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When Cancer Arrived, The Battle Was Second Nature For Uncle And Nephew Veterans

Nov 9, 2019

Ever since he was a child, Michael Menta looked up to his uncle Sal Leone for becoming a Marine. Menta would eventually follow in Leone's footsteps to serve his country, enlisting in the Navy during his senior year of high school.

Their shared veteranship brought them closer.

"We spoke the same language," Menta said, when he and Leone visited StoryCorps last month.

"You know, nobody knows that they have cigarettes in a C-Ration. Or Chiclet[s] gums in an MRE with a roll of toilet paper," Menta said, recalling the ingredients once included in the packaged meals that are dispensed to military troops.

But earlier this year, Menta found himself at his uncle's bedside at a VA hospital in Florida. Leone was gravely ill from cancer. He was admitted for about two months and has since returned home to be with family in Connecticut.

Menta, now 58, says that taking care of his sick uncle was bigger than a sense of familial duty. It was also his duty as a soldier.

Leone, 66, suffers from preleukemia, also known as Myelodysplastic syndrome. He was diagnosed by the VA hospital, approximately one year ago. He says he has received multiple letters from the military indicating he was at risk of exposure to contamination from toxic water while a Marine at Camp LeJeune, Jacksonville, N.C. from 1972 to 1976.

He says he'd been pretty active at the time he found out he was ill.

"I was out in the backyard, cleaning a roof," Leone said. "And then all of a sudden I started getting dizzy. I thought I had a cold."

For roughly 30 years, beginning in the 1950s, service members at Camp Lejeune risked exposure to contaminated drinking water. The military has acknowledged leukemia among the eight diseases that have been found connected to the contaminated water. Leone has been granted 100% disability claim by the VA, based on his time at Camp LeJeune and his diagnosis.

"As soon as I found out about that letter that the Marine Corps sent you about the potential exposure you had to contaminated water, I basically dragged you to the VA," Menta told Leone.

Leone says the chemotherapy treatment he received "really destroyed me."

Still, when Menta visited an ill Leone in a Florida hospital this past August, he teased Leone like the older brother Menta considered him to be.

"When I first got down to Florida, and I saw you in the bed, I probably told you how ugly you looked," he said.

Menta remembers how Leone wasn't seeing any results from his treatment.

"They said, not much more we can do for you, and then they asked you what do you want to do," Menta said. "And you said, 'I want to go back to Connecticut.' "

Leone is grateful to his nephew for taking him that night on what turned out to be a three-day drive home.

"You came in just in the nick of time like a knight in shining armor," he said.

For Menta, getting Leone home wasn't just a personal matter.

"I felt I was not only helping you as my uncle, but I felt I was helping a fellow soldier," he said. "That was my mission: to get you home, dead or alive."

"You scared me a couple times," Menta said. "I had to nudge you to see if you were breathing."

Leone is doing better now, but his disease isn't gone. He's just happy to be alive.

"As far as dying, I never think about it," Leone said. "I look at one day at a time. And all I gotta do is get through the next night, I'm still alive, it's a great day."

Menta says his uncle's courage inspires him.

"You got a 'Save The Date' with the Grim Reaper, and you're still upbeat, having fun," he told Leone. "You were a good Marine, you still are a good Marine."

Leone himself is "intensely proud to have served," he said.

"I know a lot of people say I'm an ex, I'm a former. And I tell em, 'I'm not an ex. I'm not a former. I am.' "

Produced for Weekend Edition by Camila Kerwin.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This Veterans Day weekend, we hear from StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, recording the stories of people who served and their families. When he was growing up, Michael Menta looked up to his uncle, Sal Leone, because he was a Marine. He would eventually follow in his footsteps, enlisting in the Navy during his senior year of high school. But earlier this year, Michael found himself at his uncle's bedside. Sal, who is now 66, had fallen gravely ill from cancer. He's one of the thousands of service members who were exposed to toxic water while stationed at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. They recently sat down together for StoryCorps.

MICHAEL MENTA: I think the fact that you were in the Marines, I was in the Navy, we understood each other. You know, nobody knows that they have cigarettes in the C-ration...

SAL LEONE: Yeah.

MENTA: ...Or Chiclet gums in an MRE with a roll of toilet paper. We spoke the same language and definitely looked up to you like my older brother.

How did you learn you were sick?

LEONE: I had been very active. I was out in the backyard cleaning a roof...

MENTA: Yeah.

LEONE: And then all of a sudden, I started getting dizzy. I thought I had a cold.

MENTA: As soon as I found out about that letter the Marine Corps sent you about the potential exposure you had to the Camp Lejeune contaminated water, I basically dragged you to the VA.

LEONE: After some time, they gave me chemo, which really destroyed me.

MENTA: When I first got down to Florida, when I saw you in a bed, I probably told you how ugly you looked.

LEONE: Probably.

MENTA: You were not getting any results. And they said not much more we can do for you. And then they asked you, what do you want to do? And you said, I want to go back to Connecticut. That night, we were on the road coming home.

LEONE: You know, you came in just in the nick of time, like a knight in shining armor. And I'm grateful to you for getting me up here.

MENTA: Yeah, I felt I was not only helping you as my uncle but I felt I was helping a fellow soldier. Part of me wants to still serve, but I can't. I'm too old.

LEONE: Me too.

MENTA: Yep. So that was my mission is to get you home dead or alive. And we did that.

LEONE: Almost dead.

MENTA: You scared me on the road a couple of times. A couple of times I had a nudge you to see if you were breathing.

LEONE: (Laughter) As far as dying, I never think about it. I look at one day at a time. All I got to do is get through the next night. I'm still alive. It's a great day.

MENTA: I take away your courage and everything you do. You got a save the date with the grim reaper, and you're still upbeat, having fun. You're a good Marine. You still are a good Marine.

LEONE: Yeah, I am intensely proud to have served. You know, a lot of people say I'm an ex, I'm a former. And I tell them, I'm not an ex, I'm not a former. I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT")

SIMON: That's Sal Leone with his nephew Michael Menta for StoryCorps in West Hartford, Conn. Their full interview will be archived in the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.