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How a Bunch of Scrappy Marines Could Help Vanquish Breast Cancer

Exposed to poisoned water at Camp Lejeune, these vets may hold the key to a scourge that kills some 40,000 American women—and a few hundred men—per year.

"I felt like a freak," Peter Devereaux recalls. "I got no breasts! How can this be? I'm a Marine, I'm a badass!": Photo: Grant Delin"I felt like a freak," says Peter Devereaux—"'How can this be? I'm a Marine, I'm a badass!'"
(Grant Delin)

It is too late for Steve Martin, Number 23 on Partain's spreadsheet, who attended a Lejeune day care center built on the site of a former pesticide-mixing facility as an infant—and underwent a double mastectomy as an 18-year-old. It's obviously too late for the 19 men Partain tracked down who were diagnosed with breast cancer and later died, in most cases after the cancer metastasized. And it's too late for Peter Devereaux, a.k.a. Number Seven.

A native of Peabody, Massachusetts, Devereaux joined the Marines straight out of high school and was stationed at Lejeune from 1980 to 1982. As a field specialist in the 8th Communications Battalion, he lived in barracks that got their drinking water from the Hadnot Point system. Later, after completing tours of duty in Hawaii and the Philippines, he returned home and found work as a civilian machinist. On weekends, Devereaux earned extra money landscaping and building patios. A serious amateur athlete, he boxed and ran ultramarathons.

Now he can barely walk. Devereaux was so sick that he couldn't make it to the Wilmington meeting, so I called him at his home in North Andover. In his thick Boston accent, he told me how he was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, at the age of 45. "I figured I must have got elbowed playing hoop," he says of the lump he noticed one day in his chest. "Being a guy, you don't even know about breast cancer. I never thought men could get it. But I told my wife, and she made me an appointment to see the doctor."

"I ate good, I exercised, stayed fit my whole life, never smoked or did drugs—and you try to figure out how can this have happened?"

The verdict was Stage III breast cancer (which would soon spread to his lymph nodes). Devereaux was dumbfounded. "I felt like a freak," he recalls. "I got no breasts! How can this be? I'm a Marine, I'm a badass, I work out all the time. I ate good, I exercised, stayed fit my whole life, never smoked or did drugs—and you try to figure out how can this have happened?"

Five months after his diagnosis, he received a letter from the Marine Corps at the behest of Congress. It stated that Devereaux might have been exposed to contaminated water while aboard Camp Lejeune, and suggested that he register at a website set up by the ATSDR to identify subjects for its health studies. "When I got that letter in the mail," he told me, "within one minute it made 100 percent sense to me that contaminated water was how I got breast cancer." He found a website started by Marines and their families, and was soon in touch with six other men, including Partain. Devereaux agreed to speak publicly in the hope that more Marines might come forward. "I gotta let others know, man. I wish they'd let us know 20 years ago, and it could have been a different result for me."

Like many men with breast cancer, Devereaux was diagnosed late in the course of the disease. His treatment included a mastectomy and the removal of 22 lymph nodes, followed by radiation and 14 months of chemo. "It beat the crap out of me," he says. In 2009 he learned that the cancer had spread to his spine, ribs, and hips. "There's no cure this time."

"You go into all these pink buildings and places for your mammograms… You're this dude, and all these women are looking at you."

Tough guy that he is, Devereaux has found comfort within the very female breast cancer community. "You go into all these pink buildings and places for your mammograms and appointments. You're this dude, and all these women are looking at you. I meet these women, and they're so much more open and honest and easy to talk to about emotions. Guys, all we talk about are football, eating, farting, and girls. So they really helped. I felt a burden lifted. I wanted to move forward. My goal now is to raise awareness."

His combat training hasn't hurt. Devereaux was more than ready to wage a paper and public relations war against the Marine Corps to secure medical benefits and help other sickened veterans get them too. Vets are covered only for service-related conditions, and he'd been out of the Corps for more than two decades. But last year, after a two-year battle, Devereaux convinced the Veterans Administration that his cancer was as likely as not linked to the water at Lejeune—something only one other vet had managed. (To qualify for benefits, vets must prove beyond "reasonable doubt" that service-related exposures caused their illness.)

Not everyone on Partain's spreadsheet blames the military. "I can't say why I got this damned disease," says Bill Smith, a 77-year-old Floridian who edited the base newspaper for two years in the late 1950s and was later treated for late Stage II breast cancer. "I lived a hard-drinking, fun life. I worked the steel mills in Buffalo. I lived at Camp Lejeune. I don't know where it came from. I can't all of a sudden blame the Marine Corps. I don't know and my doctors don't know."

What he does know is that he used to be a swaggering SOB, and that his breast cancer has changed all that. "I'm not what I was," says Smith, who spent years in advertising after leaving the Corps. "I was a Mad Man. I was a user of women. I'm not even telling you how many times I was married. I'm not a swinger anymore, not a user. I appreciate women now, and they're so much stronger than men. I went to support groups, I listened to them. I've had the privilege of entering a women's world."
 

Many men with breast cancer don't want to talk about it, but Partain is as chatty as a schoolgirl in spring. It's why he's such an effective spokesman. There's nothing girly about his appearance. He describes himself as "a hairy beasty guy," and it's a fair assessment. Not long ago he convinced Devereaux and some of the others to pose for a calendar to benefit breast cancer research.

Yet underneath the affability runs a deep anger. Partain is angry about his cancer, and angry that the Marines haven't done more to apologize or to compensate the men for their disease. As a journalist, I was allowed to tour Lejeune's extensive, ongoing cleanup, which involves everything from oil-eating bacteria to soil-vapor extraction to "pump and treat" stations that oxidize volatile organic molecules into less harmful ones. But because he's a civilian, Partain isn't allowed aboard Lejeune. This makes him madder still. So before my official tour, he offers to take me on one of his own.

I look over at Partain as we pull into a parking lot just across Highway 24 from the base. He's wearing shorts and a brown T-shirt that reads "Surf City, USA." But the tourist attire belies his sour mood. He points to where a chain-link fence and a row of loblolly pine separates the roadway from Tarawa Terrace, his family's old neighborhood. Next to an entrance gate, four bright yellow pole stubs surround a concrete square the size of a laptop—the now infamous TT-26 well. "They let it pump for 30 years and they poisoned a lot of people," he says. "Every time I see it, I get angry."

"It's every woman's worst nightmare…that something they do when they're pregnant can affect their unborn child."

We watch some gulls fly overhead. "My father chose to have his family here, on that base," Partain continues, "because when you're inside the gates of the second Marine Corps division, you're supposed to be safe. When these people, who are guarding their country, go overseas, and in harm's way, the last thing on their mind should be, What's happening to my wife and my kids?

"It's every woman's worst nightmare," he goes on, "that something they do when they're pregnant can affect their unborn child. I've seen it when I talk to the mothers and they learn their child was poisoned. I saw it in my mother's eyes—the most heartbreaking look, despair, that I've ever experienced in my life. I was 39 years old when I saw that look. Part of me wants to go on base and show my family, my youngest daughter. She keeps asking me, 'Is what's happening to you going to happen to me, Daddy?'"

Partain pauses, rubbing his hand against the grain of his goatee. "I don't want these things burning in my head," he says, "but I don't want to stick my head in the sand either. I don't want to forget about it. I have to understand it."

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