Couple questions effort to raise money on behalf of sick former Marine

BRISTOL — First and foremost, Bristol resident John Shepard, a former U.S. Marine with terminal cancer, and his girlfriend Hillary Provoncha are grateful for the support their acquaintances have shown by donating about $3,800 to a website set up to fund Shepard’s daughter’s attempt to take him on a trip to North Carolina or buy him a boat so they may go fishing together.
“Giving to him is such a great thing, to want to see him happy when he doesn’t have much longer. It means so much that they think of him like that, you know?” Provoncha said in an interview this week.
“You don’t always see all your friends all the time, but to see them lined up on the computer, caring like they are, it’s wonderful. Just thank you so much to everybody who was thinking of him and donated so much wanting him to be happy for the rest of his days. It’s touching.”
But they are not sure that those who donate are aware that Shepard expects he will never benefit from the website, and they said the woman who has done the posting on it — Shepard’s ex-wife, Marion Martin of Mineville, N.Y. — does not enjoy the friendly relationship with Shepard that she represented to the person who helped set up the website and to the Addison Independent for a Dec. 19 article.
“The fact is they are not friends whatsoever,” Provoncha said in a joint interview on Tuesday with Shepard, adding, “We don’t expect any of (the benefits).”
Shepard, 49, whose cancer is most likely the result of contaminated water during his three-year stint at North Carolina Marine base Camp Lejeune in the mid-1980s, said Martin herself made it clear he would not share in the proceeds.
“She said no,” Shepard said.
The website — www.gofundme.com/John-Shepard — describes Shepard’s 13-year-old daughter’s desire to go on a trip to North Carolina with him, or, if his health does not permit that, to buy a boat so that they may fish together. Martin and her daughter were also selling Christmas wreaths for that purpose, Martin said.
On a post on the website labeled “eight days ago” as of Wednesday, Martin defended her intentions:
“My only concern is if you donated thinking the funds were going to John and his living situation then why did you donate? … It clearly stated in the postings it was to be used for a trip to NC or a back up plan of a boat.”
That post references an accusation that, “Someone called the police and said she (Shepard’s daughter) scammed this whole thing up.”
A Wednesday post this week asks donors to email her with their reasons for donating because, “Recently I had to hire Natasha a lawyer because a donor on here thought that the funds were going direct to her father John Shepard … Natasha spoke with her father Christmas Eve and informed him she would bye the boat due to his failing health issues.
“There also have been accusations that the funds were misused. Natasha bought a boat in New Hampshire and due to the weather issues it was cancelled getting it till this weekend. The sight (sic) clearly states that any left over it would go to Natasha for what she wished. She took remaining amount and bought her father clothes.”
Later on Wednesday, Shepard stated he and his daughter did not have that conversation, and Provoncha said he received one shirt as a Christmas present.
Provoncha and Shepard also corrected items on his medical history as represented by Martin on the site and to the Independent.
They said he has had seven surgeries, not 12; has had to make just one trip to Boston, not several; and has had almost all of his treatment at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
“They were a wonderful team of doctors who did everything they could,” Provoncha said.
Also, Provoncha and Shepard said he does not have cancer of the esophagus, as many Camp Lejeune victims have contracted, but rather a rarer cancer of a salivary gland in his face that quickly spread to his brain.
Radiation treatments supplemented by chemotherapy and the several surgeries, which have left Shepard’s face partially paralyzed, failed to halt the cancer, which was first diagnosed in April 2012.
“It is very rare, and the cells take over, and that is what has happened,” said Provoncha, who also credits Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office for helping expedite his care.
Shepard is one of the thousands of Marines and their family members who until 1987 drank and bathed in polluted water at Camp Lejeune for decades. Shepard said he also served as a lifeguard at the base, increasing his exposure. 
In July 2012 President Obama signed into law the Janey Ensminger Act, in honor of former Marine Jerry Ensminger and his daughter, Janey, who died of cancer at age 9.
It authorized medical care to military and family members who lived at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987 and developed conditions linked to the water contamination, including by the chemical benzene. The law applies to up to 750,000 people with 15 specific ailments believed to be linked to the pollution.
Until the law was signed, officials for years denied the link between the ailments and the Camp Lejeune contamination.
“When you read about it in the papers, there are very rare cancers that are developing from this (exposure),” Provoncha said. “It’s an awful thing.”
Still, given the trauma and the short time doctors are giving Shepard to live, they remain grateful that people were thoughtful enough to donate.
“They care deeply about seeing him happy,” Provoncha said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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