The ducks line the living room shelves. Owls, too. They’re handmade, every one. They almost crowd out the medal in the display case. Those are what he kept; he sold many.
“My daughter doesn’t have any student loans,” Mike Stevans said. “That’s how we did it.”
He used to build pianos. Woodenscreened night lights, too, with careful attention to detail and heavy use of power tools.
Today, a neurological disorder he attributes to his time as a U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, limits him to hand tools. The ducks and owls are still works of art, with hand-scribed feathers and are painted to match the breed. Same with the owls, except the one Sharon Stevans specifically ordered from her husband. Less realistic, but more artsy, she said.
Between 1953 and 1987, the Navy and Marine Corps said military personnel like Mike Stevans and civilians were exposed to water contaminated with trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, benzene, vinyl chloride and other compounds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 1 million of them face the risk those compounds present: a half dozen forms of cancer; neurobehavior effects, renal toxicity, infertility, miscarriages — 15 ailments in all. Following class-action lawsuits, the federal government authorized more than $2 billion in payments to affected veterans, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Mike Stevans is one veteran, but not the only one, in the greater Cortland area dealing decades later with his time spent at Camp Lejeune. He and Sharon Stevans have been dealing with it for years — giving them insight they’re willing to share with others, but still less time than Cortland County’s veterans service officer, Tom Tedesco, grieving a wife lost to leukemia.
Roger Morehouse of Cortland doesn’t sleep in his bedroom because he can’t make it up the stairs. He sleeps on a single mattress downstairs.
“He’s still tired because of the cancer,” even after stopping chemotherapy, said his son Aaron Morehouse. “He can’t stand for very long.”
Roger Morehouse has stage 4 prostate cancer, which his children believe is from his four years stationed at Camp LeJeune from 1972 to 1976, minus a brief stint in the Mediterranean.
“He got out of boot camp the day the order was given to pull out of Vietnam,” Aaron Morehouse said.
When he was diagnosed in February 2016, the cancer had metastasized with a golf ball-sized tumor embedded in the spine that broke several vertebrae.
“They could not do surgery due to the fact that it was already stage 4,” said Laura Boggs-Morehouse, Aaron’s wife and Roger’s daughter-in-law.
Roger went through chemo and radiation to slow the spread of the cancer. He decided to stop chemo in February.
“I think he wanted to spend whatever time he had left not feeling like crap,” Laura Boggs-Morehouse said. “If you ask Dad how he’s doing with things, he says ‘I’m OK.’ I think he’s just trying to deal with it in his own way. I think in some ways he goes between being at peace and not being at peace.”
Roger has so much he wants to do, but doesn’t have enough time, Aaron Morehouse said.
“He has a long list of stuff he wants to do but it’s a matter of his ability to do it,” Aaron Morehouse said, including building a screened area at his home where his cats could run. “He’s planning it, I’m just going to be the labor building it.”
Aaron is in the anger stages of it all, Laura said. He’s mad at the military for not including prostate cancer among the covered ailments. He’s mad at the insurance companies for not paying for a blood test that could have detected the cancer earlier.
Laura has put her efforts and paralegal skills into getting prostate cancer recognized by the Veterans Affairs Department as an illness that could have been caused by Camp LeJeune’s contaminated water.
“There are multiple lawsuits against the military regarding veterans who got prostate cancer from the camp,” she said. “I am working on trying to do some research to file a case with our local person. It kind of got slowed down and stopped when the country shut down.”
The couple is leaning on friends and each other, but the hardest part remains, “knowing that time is running out,” Aaron Morehouse said.
“It breaks our hearts that the veterans have risked their lives, that they’ve fought for this country and even though they come back they’re still dying for it,” Laura Boggs-Morehouse said. “It doesn’t seem right and it’s not fair.”
The long road ahead
Mike Stevans has little regard for the scars of war. Anger, mostly, for which he got some counseling. He doesn’t tell the ugly stories, either. The night he was laying mines and called over to another soldier, only to find out he was a North Vietnamese soldier (no shooting involved) stands out.
Other scars: His brother died of cancer, perhaps linked to his duty in Iraq, amid burn pits and battlefields laced with depleted uranium.
His own scars, the neurological issues, stem from time at Camp Lejeune, doctors told him. Sitting in his recliner in the living room of his Hamlin Street home, he keeps his left hand tucked between thigh and chair arm. Perhaps it’s a conscious choice, perhaps not.
Power tool accident. “And I had the rules right by the saw,” Stevans said, but just a second’s lapsed concentration. He lost three fingers. “Concentrate on what you’re doing.”
He joined the Marine Corps in 1964 at 17. He was sent to Vietnam in 1965, returning in 1966. From 1966 until 1968 he served mostly at Camp Lejeune.
Years later, the problems arrived. “He started by falling,” Sharon Stevans said. “He started stumbling, not so much tripping over his feet, but tipping over. He felt like his legs weren’t connected to his brain anymore and he would just fall.”
Tremors came, and now memory loss and “some cognitive changes” have been added to his symptoms. “Since then he’s continued to deteriorate,” she said.
Sharon Stevans initially suspected exposure to Agent Orange, but when she looked into it, she discovered the water issue at Camp Lejeune.
“The Marine Corps was supposed to have sent out letters to everybody — 900,000 people that were affected by this,” she said.
She tried to sign him up for Veterans Affairs services related to Camp Lejeune in 2018; he was denied in 2019.
“We did get approval for some other things related to the military, so he wasn’t totally denied, but the issues related to Camp Lejeune — they denied that they were related to the water,” she said.
But she has medical records from December 2017 when Mike Stevans took part in a study by a Veterans Affairs facility in East Orange, New Jersey, that acknowledged the effects of Camp Lejeune on his body.
Mike Stevans now sees a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where a center deals with movement disorders. It’s not covered by the VA benefits.
He still walks when he can, with braces on his legs. He has a wheelchair for longer distances. It’s been a long road, but Sharon Stevans says they know what’s ahead.
“These kinds of degenerative diseases don’t lead to good things,” she said. “Gradually, bit by bit, gradually you have your independence taken away from you.”
The VA care has been good, she said, but the hardest part is trying to get through the bureaucracy.
“That’s been the biggest shock to me — I really thought that when you joined there’d be a contract to take care of you, to do the right thing by your men and your women and I haven’t found that to be true,” she said.
She needed an advocate, so now she’s willing to be one for the Morehouses.
“The slogan for the Marine Corps is Semper Fi — Always Faithful,” Sharon Stevans said. “Well, the Marine Corps and the Navy have not been ever faithful over this issue. They’ve minimized it, they’ve swept it under the rug, they’ve denied most of the applications for health assistance from the families and the Marines.”
It’s been almost a year and a half since Diane Tedesco died from leukemia stemming from her training at Camp Lejeune.
“I only know what she’s told me,” said Tom Tedesco. “She was a Navy corpsman and she was stationed at Camp Lejeune to go through the Marine training to become a field corpsman back in 1987, that’s how she came into contact with the water.”
She spent two months there. Two decades later, she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. She was 42.
“I asked how do you get CML? Is it hereditary? How do you get this because it was just out of the blue?” Tom Tedesco said.
Doctors indicated the cancer could be because of chemical exposure.
Five years later, in 2012, Diane was going through a stem cell transplant in Buffalo when she received a letter from the Marine Corps “stating if you were stationed at Camp Lejeune you could have come into contact with contaminated water and the No. 1 thing on the list is the leukemia she got.”
Years would pass before they would start the process to get benefits through Veterans Affair because they were in and out of hospitals, Tom Tedesco said.
“She got really sick and to save her life they used every steroid under the sun and it killed her immune system,” he said. “They said that she was the sickest person to ever walk off their floor up there.”
When they did begin filling out the paperwork, it took forever.
“Because it was so new to the VA, a lot of it was fresh for every veterans officer filing these claims, so they really didn’t know a lot about it,” Tedesco said. “They were kind of learning as we were learning as to what needed to be done, but the process took so long.”
Diane Tedesco did not connect with services for five years. In early November 2017, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few weeks later, her coverage was approved.
She died a year later.
“She passed away because her immune system was shot still because of all the treatments she had to go through to save her life,” he said.
The financial burden took a toll, too. Diane Tedesco had been a nurse and earned more than her husband, but had to quit when she grew too sick. She blamed herself for the costs.
“For her, mentally, it was horrible, as it is for anyone going through this,” Tom Tedesco said. “The money wasn’t going to save her life, that was just compensation mentally for her.”
Still, she kept hope, Tom Tedesco said.
“If you ever met her during these times and you sat and talked with her, you wouldn’t know that she was in the pain that she was in,” he said.
When Diane Tedesco died, he focused on their three children.
“I went back to Wisconsin and visited family again and that helped,” he said. “My daughter started playing volleyball at college — I just went to every game she had and just kept moving. I know it gets better but you know you’re with someone for 30 years, it doesn’t go away quickly.”
He is still coping. One way is by helping others. He became a Veterans Affairs officer and joined Cortland County in January.
“They really need to take care of people quicker — sooner rather than later,” he said. “The VA claims process takes a long time and I don’t know why it takes that long and that’s for anything, not just Camp Lejeune.”