody can give Lori her husband back and our two daughters their Daddy back.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the leadership team of law firms headed by Ed Bell is handling 85% of the civil cases currently before the Eastern District of North Carolina.