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By Greg Barnes
In the yellowed photograph from 1968, a young Lisette Partain sits on a hospital bed cradling her newborn baby. A glass of water and a partially filled baby bottle rest on a bedside table.
Mike Partain, the infant in the picture, believes his misery began at conception Although it wouldn’t manifest itself for decades, Partain believes the water glass and the baby bottle contained toxins that for years had been leaching into the drinking water for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.
Partain, like hundreds of thousands of other people, drank and bathed in the water, never having any knowledge of the toxins it contained.
Thirty-nine years after his birth, doctors diagnosed Partain with male breast cancer, a rare disease, especially for someone so young. The cancer remains in remission today, only after a radical mastectomy, months of chemotherapy treatments and a lifetime of continued suffering.
Partain could be considered among the lucky. There’s a cemetery at Camp Lejeune called “Baby Heaven.” Here, you’ll find gravestones of babies who were born with leukemia, babies born without craniums, and babies born with cleft palates and spines protruding out of their backs. They were born – and many died — with unimaginable birth defects.
Partain is among at least 900,000 Marine Corps veterans, their family members and civilian employees who were aboard Camp Lejeune from 1953 until 1987. That’s the timeline the government confirms the pollution occurred.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now recognizes the toll the contamination has caused and is providing benefits and compensation to some of the afflicted. But Partain and dozens of Marine Corps veterans continue to push back, fighting for more relief for themselves, their family members and everyone else who has been sickened by the toxic water and the government’s alleged attempts to cover it up.
Partain, who entered this fight in 2007, said the Marine Corps leadership has yet to sit down and address their grievances.
Partain and the veterans have won battles along the way, though. Through their efforts, the Department of Veterans Affairs now provides compensation and benefits to qualifying veterans for eight presumptive diseases linked to the contaminated drinking water.
But the war is far from over. The veterans believe that the contamination has caused far more diseases and that far more people should be compensated.
Partain plans to be in Kentucky on Wednesday as part of a gathering of advocates who will present Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Kentucky) and other federal and state lawmakers with a petition signed by more than 49,000 people. Organizers say they hope the petition leads to a Camp Lejeune medical health registry that scientists would use to help uncover additional diseases that can be tied to the contaminated water and qualify more people for compensation.
In and of itself, the health registry is just another step in a battle that some Marine Corps veterans have been waging for nearly 25 years. Those Marines say they don’t care if it takes another 25 years, they aren’t going to stop.
“You can’t just dump s**t and think it goes away in the ground and not take responsibility for your actions,” Partain said. “I mean think about it, they poisoned a million Marines and their families. What would you do if it had been you?”
‘My daddy’s hurting, too.’
Marine Corps veteran Jerry Ensminger is the granddaddy of them all in this fight.
Ensminger’s daughter, Janey, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1983 and died two years later, at the age of 9.
As she neared death, doctors told Janey that she needed morphine to help ease her pain. Janey had long refused to take the drug. It made her feel weird and sleepy. She finally relented, on one condition.
“I want some for my daddy … My daddy’s hurting, too,” Ensminger quoted his daughter as saying for a documentary on the Camp Lejeune water crisis titled “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.”
Ensminger wouldn’t learn about Camp Lejeune’s toxic water until a dozen years after his daughter’s death when he heard CBS News anchor Dan Rather say on national television that scientists believe there is a link between the contamination and childhood leukemia.
Ensminger said he stopped dead in his tracks.
From that day forward, Ensminger has been the driving force behind the fight to reveal the extent of the contamination and its effects on the Marine veterans, their family members and the civilian employees who were poisoned. He co-founded an advocacy group called “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten.”
Ensminger lives near White Lake, about halfway between Fayetteville and Wilmington. He’s 68 now and still oversees a nearby farming operation.
He said he’s been to Washington to campaign on behalf of his fellow Marine veterans so many times that he knows every bump along Interstate 95. It takes more than five hours to get from his home to Capitol Hill.
“I did it all out of my own pocket,” Ensminger said. “I would make day trips to Washington, D.C. I’d get up at 3:30 in the morning, get ready, hang my jacket and tie up on the passenger side of my truck and I’d drive straight through. I’d set my appointments up late in the morning or early in the afternoon so that I missed the morning rush hour, have my meetings and get the hell out of Washington and drive all the way back home.”
Ensminger’s efforts led to the Janey Ensminger Act, the most significant piece of federal legislation to date on compensation for the Marines, their families and civilian employees. The act, which President Obama signed in 2012, became law more than 30 years after the contamination at Camp Lejeune was first discovered and 15 years after Ensminger learned what is thought to have caused Janey’s death.
Chemicals contaminated drinking water wells
Mike Partain was just 4-months old when his father, a Marine Corps officer, got orders to deploy to Vietnam. His father left Camp Lejeune, taking his family with him.
Despite his short time on the base, Partain is convinced that his breast cancer was caused by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Science — and at least 120 men who once lived on Camp Lejeune and now have breast cancer — back him up. Male breast cancer is rare. Only about 2,300 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with the disease in a year, compared with more than 250,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in women annually.
Scientists believe some of the contamination on the Marine Corps base started in 1953, when the dry cleaning industry began widely using trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) to clean clothes. Among the businesses using those cancer-causing chemicals was ABC Cleaners, which sat along the main boulevard just outside Camp Lejeune.
ABC cleaners discharged thousands of gallons of the hazardous solvents into its septic system. The chemicals leaked from the tank and seeped into the groundwater, eventually winding up in the two wells that supplied drinking water to 6,200 residents of a Marine housing complex called Tarawa Terrace.
The EPA discovered trichloroethylene in Camp Lejeune’s water in 1980. A study from 1981 for another area of the base called Hadnot Point said, “Your water is highly contaminated with chlorinated hydrocarbons.”
Three years later, extremely high levels of another chemical — the carcinogen benzene — were detected in the base’s drinking water at Hadnot Point, along with PCE, TCE and other toxins. In all, the EPA lists dozens of hazardous substances found at Camp Lejeune. In all, three separate water systems on the base were found to be contaminated.
ABC Dry Cleaners was only partly to blame. The benzene contamination likely happened because more than a million gallons of fuel leaked over the years from the base’s fuel farm at Hadnot Point. Other sources also contributed, including leaking underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, and leaching from a toxic waste dump. The EPA placed Camp Lejeune on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 1989. Cleanup continues today.
Ensminger and other veterans contend that the Marine Corps and the federal government have routinely tried to cover up the contamination and its deadly consequences. The benzene, for example, was discovered in 1984. In a 1997 report, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) did not include benzene and did not acknowledge its presence until a dozen years later.
Since then, the ATSDR has done multiple studies on the effects of the contamination. Among its findings:
- A possible association between PCE, TCE and other chemicals and male breast cancer. The results were based on small numbers of exposed cases, and more evaluation is underway.
- Suggested associations between in utero exposure to PCE, TCE and benzene in Camp Lejeune drinking water and adverse birth outcomes. Another ATSDR study found higher rates of birth defects.
- Camp Lejeune had higher mortality rates for Marines, Navy personnel and civilian employees than Camp Pendleton, which did not have contaminated water and was used as a comparison.
The ATSDR is now conducting a cancer incidence study to determine whether the Camp Lejeune contamination is associated with higher rates of specific types of cancers.
Ensminger supports his fellow Marines’ attempts to establish a health registry to identify more victims of Camp Lejeune’s water. He said he plans to be in Kentucky when the petition is presented to McConnell and the other lawmakers.
But Ensminger questions whether a health registry will be truly effective because he said government officials put little stock in registries that are self-reported. He believes the ATSDR cancer study will have far more impact.
“I honestly believe that the Camp Lejeune cancer incidence study is going to become the most meaningful study that has ever been done on Camp Lejeune,” Ensminger said. “I’m a firm believer that it’s going to be the final nail in the coffin of chlorinated solvents.”
But that study could still be years in the making. In the meantime, Marines who served their country continue to die. According to a document from August 2016, the VA estimated that of the 862,468 Marines and Reservists who were on board Camp Lejeune during the time of the contamination, 328,125 of them will have died by the beginning of 2018.
‘Service members… were harmed.’
The Janey Ensminger Act that President Barack Obama signed into law provides disability benefits and health care for any veteran who didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge and served at Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Force Station New River for at least 30 days from August 1953 through December 1987.
The act was amended in 2017 and again in 2019, after North Carolina’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, introduced legislation requiring ATSDR to review the diseases linked to the Camp Lejeune contamination every three years and to determine the extent that they may have been caused by toxic chemical exposure.
“For decades, service members and their family members who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune, NC, were harmed by exposures to toxic substances,” Tillis and other co-sponsors of the 2017 bill wrote. “In the decades since, these men and women who served our nation have had to fight to receive the care to which they are entitled as a result of their service to our country. Veterans and their family members should not be further harmed by the VA’s failure to accept ATSDR’s findings.”
To qualify for benefits and compensation under the act, veterans must have one or more of eight presumptive conditions — adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder, kidney or liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease.
Veterans and their family members are entitled to payouts to cover out-of-pocket health care benefits for a total of 15 diseases – some of which overlap with the presumptive eight.
Partain and Brian Amburgey, a leading organizer for the health registry petition, believe it’s unfair and unjust to exclude family members from full benefits and compensation for the 15 presumptive diseases. They also believe that a health registry could prove that the contamination at Camp Lejeune has caused many other diseases.
“There’s a lot of other health issues that a lot of the veterans and their family members have that we cannot get them to do anything for us,” said Amburgey, who was 18 years old when he came aboard Camp Lejeune in 1984. He lives in Kentucky now.
When NC Health News interviewed Amburgey in early February, he said he was scheduled to have an electroencephalogram — or EEG — the next day. Amburgey said he has issues with memory loss, tremors, discolored skin and brittle teeth that break. None of those conditions is covered by the VA. Amburgey said the EEG ruled out seizures, and doctors aren’t sure what is causing his problems. He goes back for more testing in June.
Amburgey and Partain believe that many other health conditions — esophageal cancer and skin problems, for example — should also be on the list and that qualifying family members should get the same benefits and compensation as the veterans themselves.
“Once again, if we had the data that we can collect — the numbers of people diagnosed — we can get that to the scientists and then take a look at the scientific answer. Is this condition one of these outcomes for exposure at Camp Lejeune?” Partain said.
He said a health registry would also be a tremendous help because Marines stayed at the base only a short time before deploying and then going back home to places scattered across the country.
“When you have a health registry, that helps bring all of these people together,” said Partain, who lives in Florida. “The health registry would help do that because, you know, if I’m in Florida and there’s a guy in Wyoming that has male breast cancer … a scientist is going to see that and be able to connect them together.”
Amburgey pointed out that the VA has approved health registries for veterans who suffered from the use of the herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam, burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other contamination exposure during the course of wars.
Roadblocks to just compensation
Another and perhaps larger issue is that few veterans who enrolled in the VA’s program for compensation for the 15 presumptive diseases are actually receiving it. A transcript from a Sept. 1, 2020, Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel bears that out.
In the transcript, Mark Heroux, supervisor at Camp Lejeune Family Medical Program, said that of the 71,397 veterans who had enrolled in the program for benefits related to the contamination, only 3,570 — or 5 percent — were treated for one or more of the 15 medical conditions.
Part of the problem, Ensminger, Partain and Amburgey all pointed out in separate interviews, is that the VA has contracted with doctors — so-called subject matter experts — to determine whether a Marine veteran should receive compensation for diseases presumed to be caused by the contaminated water. Some of those doctors had less than sterling reputations. Some just rubber-stamped their denials, the men said.
Another major hurdle in the fight is a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that, although not specific to Camp Lejeune water contamination, upheld North Carolina’s 10-year limit on how long people have to bring certain pollution-related lawsuits,
So Partain and the veterans are again fighting back, this time with the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. The act, introduced by Tillis in September, would essentially overturn the Supreme Court’s decision.
That decision excludes Partain and thousands of Marine Corps veterans from compensation because they did not bring a lawsuit within 10 years of learning about their qualifying disease. Partain, now 53, learned about his breast cancer at age 39. As it stands now, he has lost his opportunity to file a lawsuit.
Partain said he will never forget the day his wife gave him a hug and felt a lump. Partain said he knew it was there. He just figured it was a cyst that would go away.
His wife insisted that he get it checked out, and days later the diagnosis of male breast cancer came back.
“It was a hug that saved my life,” said Partain, whose mission since then has been to fight for the well-being of others in a battle that has dragged on for decades.