Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Triumph for Sick Veteran

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Triumph for Sick Veteran

Article excerpt

SARASOTA

VA finally connects rare cancer to his service at Camp Lejeune

An exuberant Tom Gervasi, 76, put his arms in the air, his fingers forming a "V for Victory."

The former Marine learned Saturday -- to his utter surprise -- that his long, often bitter fight with his own government is done.

A letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed it: The cancer invading his bones was caused by his exposure to contaminated water as a young Marine at Camp Lejeune.

Tom is dying of breast cancer, so rare in men that only one in 1,000 will develop it in his lifetime.

The tale of his struggle, chockablock with emotional highs and lows, began when Elaine, his wife of 57 years, first spotted an unusual dimpling in Tom's left breast as he stood shirtless back in 2003.

They were stunned to learn he had breast cancer, which tests confirmed wasn't the hereditary type. At the time, they had no idea why that particular curse had befallen them. Vicissitudes of life, maybe. Who knew?

Tom had surgery to remove the breast; doctors thought they had removed every trace of the cancer. The ex-Marine, former police officer and retired New York homicide investigator could handle a little hair loss from chemotherapy.

He was alive.

What he didn't know, as the stealthy cancer cells began to invade his bones, was that he was not the only person once stationed at Camp Lejeune who had gotten sick.

There were cancers of the brain, the lungs, the liver and bladder -- all in Lejeune families through the years. Their children developed leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, some of them dying as babies.

And all of them drank the water.

Tom was just 17 and fresh out of high school when he joined up and found himself stationed at the Marine base. He and Elaine later married at the base chapel.

Too young for beer, the young man quenched his thirst with Lejeune's water.

Government tests would later show that the groundwater was laced with dozens of carcinogens from the 1950s through the 1980s, mostly dry cleaning fluids and leaks from fuel tanks.

A protracted fight began. Families railed at the Marine Corps for failing to take responsibility for the contamination, while the Corps maintained for years that proof of a causal link between the contamination and the cancers simply didn't exist. The tainted wells were closed in 1985.

In 2009, Tom learned his cancer had metastasized to his bones. This time, there would be no cure.

About 80 other former Lejuene men and their male offspring, also found to have the rare breast cancer, had begun to connect the deadly dots. They reached out to Tom, who took up their advocacy.

Most had tried, and failed, to get compensation from the VA.

In August, a new law stipulated that former residents of Lejeune with cancer, be they Marines or family members, would automatically be granted service-related compensation -- as long as they had lived there from 1957 to 1987. …

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