The few, the proud, the stricken

One night in April 2007, as Mike Partain hugged his wife before going to bed, she felt a small lump above his right nipple. A mammogram -- a "man-o-gram," he called it -- led to a diagnosis of male breast cancer. Six days later, the 41-year-old insurance adjuster had a mastectomy.

Partain had no idea men could get breast cancer. But he thinks he knows what caused his: contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was born.

Over the last two years, Partain has compiled a list of 19 others diagnosed with male breast cancer who once lived on the base.

For three decades -- from the 1950s to the mid-1980s -- the water supply used by hundreds of thousands of Marines and their families was laced with chemicals from an off-base dry-cleaning company and industrial solvents used to clean military equipment.

A 1974 base order required safe disposal of solvents and warned that improper handling could cause drinking water contamination. Yet solvents were dumped or buried near base wells for years.

"The Marine Corps knowingly poisoned their own people," Partain recently said in his living room, surrounded by stacks of military documents and water analysis reports. "They were told about the water, and they did nothing. Nothing. And then they lied about it."

Partain, whose father and grandfather were Marine officers, is tall and burly, with a shaved head and black goatee. His face reddens and his voice cracks when he discusses the toxic water. He maintains a website -- The Few, the Proud, the Forgotten -- where he posts material documenting the contamination and the stories of those who say it made them ill.

Military officials acknowledge that they were told as early as 1981 that potentially dangerous "volatile organic compounds" had been detected in the drinking water. However, the Corps, which has set up its own website (https://clnr.hqi.usmc.mil/clwater/) to deal with the issue, said that the two primary chemicals involved were not then subject to regulation.

It took time, officials said, to resolve questions about the source of the toxins and the validity of testing, which found different levels at different times. "Currently it is still not known whether or not the substances detected . . . were at harmful levels," Marine Capt. Brian Block wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

Tests confirming contamination in the wells were not completed until 1984, the military said, at which point the Corps began shutting down them down. The Marine Corps, Block added, disposed of solvents "in accordance with generally accepted industry practices at the time."

In men, breast cancer is rare. About 1,900 cases are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, compared with 192,000 cases in women, the American Cancer Society says.

Establishing a link between chemical exposure and a specific cancer cluster is difficult. But Partain and the others from Camp Lejeune say their illnesses are more than mere coincidence.

"God is the only one who really knows," said Jim Fontella, 63, who served at Camp Lejeune in 1966 and 1967. He was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago. "But it seems pretty strange."

Partain said there was no history of breast cancer in his family, and that a test for a gene linked to the disease was negative. Only two of the other 19 survivors -- 18 former Marines and the son of a Marine -- have family histories of female breast cancer, Partain said.

The website lists 484 people who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune and say they have been diagnosed with cancer or other illnesses. More than 1,600 former base residents have filed claims against the federal government, seeking $34 billion total in damages.

The military, Partain contends, knew details of the contamination earlier than it has admitted.

A 1980 report by a scientist working for the Army who tested base tap water warned officials that the "water is highly contaminated," Partain said. A 1981 follow-up report said that more tests had shown the water to be tainted "with other chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!"

In 1982, a chemist with a private lab hired by the Corps provided the base commander with a report showing "contamination by trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene" in well fields supplying two Camp Lejeune water systems. "We called the situation to the attention of Camp Lejeune personnel," the chemist wrote, adding that his findings had important public health implications.

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a colorless solvent often used to clean grease from machinery. Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is commonly used in dry cleaning. Both chemicals are now "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens," according to the Health and Human Services Department's National Toxicology Program. But in 1982 they were not subject to regulation.

In April 1985, the base commander sent letters informing residents that "minute (trace) amounts of several organic chemicals" had been detected in wells. It gave no indication that the chemicals could be dangerous. That spring, one of 10 contaminated wells was reopened for use on four days to help alleviate a water shortage.

A 2004 fact-finding panel set up by the Corps concluded that base officials had acted properly and that the drinking water was "consistent with general . . . industry practices" at the time. However, the panel found that officials did not attempt to evaluate health risks for dangerous chemicals, and that a Navy technical advisory unit had failed to provide the Corps with the expertise needed to understand health dangers.

In 2005, Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency investigations found no criminal conduct by Corps officials.

However, an EPA investigator told Congress in 2007 that he had recommended obstruction of justice charges against some Camp Lejeune officials, but was overruled by prosecutors in the George W. Bush administration.

The Marine Corps waited until 1999 -- 14 years after closing the contaminated wells -- to begin notifying former base residents. That effort was part of a federal health study aimed at children conceived or born at the base during the contamination years.

Only in 2008 did the Corps undertake a more widespread effort to notify former Marines and family members who had lived in an affected housing area during the time in question. An online health registry now contains more than 135,000 names.

Congress required the notification after being lobbied by Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine drill instructor who blames the 1985 leukemia death of his daughter Janey, 9, on contaminated water.

Ensminger has fought to hold the Corps accountable, researching military documents and confronting officials. He learned that the water was tainted while watching a local TV report in 1997.

"I trained more than 2,000 Marines on our Marine Corps values," Ensminger said. "Now the Marine Corps leadership refuses to honor those values."

Partain said he had no idea his drinking water had been laced with probable carcinogens until he heard about congressional testimony by Ensminger in 2007.

Peter Devereaux, 47, a former Marine who served at Camp Lejeune from 1980 to 1982, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2008 and had a mastectomy. He said he did not know about the contamination until Partain contacted him last year.

"The Marine Corps refuses to acknowledge what they did to people who served their country," Devereaux said. "It sickens me."

Last month, Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that would require the government to cover healthcare costs for Marines and family members who were exposed to the contaminated water.

Shuffling through documents in his living room, Partain's voice trembled as he described mastectomies and double mastectomies performed on former Marines he considers close friends.

"I'm missing half my chest. That didn't happen by a fluke of God," he said. "I was poisoned. . . . The truth will come out."

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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