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‘We didn’t know’: Veterans of El Toro say their service had toxic consequences

Ray Alkofer poses outside his barracks at the El Toro Marine Base in 1952.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

It’s called “Toxic El Toro.” Over the years, tens of thousands of servicemen were exposed to myriad dangerous chemicals that flowed through the former Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine. They grow into old age wondering at the afflictions they suffer that their friends and neighbors don’t face. They endure long-term ailments after their service. Many die without knowing of, or applying for, disability benefits due them.

The tragic legacy of El Toro doesn’t stop there. Its reputed sins are visited on the children and families of service members.

One of those Marines was Ray Alkofer. From 1951-53 he worked in Hangar 296 on the base, described over the years as a kind of Ground Zero for toxic exposure and contamination. Like his compatriots, Ray was exposed to a number of hazardous substances.

Ray Alkofer served at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif from 1951-53.
Ray Alkofer served at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif from 1951-53. Alkofer died of a rare neuromuscular disease attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Among the most notable and virulent of these was trichloroethylene. Also called TCE, the popular degreaser has been linked to numerous short and long-term maladies, ranging from neurological to liver and kidney damage and several forms of cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Although TCE has been at the heart of regulatory battles and personal and class action lawsuits, in 2019 the New York Times reported “as many as 2,200 facilities still use TCE to remove grease from metal parts, according to EPA estimates.”

Ray Alkofer said when he served there was virtually no consideration to handling of the chemical or wearing protective gear.

“We washed the planes and swabbed the decks with that stuff,” Ray told his son Bill Alkofer, of the industrial solvent dispensed in 55-gallon drums.

“Sometimes we slept in that hangar. We didn’t know we were being exposed. A lot of my best buddies got sick. A lot of them died.”

Ray Alkofer breathed with a respirator during the final year of his life.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Ray died in 2011 of a rare neuromuscular disease — Multiple System Atrophy — which left him in his final days gasping in a wheelchair and feeling “completely useless.”

Since the early 2000s, studies and clinical observations noted “patients with multiple system atrophy (MSA) suggested an associated (sic) with occupational exposure to TCE,” according to a 2008 study by Newcastle University.

Bill Alkofer, Ray’s oldest son, says about his dad, “In his eyes you could see the fear and uncertainty as he faced his inevitable demise.”

Now the ghosts of El Toro stalk Bill, who faces a similar and bleak outlook.

Battling his own rare debilitating disease, a photojournalist hopes other military retirees may recognize themselves in these vignettes and seek help from the VA.

Bill is a longtime award-winning photojournalist in Southern California and a Long Beach resident. He was diagnosed in early 2019 with his own rare neuromuscular disease, a variant of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) that shares striking similarities to Ray’s disease and potential genetic links.

Bill’s disease, which has no known treatment, has a life expectancy of three to five years from diagnosis. He’s 59.

Both the father’s and son’s diseases are caused by mutations to the same gene. Experiments have shown links between multiple systems atrophy and ALS, technically, hexanucleotide repeat expansions of the C9orf72 gene. They can be shared by family members, according to a 2013 study printed in JAMA Neurology.

Bill Alkofer sits outside of Hangar 296 at the former El Toro Marine Base.
Bill Alkofer sits outside of Hangar 296 at the former El Toro Marine Base. Alkofer’s father died of a rare neuromuscular disease due to contact with a toxic chemical while working in the hangar in the 1950s. Alkofer is also dying of a rare neuromuscular ailment.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Bill is not the only one of Ray’s children with health issues. His sister, Mary Ramsey, 62, suffers from a heart valve deficiency and has undergone two surgeries. Studies suggest there may be a link between parents exposed to TCE and heart disease among their children. Both Mary and Bill were born with heart murmurs.

It will never be known whether Bill inherited the mutated gene from his dad or if it was specifically caused by TCE. However, he admits to a “cold curiosity.” Science may be years away from a solution and Bill likely won’t live to see it.

His plea is for Marines and their families to make sure they receive all the benefits to which they are entitled.

Battling the VA

For many Marines it is hard to come to grips with the idea that a service they devoted their lives to can be so lacking in empathy once they retire.

Ray, who was originally misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, began experiencing symptoms in 2008. While Ray battled the decline of his health, his wife, Laura Alkofer, fought the VA to get benefits while caring for her dying husband.

Ray always extolled what the Marine Corps did for him as a young man: provided a sense of community and brotherhood. He was reluctant to admit what he believed it did to him: left him crippled, his body withering as his legs became useless and his lungs fought a desperate and futile battle to keep him alive.

Laura waged a two-year almost daily battle with Veterans Affairs, before finally securing full disability and survivor benefits.

Laura Alkofer assists her husband with grooming as he neared the end of his life.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

The VA, after initially denying her claim, reconsidered and offered what it called a “100% evaluation” — or full benefits — writing, “This action represents a full grant of benefits site on appeal as service connection for MSA with loss of both feet has been established.”

Ray died six months after the benefits were approved at age 81.

“I am sure he took comfort to know mom would be taken care of,” Bill says.

Laura said she was the first person to get full disability benefits specifically for MSA caused by exposure to TCE. She has since become a VA benefits advocate. Her battle cry is “You are foolish if you don’t apply for benefits. You have been made to suffer. You deserve compensation.”

Telling the story of Ray and the importance of fighting for benefits has been on Bill’s bucket list.

For many, a bucket list may include adventures or luxury stays at exotic locales. Bill’s goal is to help others. Like telling vets about what they were exposed to and to learn about their options. Kicking over that “pail on the trail,” as Bill calls it, has become all the more immediate as his own health fails.

“If my family’s story can encourage one family to apply for the benefits due them, it will help me rest easier,” he said.

Retired Marine Corps Maj. William Mimiaga sits outside the former Hangar 296.
Retired Marine Corps Maj. William Mimiaga sits outside the former Hangar 296 at El Toro Marine base where he was exposed to trichloroethylene. Mimiaga has suffered from breast cancer, lung cancer, heart failure, prostate issues and PTSD. Mimiaga’s quest for disability was denied five times. Mimiaga estimates he goes to the VA hospital in Long Beach eight to 12 times a month for treatment.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Another retired Marine from Long Beach is Maj. William “Monsoon” Mimiaga. He suffered what he called “cluster headaches” that would bring him to his knees during two stints at El Toro.

Since retiring, Mimiaga has had a litany of health ailments, including breast cancer that required a double mastectomy. He has also suffered from heart failure, prostate issues and PTSD. He said he visits the Long Beach VA eight to 12 times per month for treatments.

However, he said his battle with the VA to receive disability was almost as difficult as fighting his illnesses.

“It’s always a struggle to get your benefits from the VA. You need grit. The VA’s philosophy is ‘deny, deny, deny, until they die,” Mimiaga said. “But no matter how hard it is you’ve got to keep at it. Because if you should pass away, your widow and the people you leave behind should be taken care of.”

Mimiaga’s quest for disability was denied five times before he was able to get 70% disability, and it wasn’t until 2019 that he received full disability.

Bill Alkofer gets help dressing from his mother Laura during a visit to North Dakota.
Bill Alkofer gets help dressing from his mother Laura during a visit to North Dakota in 2020.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Bill Alkofer, describing his own worsening health, says, “My arms don’t work and I’m down to two fingers on my hands. My legs are failing and I’ve had three falls on stairs. I live in dread fear that the next fall will kill me.”

Bill recently had to sell his car, needs assistance to leave his apartment and is increasingly feeling trapped.

“But dad would probably tell me to never, never, never give up,” he says. “That pail is still on the trail.”

Bill will soon have to leave his home in Long Beach.

“When the ground thaws, I will be moving back to the Midwest, where my sister can provide care like my mom did for my dad,” he says.

Hangar 296

The hazards of El Toro are an open secret. The EPA listed El Toro as a Superfund site in 1990. The agency’s website says: “A total of 25 potentially contaminated areas were identified on the Air Station.”

Much of the site has been cleared, although “about 600 acres of additional soil cleanup still needs to be completed,” according to Julia Giarmoleo, a spokesperson for the EPA.

Hangar 296 is listed as the primary source of contamination in groundwater, which was “the principal threat at the site,” according to the EPA.

Hangar 296 taken from a tethered balloon ride in the Great Park in Irvine.
The building with the sign reading Raider Country was formerly known as Hangar 296. This photo was taken from a tethered balloon ride in Orange County Great Park.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Marines who served at El Toro said being around TCE irritated their eyes, noses and throats and caused difficulty breathing and nausea.

Part of the El Toro base was converted to a recreation complex known as Orange County Great Park. There is a tethered balloon ride in the park from which Hangar 296 can be seen. The 200,000-square-foot facility is easily identified by the painted sign that reads “Raider Country.” According to Bill, a balloon operator he met told him on most weekends retired Marines take the ride to look at the hangar.

“Every time I see a retired El Toro Marine, I wonder if they’re sick like my dad was,” Bill says. “Often we engage in conversation. When I ask them ‘How’s your health?’ They’ll wonder how I know they’re sick. Then they rattle off a litany of diseases”

Ray Alkofer's family gathers at the Park River, N.D. cemetery.
Ray Alkofer’s family gathers at the Park River, N.D. cemetery as the military guard begins to fold the American flag, Oct. 8, 2011.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

Military funeral

As his dad’s health began failing in 2008, Bill started shooting a documentary. He remembers this interaction.

“On the Fourth of July in 2010 I asked how he was feeling. ‘I’d like to have my life back,’ he said. What seemed to bother this North Dakota farm boy most is that he couldn’t keep working. He told me, ‘I’m not so old that I wouldn’t be able to do some compensating work if I hadn’t been poisoned. I love the Marine Corps. I’m proud to have served in the Marine Corps. But I had no idea that I was being poisoned. I thought I was safe on the base. I took for granted that everything was safe. It wasn’t.’”

Ray Alkofer had a full military funeral: a casket draped with a flag, taps and a rifle salute.

“When my mother, sister and I visited Dad’s gravesite this past Fourth of July,” Bill says, “I was fatigued from my own disease and reclined against the family headstone and saw my name carved in the granite. We had just added a plaque to the tombstone. It’s the logo of the United States Marine Corps.”

Greg Mellen is a contributor to TimesOC.

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