An unusually high number of Marine families reported unexplained illnesses at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
While most of the great environmental disasters can be blamed on a big bad corporation, in the case of the mass poisoning at Camp Lejeune, the offender is a revered institution the United States Marines. In A Trust Betrayed (Da Capo Press, 2014), author Mike Magner's chilling investigations come together to weave the stories of the US military's poisoning of its soldiers and their respective family through contaminated water sources. The following excerpt is from "Baby Heaven."
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A woman with the ironic name of Mary Freshwater may have had the most ghastly experiences at Camp Lejeune. Freshwater died of leukemia in January 2013 at the age of sixty-eight. Shortly before her death, she told ABC News that she wasn’t the only one who had suffered—by then the stories of many others from Camp Lejeune were being publicized. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared her for the horrifying reality she would face in 1977 and the years to come.
“I was very active with the Officers’ Wives Club,” Freshwater said in the ABC interview with Cynthia McFadden in June 2012. “We were at a party . . . one night. There were five of us in different stages of pregnancy. Every one of us lost their baby to a birth defect.”
Freshwater had had two healthy children before she and her husband moved to Camp Lejeune, but the third child, a son named Russell Alexander Thorpe, lived just one month after he was born on November 30, 1977—with an open spine. “It was really a shocker when he was born that way and then when he died, he died in my arms. He took his last breath,” she said. That was just a little after midnight on the last day of the year in 1977, she said.
Doctors told Freshwater she shouldn’t be discouraged from getting pregnant again. But her next child, a boy named Charles Warren Thorpe, died the day he was born—without a cranium. Freshwater then had a miscarriage of twins before giving up on expanding her family.
Although these patterns kept emerging, individual families had no way of knowing their full scope. Joan Lewis had a miscarriage in 1970 after living in base housing at Camp Lejeune for several years, and she remembers friends who lost babies during their pregnancies around the same time. “But we didn’t think anything of it back then,” she told the Star-News in her hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2007. “You know, it was just part of life.”
What was more unusual to Lewis was that four of her five children—three conceived at Camp Lejeune and another who lived there from just under the age of one until she was five—had health issues that neither Joan nor her husband, Eddie, had ever experienced before moving to the base. She and Eddie had married when Joan was twenty-one, and they had moved into base housing on Bogenville Drive in the Tarawa Terrace neighborhood in October 1966.
“We lived there a year, then he went to Vietnam, then we went back after he returned in 13 months,” Lewis said. “He saw a lot of action, but he came back okay.”
All of Lewis’s children “had respiratory problems” while living on the base, she said. “In the middle of the night my oldest daughter had to be taken to the hospital when she was three years old, having breathing problems.”
The couple’s first boy, Eddie Jr., was born in 1971. “He was conceived at the base but born in Wilmington,” Lewis said. “His last two vertebrae in the lower back were fused together. He was born like that. He had no shock absorber in the neck either, no curve, and it causes a lot of pain.” After Eddie Jr. was born, Lewis said, she had to have a hysterectomy. The doctors had discovered a number of tumors inside her womb.
People who lived at Lejeune as children have memories of highly unusual illnesses. Sandra Carbone remembers a raft of health problems starting at Camp Lejeune after her family moved to the base in 1968 when she was twelve years old.
“During the time we lived at Camp LeJeune, my siblings and I were always getting sick,” she wrote years later on a website for Camp Lejeune veterans and their families. “We never liked the taste of the water there either. My mom would have to make Kool-Aid all the time to hide the taste of the water.”
When she was thirteen, Carbone recalled, she ended up with a rash on her chest and arms. “The doctors told my parents the rash was a result of my nerves,” she later said. “My sister and I were plagued with headaches and stomachaches. I remember the doctors asking my parents if me, or two of my sisters who were in school, if we had a test coming up in school. They thought we were faking it to get out of school and schoolwork. There were even times when the doctors told my parents they did not know what was wrong with us or what we had.”
Carbone said the most serious incident occurred when her baby brother, just three months old and born on the base, started crying while she was changing his diaper. “I looked and his ankles were red,” she said. “My mom thought I had done something. But I was really careful—I was the oldest and he was the youngest so I had to take care of him. We were very close.”
In that incident, she said, her mother “took him to the hospital and the doctor said if we had waited another day he would have died.” Carbone added, “He had some type of toxemia [the presence of toxins in the blood], and had developed septic arthritis (an infection of a joint) in both of his ankles. They had to put the IV in his temple because they couldn’t get it into his body, it was so swollen.” The baby was in the hospital for three weeks.
Civilians who lived on the base also experienced health problems. John Fristoe and his wife moved to Lejeune in 1958 when he was hired as principal of one of the base’s two elementary schools. They brought their two daughters, Karen, who was six, and Terry, two.
“I can remember egg smells in the water,” daughter Terry Dyer said in an interview years later. “And I remember we were sick all the time as children. We had a lot of eye infections, gunk in our eyes.” Later, a baby sister, Johnsie, arrived, but she soon showed signs of being mentally impaired. She stopped talking in early childhood.
Their father had plenty of health problems, too. “Dad used to have nosebleeds all the time,” Dyer said. “He would sneeze all the time in the shower.”
Suddenly, at the age of forty-five, Fristoe died of a heart attack after living at Camp Lejeune for fifteen years. The doctors never could explain it, Dyer said, but she pointed out that the family had “lived in four different apartment complexes in Tarawa Terrace.”
Unexplained illnesses affected other adults as well. In 1976, an eleven-year Marine and staff sergeant at Camp Lejeune, Lupe Alviar Jr., “started tripping, falling, [and] stumbling”—totally out of the blue. He was thirty years old and thought he was in perfect health.
“My legs just went,” he told The Veteran, a newsletter for Vietnam veterans, in 2004. “I felt fine at the time, had no health problems that I knew of, and I just fell down. I didn’t make much of it. I got up, brushed myself off, and carried on.”
Then, about a month later, Alviar fell down again. “No warning,” he said. “I just suddenly found myself on the ground. So I got up another time, brushed off, and carried on.” Alviar thought he might have been affected by exposure in Vietnam to Agent Orange, the highly toxic herbicide containing dioxin that was used to clear jungle foliage. But his first child’s birth defects made him think there might be a connection to something that happened at his base in North Carolina.
“My first child was born at Camp Lejeune in 1969,” Alviar said. “He was born with an ear missing and his legs were twisted up like a pretzel.”
It would not be until the early 1980s that Alviar’s insight into the possible origins of his own and his son’s health problems would find support.
From A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families by Mike Magner. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.