When Peter Devereaux arrived at Camp Lejeune in December 1980, he had no idea that officials were looking into unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in the drinking water.
As a Marine stationed at the sprawling military base along the North Carolina shore, Devereaux said, he led a healthy lifestyle. When he was diagnosed in early 2008 with a rare disease — male breast cancer — Devereaux did not connect his illness to Camp Lejeune.
But six months after he'd had his left breast and 22 cancerous lymph nodes removed, he received a letter from the Department of the Navy informing him that in the 1980s, "unregulated chemicals were discovered" in the drinking water at the camp's Hadnot Point water distribution system.
Drinking water in various areas of the camp had been contaminated with trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene — chemicals used to clean metals and dry-clean clothes — and benzene, a chemical found in fuel. All are believed to cause cancer.
Tests in 1980 first suggested the presence of contaminants. More than four years later, base officials shut down 10 wells, including one contaminated with benzene at Hadnot Point.
Devereaux, who left Lejeune in April 1982, wonders why it took the Marines more than two decades to inform him of his exposure to the carcinogen.
"It would have made a tremendous difference in my life," Devereaux said. He would have sought regular cancer screenings that might have caught the cancer earlier.
Instead, Devereaux, 48, learned three months after his diagnosis that the cancer had spread to his spine, ribs and hip. Devereaux's doctors tell him the average life expectancy for people with metastatic breast cancer is two to three years.
On Thursday, Devereaux and two others who think their cancer is linked to Camp Lejeune testified before Congress about the 30-year effort to convince the Marine Corps to fully disclose the extent that the contaminated water may have caused cancer in hundreds of members of the military, their families and other civilians, and to compensate the victims.
"I believe it is time that the Department of the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps stop fighting these efforts and focus their energies on taking care of their own now and in the future," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee's subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.
Maj. Gen. Eugene G. Payne Jr., until recently the Marine officer in charge of facilities, acknowledged that the Marine Corps had handled the issue poorly.
"It is astounding some of the things that have happened," Payne testified. "I think we were lulled into a sense of complacency or a lack of urgency…. There are many things that I would have done differently."
Payne said the Marine Corps was "deeply concerned" about people who had been sickened but stopped short of declaring the military responsible for the illnesses. In his written testimony, he said scientific studies were underway to determine whether there was a link.
As a veteran, Devereaux is entitled to full coverage for his healthcare expenses, but civilians in the same position are not.
"The Marines knew about it and said nothing, knowing full well we were bathing in and drinking contaminated water on a daily basis," Devereaux said. "The water reports state that the wells were contaminated and action needed to be taken, and nothing was done."