SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) - When you see someone in uniform, many people say 'thank you for your service.' It's the least you can do for someone who's putting their life on the line for you. NEWS10 ABC’s Lydia Kulbida was shocked to find out from a local Veteran of the hidden price of service that some don't even know is taking a toll. Richard Marine told her, “It’s another cost of service that’s mostly invisible.”
With a name like Marine, it sounds like a foregone conclusion what Richard Marine would be, but it wasn't easy. He was sitting in his seat on the bus going to boot camp at Parris Island when the drill instructor came on the bus.
“He was going through the checklist of names, “ Richard recalled. “And he stopped and said, ‘I don’t believe this. You know who you are, stand up.’ And I assumed he was speaking to me because of my last name, which was correct. From that point forward I had a certain level of special attention in order to earn the title Marine.”
After graduating boot camp at Parris Island in the summer of 1969, it was on to 10 weeks of infantry training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
When Lydia asked, “What sticks out in your mind about your 10 weeks at Camp Lejeune?” Richard immediately answered, “The difficulty of it. It was real in the woods infantry training. It was long hikes with heavy packs, and it was live fire, crawl under machine gun fire.”
Richard served in Thailand in 1972 before eventually leaving the service and settling in Schenectady, well known as a volunteer in the community and schools.
“Everything I learned in the Marine Corps I was able to apply in life. I said life was wonderful and that's really the truth because we raised our kids, established our roots in the community, and got involved with a lot of things that were fun and fulfilling, and here we are. Despite what I consider to be myriad benefits, there was a significant price.”
In 2008 came the news that changed his life: he was diagnosed with cancer.
“People don't realize when they get struck down by cancer they don't immediately jump back to their time in service,” Richard said. "You don't even know how to make the connections.”
With no family history of cancer, Richard started doing some research. Was his illness related to his service during the Vietnam War and the use of Agent Orange? A claim filed turned into a claim denied, like for many other Veterans in the Facebook group Thailand Vets of the Vietnam War. Richard read stories from people there that he called heartbreaking.
“Where they've been trying and trying, providing proof after proof as their health deteriorates and the VA's position is no. Those people have been abandoned; it's really the only word for it. It's fundamentally wrong, and it is angering.”
But it turns out the seeds of the illness could have been planted much closer to home. For decades, from 1953 to 1987, people living and working at Camp Lejeune were exposed to contaminated water.
“There needs to be a better method when someone says there's poison over here, for someone qualified to go look at that poison and start the right process to limit the exposure to the population and that didn't happen," Richard said.
In 2012, Richard found out online about the Camp Lejeune Families Act, which would provide free health care for certain conditions to Veterans who served at least 30 days at Camp Lejeune from the 50s to the 80s. But the money to pay for that care wasn't allocated until 2017, almost a decade after his cancer diagnosis.
“It frustrates me, it makes me angry, and it's because there are so many people out there who haven't been blessed the way I've been blessed in life. They don't have the resources to necessarily maintain their family when these illness strike.”
So Richard's mission has become to spread the word about the program and perhaps right some wrongs of the past.
“I think this is a way for some Vietnam era Vets to get the compensation they should've gotten related to Agent Orange if they qualify, and that's my purpose. If they suffer from one of those conditions, they're eligible for free health care, related to that condition. Well again, in this age of huge premiums, deductibles and co-pays that could be a good thing.”
The first step is to register. Richard was surprised his claim was approved in three months. But his cancer's timeline also changed.
“The biggest risk with follicular lymphoma is a process called transformation and that means some tumors have transformed from an indolent slow growing disease into an aggressive fast growing disease and that has just occurred to me.”
Richard just completed his latest round of chemotherapy, continuing to fight his cancer like a Marine, and continuing to spread the word about the program that could help others like him.
Close to one million people, Veterans and family members, could have been exposed. Not even one-third are registered and getting information about benefits and trials. Some have already passed away.
“It's become a cost of service that people do talk about,” Richard said. “That people acknowledge is real and expect that something will be done to compensate the people that put their lives on the line to keep us free.”
Towards the end of the interview, Lydia asked Richard, “Does it ever make you regret your service” He answered quickly, “No, I learned so much, I had so many fantastic experiences, had the opportunity to go to places and do things I probably wouldn't have gone to or done and I don't regret it at all.”