By Catherine Clabby
Some of the hundreds of thousands of people exposed to hazardous drinking water at Camp Lejeune have something to celebrate this month.
A federal rule activated last week grants automatic disability status to U.S. Marine Corps veterans who lived at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 and who suffer from any of eight illnesses linked to exposure to chemicals in drinking water on base during those years.
Yet much remains undone for possibly a million people exposed to potential poisons at Lejeune, says Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who for 20 has fought for better transparency and accountability over tainted water at the base.
“It’s a success but it’s a bittersweet accomplishment. I still get emails and private messages and instagrams and phone calls from all kinds of family members asking: What about us? I don’t know what the hell to tell them,” said Ensminger, who founded the advocacy and support group, The Few, The Proud, the Forgotten.
Drinking water at living quarters and workplaces on the sprawling Jacksonville base contained hazardous concentrations of chemical contaminants from the1950s to 1985, federal research has confirmed. Trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and other hazardous compounds, including benzene were among them.
An off-base dry cleaner was one source. So was contamination in an industrial area on the base, where underground storage tanks leaked, spills occurred and potentially toxic substances were dumped.
The pollutants documented in Lejeune water wells likely increased the risk of many illnesses — including different forms of cancer — among Marines and Naval personnel, their families and civilian workers, say scientists with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
How many men, women and children got sick? That’s still unknown.
A poisoned legacy
For Ensminger, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant, and many others, this fight to make the federal government help anyone sick from drinking water at Lejeune is personal.
He, with his first wife and their children, called Camp Lejeune home for 11 out of his 24 years in the military. Only one of their four children, Janey, was conceived and carried “aboard” the Jacksonville base.
At age six, Janey was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and, after much suffering, died at age nine in 1985. Ensminger, who now lives in White Lake, NC, was baffled by the cause until 1997, when a local television station reported that contaminated water at LeJeune might be dangerous.
First he dropped his dinner plate, he said. Then he got to work.
Since then, Ensminger and others, including Florida resident Mike Partain, have been fighting. They’ve dug up documents that have been instrumental in exposing the extent of the contamination and what they say are inexcusable delays in addressing it. For more than a decade, the Navy pushed back; the U.S. Justice Department has challenged family member lawsuits in courts.
But advocates have successfully lobbied for independent scientific assessments of the risks and convinced members of Congress that the Department of Veterans Affairs needed to be forced to accept and apply the best science in benefits rulings.
Their organization, The Few, The Proud, the Forgotten, archives thousands of pages of military records, scientific reports regarding health research, and hydrogeology studies detailing how pollution plumes flowed underground to contaminate drinking wells at Lejeune.
Most heartbreaking are accounts by mothers who gave birth to children with a malformed heart, spine or skull. ATSDR has concluded that the available evidence suggests that first-trimester pregnancy exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune increased the chances that a child would be diagnosed with a neural tube defect, leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
A 2012 law, pushed hard by Sen Richard Burr, R-NC, former Sen Kay Hagan, D-NC and former Rep Brad Miller, D-NC among others, laid groundwork for the program that goes into effect this month by authorizing medical care to veterans and (to a degree) family members who lived at Lejeune between 1957 and 1987.
The new Veterans Affairs rule presumes that veterans who lived at Lejeune for at least 30 days between 1953 and 1987 now qualify for disability benefits if diagnosed with liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease and aplastic anemia / myelodysplastic syndromes.
Partain, the son and grandson of Marine Corps officers, was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968. Ten years ago, at age 39, he was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease on the VA list but rare among men. It was unknown in his family before he received his diagnosis.
His mother drank water in her base housing during the pregnancy and fed him with baby formula mixed with that water from the day of his birth until they left when he was four months old. He wonders if his early exposure led to his cancer.
“I didn’t have a choice to be born at Camp Lejeune,” Partain said.
But family members who lived on base and drank the water don’t have access to the disability payments, free life insurance and the rest available to veterans with the associated illnesses. The 2012 bill made Veterans Affairs medical care the coverage of last resort, after all other health insurance coverage is exhausted.
“The husband has kidney cancer and he is able to get death benefits and so forth. The wife is entitled only medical support as a last resort. Does that mean that the dependants are less worthy than their Marines family members?” Partain asked.
In its defense, the VA has noted it does not have legal authority to offer those benefits to family members.
Some veterans still do not get the benefits they deserve, Partain and Ensminger maintain. So their group and the Vietnam Veterans of America, with a Yale Law School clinic, are suing the VA to produce records it has withheld on its “subject matter expert program,” which advocates say does not apply the latest science when judging disability applications tied to Lejeune water.
Terrence Hayes, a spokesman for VA, said the federal agency cannot comment on ongoing litigation.
Both Ensminger and Partain also want the Marine Corps to take explicit responsibility for damage done in Jacksonville. It has not escaped their notice that members of Congress, including Tillis, are pushing for current-day Marines to be punished for posting nude photographs of woman Marines on the Internet without obtaining permission.
“I understand this should be a real and serious concern,” Ensminger said of the photo scandal. “However, where’s the accountability for the people responsible for contaminating hundreds of thousands of Marines, their families and civilian employees?”
Correction: This story was modified to correct the dates when veterans, reservists, and National Guard members with one of eight illnesses must have lived at Camp Lejeune to qualify for disability status. The dates are August 1953 through December 1987.