Posted on 5 May, 2016
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at the Yale School of Law recently filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs for failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two veterans advocacy groups, charges that the department has knowingly withheld information on a group of “experts” who have been denying claims of cancer-causing chemical exposure from water in veterans stationed at Camp Leguene, North Carolina.
The initial FOIA request was filed in December 2015, but the VA failed to respond. The new lawsuit was filed in the hopes of identifying how the SME program is being staffed and operated.
“The VA has yet to provide an official response to the request or even to provide a single responsive record. For several years now, Camp Lejeune advocates, individual veterans and the media have repeatedly requested information on the SMEs’ credentials, training, methodology and program mechanics. Yet, the SME program remains a black box,” said Rory Minnis, a second-year student and former Marine at Yale School of Law.
Residents of Camp Lejeune were exposed to an assortment of toxic chemicals in the camp’s drinking and bathing water between 1953-1987. This has caused many to develop illnesses, including rare forms of cancer.
Victims claim that the United States Marine Corps allegedly kept the issue covered up for years. One report by SME quoted information from Wikipedia as a reason for denial, according to Minnis. Others have ignored the medical judgements of VA doctors and have cited false information as grounds for denial.
The lack of response on behalf of the FOIA request has prompted politicians to advocate for greater transparency regarding the credentials and conclusions reached by SME experts.
Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, president of lived on the base with his family in 1975. He began demanding answers from the government after hearing the allegations against the program a few years after his 9-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 6, died of her illness. Part of the problem, according to executive director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America, Rick Weidman, is that “there is no definition of who the subject matter experts are. It’s absolutely unacceptable in a democracy to hide behind anonymity.”