It was only 18 months ago that Bill Noelker hung out his shingle to practice law and already he has the case of a lifetime.
“This case is why I went to law school. This gets me excited,” Noelker said last week in his second-floor office across Main Street from the Boyle County Courthouse. “You have people dying and suffering. It’s just wrong and it needs to stop.”
Noelker represents Janetta Johnson and her daughter Robin Johnson in personal injury claims against the United States of America. The Johnsons are among hundreds of thousands of people exposed to poisoned water at Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina over a 30-year period and have endured a lifetime of mysterious and life-threatening medical issues.
“I have been sick almost from the day I was born,” Robin Johnson, 48, said during a tearful telephone interview from the home in Boone County she shares with her mother and father, retired marine Orval Johnson, and her 19-year-old son, Cody.
Robin Johnson was two months old when her father was transferred to Camp Lejeune, where the family lived in the Tarawa Terrace housing unit on the base for 18 months in 1965 and 1966. They drew their water from the Tarawa well.
“We drank it, we bathed in it, we cooked with it and washed our clothes in it,” Janetta Johnson, 71, said.
It was later discovered that the Tarawa well and another well on the base were heavily contaminated with known and suspected carcinogenic chemicals such as perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent, and trichloroethylene, a degreaser, along with benzene and vinyl chloride from fuel that leaked into the water supply.
The contamination by at least 70 different chemicals began as early as 1957 and continued until the wells were capped in 1987. Tests showed the water to be contaminated with toxins at concentrations up to 3,400 times the levels permitted by safety standards, according to the lengthy Wikipedia entry on Camp Lejeune’s poisoned water.
Numerous cases have been documented of people exposed to the water having developed much higher rates of female and male breast cancer, leukemia and other types of cancer — along with miscarriages and birth defects — than the normal population.
Marine leadership knew of the contaminated water as early as the 1970s, Noelker said. The Department of the Navy, which oversees the Marine Corp, first ignored it, then denied it and continues to stonewall efforts to get at the truth and notify and care for those affected through numerous congressional hearings and studies that continue to this day.
After a congressional hearing last year, the Navy was ordered to begin notifying all of those who were exposed to the contaminated water of possible harmful consequences. When Janetta Johnson received her notification letter, the years of medical maladies of unknown origin she and her daughter had endured, which their doctors couldn’t explain, suddenly had a cause.
“It was like a bomb,” she said. “I sat down and cried. I just couldn’t believe that was the answer.”
Like her daughter, Janetta Johnson also was overcome with emotion as she detailed her family’s long and troubled medical history to a reporter over the phone.
Both of her breasts have been removed because of cancer. She’s had melanomas removed. She’s lost her hair. All of her teeth have fallen out.
“I was in perfect health when I got married. I never had a medical problem, never been sick a day in my life,” she recalled of her days before moving to Camp Lejeune. “Robin got sick first. I couldn’t keep her well. The doctors didn’t know what it was. It seemed like I spent my whole life holding her.”
Robin Johnson suffered through extreme cases of childhood diseases like mumps, measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever due to a compromised immune system. In 2000, she went to the emergency room and told doctors she was going to die. She had emergency surgery to remove a 13-inch growth from her colon. Her insides had been eaten away.
“I thought I was cured but issues continued,” Robin Johnson said.” I have never had a normal day. Every day is a surprise. There are days when I spend most of the day in the bathroom. It often feels like I’m dying. No diagnosis is hopeful.”
After Janetta Johnson lost her second breast to cancer three years ago, she had a hard time coping. “That’s a big issue for a woman,” she said.
To deal with her depression, she sought help from Robert Noelker, a clinical psychologist in northern Kentucky and Bill Noelker’s father. Over the course of her sessions with Robert Noelker, Janetta Johnson revealed the scope of her medical problems going back to her days at Camp Lejeune. The psychologist suggested she might need legal counsel and put her in contact with his son.
Though he only obtained his law degree less than two years ago, Bill Noelker turned out to be the right man for the job. He flew F-18 fighter jets for the Navy for seven years, including combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, and had himself witnessed the dumping of toxic hydraulic fluid on military bases during his career. He has prints of fighter jets adorning the walls of his law office.