Toxic water at Camp Lejeune sickened me. Congress shouldn’t get to decide which lawyer I hire. | Opinion

In 1984, I was a combat engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps serving at Camp Lejeune. One of my responsibilities on base was sterilizing water for my fellow Marines to drink, cook with and bathe in. I retired in 1986 and settled into civilian life with my wife, April, and family.

Our lives changed in 2013 when I received a letter from the Marine Corps telling me that we Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune, along with our families, had been exposed to highly toxic chemicals that had been dumped into the base’s water system for more 20 years, beginning in the 1950s. The letter directed me to contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if I had questions.

Did we have questions? Of course we had questions! We were horrified to learn that during my years of service, the government had been intentionally ignoring a massive threat to the health of Marines and their families. At my local VA office, I was told it wasn’t a military issue, but a civilian one. In fact, I was told that the contamination was caused by the “local laundromat.”

The unfortunate reality is that it was not a “local laundromat” or any other excuse — the government was responsible for poisoning more than 1 million people between the 1950s and 1980s, and the government concealed it until 2009.

Now, thanks to a change in federal law, those of us who suffered the government’s toxic contamination and its efforts to conceal it can finally seek justice in court. But the government is doing everything in its power to avoid compensating us for its past behavior. Out of more 20,000 administrative claims filed since the law passed last August, the government has offered zero compensation to those of us harmed. The government’s lack of action has left us with our last hope of compensation: filing a lawsuit in federal court.

Camp Lejeune veterans and families were poisoned over the course of 30 years. The Navy concealed it for decades and made it nearly impossible to get compensation through the claims process.

The contamination at Camp Lejeune came up in recent congressional hearings before veterans-related committees in Washington, D.C. During those hearings, some members of Congress claimed they want to “protect” us by blocking attorneys who take our cases while asking for a reasonable legal fee.

Congress passed a good law giving me and my fellow veterans and our families the right to sue the government over what they did to us. But zero progress has been made by Congress to end the logjam that veterans are facing due to the government’s stonewalling on this issue. Now they want to get in our way, again.

I deserve a qualified lawyer to represent me in going up against the federal government for poisoning me. That is why it’s infuriating to hear elected officials dictate the fee I negotiate with my lawyer.

This complete and utter disrespect for veterans is not new.

This war on veterans, cloaked as patronizing so-called “protection,” must end. Veterans should be able to make their own choices on lawyers and negotiate their own fees. We fought for a free country and a free market, which we can and should be permitted to use like everyone else.

I would say that we’re shocked by the government’s actions when it comes to Marines and our families and its failure to adequately address our compensation or the right to file a lawsuit — but sadly, we are not. No veteran is.

Veterans should not have to work this hard to get what they deserve. Congress should put its trust in those who served our nation and allow us to make our own decisions. We are proud of our service, and we hope that our nation’s lawmakers will show us that they feel the same about us by doing what is right — before it’s too late.

Brian Amburgey is a Marine who served from 1983-1986 and has battled serious health problems after being exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. He has filed a claim with the Department of the Navy due to his health issues. His wife April Amburgey is a VFW Post Auxiliary President in Kentucky.