Veteran's family: Fight is not over

Family vows to fight until all Camp Lejeune veterans are awarded their...

By Tara Evans - Executive Producer

BUSHNELL, Fla. - For the family of a local former Marine who has now died, the fight is not over.

Family and friends gathered to say their final goodbyes to 59-year-old Donald Burpee Friday after an eight-year battle with kidney cancer, and a two-year battle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for disability benefits.

[WEB EXTRA: Attorney discusses appeals process | Resources for veterans]

Burpee was once stationed at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, a base where the Marine Corps now admits up to a million Marines drank, bathed in, cooked with and did laundry using toxic water.

Now, up to 15 conditions are associated with contaminated water exposure at Camp Lejeune, Burpee's cancer one of them.

Although Burpee, and other Marines with one of those conditions, have their healthcare covered because of their time on base, they still must fight to receive disability benefits, a fight that can go on for years.

Burpee's family now said his death won't be in vain because they will continue to fight for him and other Marines.

"The fight will not be over until every veteran. including my husband, from Camp Lejeune gets their due in court," said Brenda Burpee, Don's widow. "Anybody at Camp Lejeune should automatically get these benefits. They poisoned them, and that's what he wanted."

But Don Burpee passed away in the middle of fighting for his, after several denials.

"Denying a Marine and his family the benefits they are due is not how a grateful nation honors our veterans," said Mike Partain, a Camp Lejeune veteran advocate.

Burpee's family is now left to struggle on their own.

It's something Morgan & Morgan veterans law attorney Stacey Clark said happens too often to people in this situation.

"They feel the VA is waiting for them to not be around any longer so that they don't have to take care of them," said Clark.

Clark said it's because of a long and drawn out appeals process. She said she's seen some veterans fighting for up to 40 years.

"There is no sense of urgency for veterans or their family members," said Clark.

"They're a name and number and they're waiting in line?" asked Local 6 investigative reporter Mike Holfeld.

"That's what they feel like," said Clark.

But there is a way the VA can make this kind of fight stop.

Partain said it's through a designation called "presumptive service connection".

"With presumptive service connection, there's no fight for the veteran," said Partain. "If you were at Lejeune during the time frame and you have one of the diseases that were listed, you don't have to prove anything else."

Partain said that's the end goal, and it's something that lawmakers could make happen at anytime.

"There are two pathways for presumptive service connection," said Partain. "One is for the secretary of the Veterans Administration to make that designation, and the other is through an act of Congress."

VA documents show first, Institute of Medicine reports need to be compiled on an illness and exposure. For Camp Lejeune, that report was released in March. Then, a panel takes a look at the information and gives their recommendations to the Secretary of the VA. He decides if he agrees the conditions should have a presumptive service connection. Finally, a budget must be approved and a period for public comment will occur before it can officially be placed on the federal register.

Local 6 has asked the VA where in the process the Camp Lejeune conditions are for consideration with presumptive service connection, if at all, but so far has not heard back.

Burpee said the end to the fight for all veterans is what Don would have wanted.

"I will make this my mission to see that Camp Lejeune veterans are taken care of," said Burpee.

"With a presumptive service connection, the tragedy that befell Don and his family will not happen again for the veterans who were poisoned at Camp Lejeune," said Partain.

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