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Military legacy: A veteran’s son shares the health stories of former El Toro service members

Bill Alkofer leans against his father's tombstone during a visit on the Fourth of July 2020.
Bill Alkofer leans against his father’s tombstone during a visit on the Fourth of July 2020. Alkofer’s father died of a rare neuromuscular disease attributed to contact with a toxic chemical while serving in the Marine Corps in the 1950s. Alkofer is also dying of a rare neuromuscular ailment.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer / Larry Biri)

Editor’s note: This is a companion piece to reporter Greg Mellen’s story in TimesOC, ‘We didn’t know’: Veterans of El Toro say their service had toxic consequences.

When my father, Ray Alkofer, was dying from a rare neuromuscular disease attributed to his time as a Marine at the El Toro Marine Air Station, he began telling me stories, many about his experiences and the thousands of retired Marines who were ailing after their service time at the base. In the intervening years since his death in 2011, I began tracking down others who suffered ailments they connected to their time as Marines.

Ray Alkofer, 38, holds the hand of his son Bill, 5, in 1967.
Ray Alkofer, 38, holds the hand of his son Bill, 5, as they head off to church in Clear Lake, S.D. in 1967.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

I thought I would have more time to collect their stories. But it turns out I have my own rare disease, a variant of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and my time is running out.

Today, I only have the use of two fingers on my hands. But before I cease to be able to communicate, I wanted to share the stories of some of the Marines and family members I came across. I tell their stories as an object lesson to other retirees out there who may see something of themselves in these vignettes. If so, I encourage them to get in touch with the VA and learn about the benefits for which they’re eligible.

William Mimiaga

Retired Marine Maj. William Mimiaga gained his “Monsoon” nickname because of the torrent of activity that seems to surround him. Even at age 74, he exudes energy despite his numerous health problems.

Mimiaga is one of the toughest Marines I have met. “Monsoon” spent 31 years in the Corps, entering as an 18-year-old in 1964. He did two infantry tours in Vietnam and served in the Gulf War. He was stationed at El Toro from 1968-70 and again in 1990-93.

Retired Marine Corps Maj. William Mimiaga outside the former Hangar 296 at El Toro.
Retired Marine Corps Maj. William Mimiaga 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.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

During his first stint, he began to suffer from cluster headaches. He says the pains only went away when he left El Toro. When he returned in 1990, so did the headaches. They would last sometimes for five days.

“The world was spinning. The pain brought me to my knees and with the pain came nausea and vomiting,” he said.

Mimiaga also worked in Hangar 296 in the combat readiness storage program. There, he said, copious amounts of TCE degreaser were used on aircraft and vehicles. Like most of his fellow Marines, Mimiaga never wore protective clothing, gloves or masks.

Many times large amounts of the solvent were simply dumped into the ground.

“They’re never going to get rid of that base contamination,” Mimiaga said. “It’s a volcano that never disappears. It remains there slowly rumbling.”

In 2000, “Monsoon” was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, which spread into his lymph nodes and later required a double mastectomy.

He has also battled lung cancer, heart failure, prostate issues and PTSD. He is now cancer free.

After Mimiaga retired from the Marine Corps and settled in Costa Mesa, he began a 20-year teaching career in Long Beach, earning a California state teacher of the year award in 2006.

Mimiaga isn’t a fan of plans to build a veteran cemetery at the former El Toro base.

“Why would I want to be buried in the ground with the toxins that killed me in the first place?” he asked. “Cremate my remains and scatter them in the sea. I’ll travel with the tide so I can visit places I’ve never visited before,”

Despite all his ailments and struggles with the VA, Mimiaga said given the choice to do it all over again, he’d be a Marine.

“People seem surprised by that. But we’re a band of brothers — we’re family. There’s a bonding — a camaraderie. We continue to march long after we’ve dropped our packs,” he said. “We’ve shared the same experience, the same emotions. We’ll march on in the same direction. Oorah and Semper Fi.”

Robert O'Dowd was stationed at El Toro from 1963-64.
Robert O’Dowd was stationed at El Toro from 1963-64. He was exposed to TCE while working in Hangar 296. O’Dowd now lives near the Philadelphia Navy Yard which was also an EPA Superfund site. After taking on the VA for nine years, he finally received 100% disability due to exposure to TCE and other toxic chemicals.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer / Michael Perez)

Robert O’Dowd

Robert O’Dowd, 78, from Philadelphia, has an encyclopedic knowledge about the contamination at the former base. His Facebook page has become a kind of clearinghouse of information and a virtual town square discussion space for those who served or who say they were affected by El Toro. He is also the author of “A Few Good Men, Too Many Chemicals,” a 450-page book in its second printing.

O’Dowd was stationed at El Toro in 1963-64, after joining the Corps as a 19-year-old in 1962. He served overseas during the Vietnam War. He said he was exposed to TCE when he worked and sometimes slept in Hangar 296. O’Dowd said he was also exposed to radium 226, a highly radioactive element.

Robert O'Dowd was stationed at El Toro from 1963-64.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

O’Dowd said Marines used radium-rich luminescent paint on all aircraft instrument panels to allow pilots to fly at night without electric light. Leftover paint, he said, was dumped into the wastewater treatment system.

O’Dowd has suffered from a long list of maladies he attributes to his exposure to toxic chemicals. He’s had two bouts with bladder cancer, prostate cancer, migraines, gastroesophageal reflux, a brain vessel disease, allergies, atrial fibrillation, peripheral neuropathy, hyperprolactinemia, foot drop and impaired cognitive function.

After taking on the VA for nine years, he finally received 100% disability due to exposure to TCE and other toxic chemicals.

“Very few people working at the VA have a military background. They don’t know what we’ve been through,” O’Dowd said. “Some of them I’ve dealt with don’t feel any sympathy, no empathy — and they’re slow as hell.”

O’Dowd says he goes to the VA half a dozen times a month for treatment.

And yet, “Ever the faithful soldier,” he says, “I’m still proud to be a Marine — there’s a brotherhood. You can walk around with a USMC lid [hat] anywhere in the world and someone will yell out ‘Semper Fi,’ and you’ll immediately start up a conversation.”

Sherri Brinkley

Sherri Brinkley, 53, and her family moved onto the El Toro base in 1991 when she was 24 years old. Her husband was a lance corporal who worked in Hangar 296 getting C-130 transport planes ready for flight.

Sherri Brinkley stands for a portrait on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.
Sherri Brinkley stands for a portrait on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, outside her home in Park Hills, Mo. Brinkley lived with her husband and children at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif., in the early 1990s.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer / Whitney Curtis)

Brinkley had a 4-year-old daughter and was pregnant with her second child when she moved onto the base. She remembers carrying that newborn son through the hangar when he was just 24-hours old. The acrid air made her eyes water and she said water on the base tasted noxious.

In 1994, Brinkley became pregnant with a third child. She remembers going to the obstetrician and being told the child’s heartbeat was slow.

“The doctors told me that this was something they saw often with mothers who lived on the base,” Brinkley said. “With each visit to the doctors the heartbeat grew slower.”

Brinkley eventually lost the baby.

Brinkley became pregnant for the fourth time in 1995 while she was living on the base but soon thereafter moved to Missouri.

The baby was born with a fever and immediately put on antibiotics. At 18 months, the girl developed a heart murmur. Now 24, she battles with fibromyalgia, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes and a thyroid disease.

Brinkley’s own health deteriorated to the point that she went on disability at age 40. She now suffers from migraines, pancreatitis, a bile duct disease, retroperitoneal fibrosis, blood clots, a ruptured spleen and heart problems. Her health issues send Brinkley to medical appointments about eight times a month.

“I felt so angry and useless,” she said.

She also feels shame that her children bear what she calls the legacy of El Toro.

“I feel guilty that I exposed my children to all of those toxins. Some days I feel resentful, some days I feel guilty and sometimes I want to scream and yell,” she said.

Sherri Brinkley and her son, Melvin Brinkley III.
Sherri Brinkley and her son, Melvin Brinkley III, stand for a portrait on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, outside her home in Park Hills, Mo. Brinkley lived with her husband and children at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif., in the early 1990s and attributes her current illnesses and that of her children to the contamination they were exposed to while living on the base.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer/Whitney Curtis)

She also recalls during the holidays when Santa would visit Hangar 296. He’d toss candy to the kids and they would scramble across the floor to pick it up.

Nowadays, she feels worn down by her health problems.

“Every day I feel like I’m battling COVID. Ten to 15 days a month I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. I don’t see my life ever improving. My pancreas is failing, I have liver disease and my kidneys are working at 1%,” she said.

She is also contemplating her mortality.

“I feel comfortable coming to grips that this might be the end,” she said. “I’ve made my peace — several times. When it happens, it happens.”

Even after all she’s been through, Brinkley understands why Marines are reluctant to talk about the toxins at the El Toro base.

“As a military spouse, I understood the loyalty Marines feel toward the Corps. You are a family and you’ll deny any wrongdoing,” Brinkley said, adding after a long pause. “Until you’re the one with cancer or a rare neurological disease or ALS.”

John Uldrich

John Uldrich was one of several retired Marines who encouraged my mom to fight for disability benefits for my father. It turns out Uldrich lived in Minneapolis just across the Mississippi River from my home in St. Paul at the time. I’d cross over the bridge and have bagels and coffee with Uldrich every once in a while.

John Uldrich speaks to the 8th Marine Regiment at Lejeune, N.C. in 2018.
John Uldrich speaks to the 8th Marine Regiment at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. in 2018. Uldrich served at El Toro from 1957-58. TCE was responsible for prostate cancer, an enlarged heart, skin cancer, eye diseases and several other illnesses. He fought the VA for nearly a dozen years before finally getting disability and a settlement. Uldrich died in January 2019 at the age of 83.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

He‘d served at El Toro from 1957-58. My mom met him in a discussion group in 2008.

Uldrich and I didn’t talk about the Marine Corps that often. We spent a lot of time bird watching. But when we did talk about the Marines, Uldrich always used the adjective “beloved.”

Uldrich was exposed to TCE while servicing F9 jets in Hangar 296.

“TCE was used in great abundance as the final stage degreaser,” he said. “When the crews were done, the excess TCE was squeegeed out of the hangar and directly onto the ground.”

The chemicals made their way into the base water supply, creating a toxic plume.

An empty 55-gallon drum of Trichloroethylene on the El Toro Marine Base in 1982.
(Courtesy of Bill Alkofer)

“I not only bathed and drank that water but swam in it as well,” he said. “I was a member of the El Toro Bulldogs Swim Team.”

He recalls the water he drank and bathed in as sickly sweet with a burning taste.

He believes his exposure to TCE and other toxins were responsible for prostate cancer, an enlarged heart, skin cancer, eye diseases and several other illnesses.

Uldrich told me that he fought the VA for nearly a dozen years before finally getting disability and a settlement.

Uldrich died in January 2019 at the age of 83.

Bill Alkofer is a photojournalist living in Long Beach.

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