JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Photographs capture Michelle James’ favorite moments with her husband, Eric. You can find them in picture frames around her home. But, not far from the photos are binders, booklets, and stacks of documents. The boxes of papers contain a slew of her husband’s medical records, pleas to healthcare agencies and Veteran Affairs, and rejection letters.
“I’ve been robbed of the person Eric was. I ended up with a totally different version of a man and all the things I had to go through—I shouldn’t have had to go through,” Michelle James said. “If he got the services and the support that he rightfully deserved, I wouldn’t have had to go through that.”
Private Eric Holford was at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from July 1984 until February 1988. He enlisted when he was 18, worked in the motor division, and won several awards for his admiral work.
“He had some emotional issues going on so he left early,” James explained. “So [he] left with the understanding that he would get his disservice discharge upgraded once he left. But, that never happened.”
James said her husband had some psychological issues towards the end of his career.
“They’ve said ‘ok if you had neurological behavioral problems that’s most likely because of the water.’ Ok, so then Eric’s behavior was a certain way--could that have been because of the water?” James wondered.
The water she’s referring to is the drinking water at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s. The Marine Corps discovered specific volatile organic compounds in the water provided by two of the eight water treatment plants on the base.
Researchers are still working to learn how many people were impacted by the water. A law firm representing some of the victims said more than 1 million people have been exposed. Several types of cancer and neurological diseases have been tied to the exposure.
“I’ve spoken to people that know him [Holford] before he went in, and then know him after,” James said. “They said that it’s a totally different person that came out.”
In 2011, Holford was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease of the central nervous system. His case was severe.
“That didn’t kind of deter me, because I really liked him,” James said. They married in 2014.
However, it was only the start of his health issues. James said she was constantly taking him back and forth to the emergency room because of bowel problems. Holford got tested for prostate cancer, which was ruled out. But, he later was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
“We had no idea, at the time, that there could be any connection between his time in the military,” James said.
In August 2017, Holford had surgery on his colon. Days in the hospital turned into weeks, and he wasn’t healing properly. In 2018, he was finally eligible for a reversal. That’s when the doctors found his cancer had spread to his bladder.
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“This was the time when he started to decline, and he had to be in the nursing home,” James said. “It was a very rough time. Very rough time.”
Holford passed away in 2019. James quickly learned there were hundreds of other women in her shoes.
“Our husbands have been taken away from us by no fault of their own,” James said.
She started the Facebook group “Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Widows.” in April of 2022. There are more than 250 members. The group is not only meant to support women who lost their husbands but also to educate them on the compensation they’re owed.