JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two Jacksonville women are on a mission to get justice for their husbands after both men died of cancer.
Their husbands both served in the U.S. Marine Corps and were stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a base the government now admits had a toxic water supply for three decades.
The women with similar stories are now joining thousands of others across the country who feel the government should pay for their loved ones’ untimely deaths.
The widows connected in Jacksonville, Florida about a year ago through a Facebook group of other women in the same situation.
And while their husbands’ battles are over, theirs are not.
“We have a wealth of information in the group. We’ve got widows that have walked this path long before me and have managed to fight the VA and get their claims overturned,” said Michelle James.
It’s no secret that Camp Lejeune’s drinking water was contaminated starting in the early 1950s. The CDC said toxic chemicals leaked into the water until the late 1980s and exposed as many as 1 million military members, civilian staff and their families to health risks.
Karen Swindler met her husband, Private Edward Swindler, in church. He developed adenocarcinoma in his early 40s. He died at 44.
“And it was a very baffling experience,” Swindler said. “It was baffling to the physicians, for someone to be that young and to have the cancer. It was aggressive when they found it. So it was already metastasizing at that point.”
Michelle James connected with Private Eric Holford online a decade ago. Shortly after she moved from the UK, doctors diagnosed him with colorectal cancer which spread throughout his body. He died at 53.
“My God, this man suffered,” James said. “And he didn’t have to suffer the way that he suffered. You know, I think he had a terrible death.”
Only after death did these widows make the connection to Camp Lejeune. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a list of qualifying medical conditions, health care and health care assistance. The widows said their spouses’ cancers aren’t on the list so their claims have been denied, but they still blame the poisoned water.
In August 2022, President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act which provides compensation for those who lived or worked on base for more than 30 days between 1953 and 1987. Over 65,000 people have filed Camp Lejeune claims since the bill became law.
Both women have filed claims against the government but the cases haven’t moved forward. They fear litigation could last a lifetime.
“He would want me to have this to secure my future. Replace income that I lost, because he was a gainfully employed, hardworking man. And, you know, my children, we went through college on student loans. And so that’ll offer them relief as well,” Swindler said.
These widows have joined thousands of others across the country raising awareness of the problems while pushing for justice for their loved ones.
“More people are dying every day. More people are losing their homes. Actually, we have a friend in the community that he’s lost his home because he’s not getting the support that he needs,” James said.
If you filed a claim in the past before the PACT Act and were denied, the government said you must file again. There are step-by-step directions about how to do that. That claim period closes in August 2024.