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Willmar, Minn., vet, who avoided Vietnam, has terminal illness linked to water at Camp Lejeune

John Woodman of Willmar was recently diagnosed with an illness linked to the harmful chemicals that were in the water supply at Camp Lejeune while he served with the U.S. Marine Corps. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

WILLMAR -- John Woodman thought himself lucky.

Serving with the U.S. Marine Corps and stationed from 1972 through 1976 at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., he was ordered three times to Vietnam, only to have the orders rescinded each time.

On one occasion he made it as far as the Marine base at Twentynine Palms in southern California before being sent back to Camp Lejeune; on another, his plane was literally turned around in mid-flight.

This March he learned that he has a terminal illness linked to exposure to harmful chemicals that were in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune.

Woodman, 62, of Willmar, is urging other veterans not to rely on their luck.

Well aware of the backlog in claims being handled by the Veterans Association, Woodman is telling veterans to move quickly to establish their medical record with the VA.

In his case, he is worried that the medical costs he will incur due to his diagnosis with Myelodysplastic disorder will take a toll on his retirement savings before he can receive the compensation the VA is required by law to provide.

He is also urging veterans who were at Camp Lejeune to obtain physicals and learn about the illnesses associated with the contaminated water. Veterans and their families living or serving at the base were possibly exposed to contaminated water from the 1950s to the 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs.

A law enacted last year requires the VA to pay the medical costs for veterans who served at Camp Lejeune during the time period and are now suffering from any of 15 medical conditions linked to the harmful chemicals.

Myelodysplastic syndromes are among those on the list. Sometimes referred to as "smoldering leukemia,''his doctor told him it will eventually require that he receive weekly transfusions of red cells and platelets.

His wife, Cindy, is a local Red Cross Bloodmobile volunteer. Both are reminding people about the importance of donating blood.

Woodman only began thinking about his blood three years ago, when an annual physical revealed a low blood count. He started taking iron supplements and increasing his intake of red meats and green, leafy vegetables, but his blood counts continued to drop.

Woodman turned to the VA for medical care a few years ago, as he began contemplating the retirement he began this March.

The very month he began his retirement, a physician with the VA made the diagnosis. He stated in his report that the myelodysplastic disorder "is in all likelihood and probability related to an incident at Camp Lejeune where there was contaminated water with chemicals which are harmful.''

Benzene was among the chemicals contaminating the water at Camp Lejeune. Woodman believes it is the chemical responsible for his condition.

John and Cindy Woodman said they had received a survey from the military about four years earlier asking about his health and informing them of the contamination of the water supply while he was at Camp Lejeune. But having no apparent health issues at that time, Woodman said he gave the matter no more thought until the recent diagnosis.

"I thought I was lucky,'' he said, speaking about the three times he was returned to Camp Lejeune instead of being sent to Vietnam. "It turned out I wasn't lucky.''

The U.S. Marine Corps provides regular updates for those who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune at

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335