VERO BEACH, Fla. - Long before Tom Flanagan sold mattresses, he was a legal assistant in the Marines. His first stop after boot camp was Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 1965.
He spent almost two years there.
“At the time I was kind of thrilled. I'm not the smallest guy in the world and I wasn't going to Vietnam. I could handle working in a legal assistant's office. As it turned out maybe I would I would have been better off if I had gone off to Vietnam because they got me later in life anyway,” he said, inside a Port St. Lucie Mattress One store where he is a salesperson.
In the 2000s he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, one after the other. It left him with just a fraction of one kidney and a struggle to keep up with bills.
“I don't know why I got cancer. It's not hereditary or anything. Nobody in my family ever had it anyway, you know?” he said.
In 2012, the federal government passed the Camp Lejeune Families Act. It acknowledges the water was contaminated there from the 1950s to the 1980s. The bad water could lead to, among other things, kidney cancer.
It allowed vets to apply for compensation, but Tom’s claim was rejected.
Today, he’s 72 years-old and works six days a week to makes ends meet.
“I've been in Florida about five years now. I haven't seen Florida. I saw West Palm Beach at the (VA) hospital a couple of times. That's about it. I just haven't had the money to go anywhere,” he said.
Then, in March of last year, the VA changed its rules.
Veterans and their families would be automatically eligible as long as they spent more than 30 days at Camp Lejeune and had one of the qualifying ailments, including kidney cancer.
“They should be paying me,” he said,
But the VA wasn’t paying him, not until last week when we told them about Tom’s story.
And just days later, they granted Tom his long awaited benefits at an 80% disability rating-backdated to March of last year.
He's due more than $1,700 per month.
"I'm elated, I really am. I wasn't sure when I contacted you guys, Channel 5, I didn't know whether it was going to help or not. I figured it couldn't hurt. It's been four years waiting. Couldn't get an answer out of anybody. You guys worked miracles for me. I really appreciate it,” he said.
His first trip will be to the Florida Keys with his wife. He’s never been there.
If you are interested in learning more about how to apply for benefits if you or a loved one might have fallen ill because of the water at Camp Lejeune, click here.