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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.

Lisette Partain cradles her newborn son, Mike, in a hospital on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in 1968. Mike Partain believes the toxic water he drank as an infant caused his male breast cancer 39 years later.

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.”

Jerry Ensminger, Mike Partain and their allies have have built archives of thousands of pages of documents demonstrating the length, severity and extent of drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune. This annotated map shows contaminated wells within the Hadnot Point Industrial area on the base, which once included a on-base refueling station. TCE stands for trichloroethylene.

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.

And the base didn’t start officially notifying former Camp Lejeune residents about the toxic water until 1999. The contamination is said to be among the worst in the country.

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.

Mike Partain poses during a photo shoot for a calendar displaying people who drank toxic water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and contracted male breast cancer. Contributed photo: Mike Partain

“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.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com

12 replies on “Marine veterans petition for medical health registry for Camp Lejeune toxic water victims”

  1. Please tell me you’re fighting for the Marines at camp Pendleton to because it doesn’t make sense we got poison just as bad as you guys dad and I’ve got a lot of symptoms including cancer and diabetes that I already have

  2. Our organization, Birth Defect Research for Children www. birth defects.org sponsors the National Birth Defect Registry that has comprehensive data on 10,000 cases of birth defects and/or developmental disabilities and exposures of the mothers and/or fathers. Since 1990, we have collected data on thousands of children of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans and found definitive patterns of birth defects in their children that have been confirmed by other studies. We could add a special section to collect data on disabilities in children born at Camp LeJeune as we did for Agent Orange and toxic exposures in the Persian Gulf. If you would like more information about the registry and the scientists involved in its design, please contact me at betty@birthdefects.org Betty Mekdeci Executive Director

  3. My father, along with many other civilian employees, helped build Camp Lejeune. Prior to DoD taking possession, we lived in Base Housing, both at Talasea Pl. and Tarawa Blvd. We children attended Base Schools, which included TT1 Elementary. My father died in 1960 due to heart disease. I started work aboard MCB, Camp Lejeune, as a civil service employee in 1974, later becoming Safety Director. I well remember the water systems and water coolers being tested in the 1980’s; however, I was not privy to the reason for testing. I recall new wells being drilled on Base but did not know why. As Safety Director, I was forced to shut down the new Fuel Farm due to leaching from the old Fuel Farm. Fuel had leached under the Public Works Building and to the adjacent new Fuel Farm. Leached fuel was noted to be almost pure. I was placed on disability retirement in 1997 due to PTSD resulting from the job. As far as I know, Superfund cleanup of the Fuel Farm had not been completed at that time.

  4. I think the worst part of this Camp Lejeune water contamination is the fact the Base officials and goverment KNEW about it, and continued to do this from 1950,s through 1987. And we Marines are forced to deal with this, along with our family,s. Its just wrong…..DEAD wrong!

  5. I had two children born there at the hospital; both at seven months. We were there from 1972 to 1976. Joe died less than thirty days with lung problems. My daughter was born with a hole in her stomach . In 1981 my wife died with a heart valve problem. My daughter to this day has stomach problems. We lived at Geiger and TT II. I also had another daughter born in 1979 without a spinal cord which I believe was caused by residual effects of my wife’s contamination.

  6. At the end of the full treatment course, the disease is totally under control. No case of dementia, hallucination, weakness, muscle pain or tremors. family doctor started me on Mayaka Natural Clinic Parkinson’s Disease Herbal mixture, 2 months into treatment I improved dramatically. At the end of the full treatment course, the disease is totally under control. No case of dementia, hallucination, weakness, muscle pain or tremors. visit mayakanaturalclinic . c o m

  7. Born in Lejune in 81. I have had really bad acid reflux since I was 7 that I take over the counter meds for daily, mostly because just didnt get a prescription. I was also born with a heart murmer. My Grandfather was stationed there in the late 50s and both my parents were stationed there from 78 to 82. All of them have had Stomach and or Heart Problems with both my Grandfather and Father having or showing signs of Colon Cancer.

  8. I am a spouse of an AF veteran, we were stationed at Wurtsmith AFB and Griffins AFB. TCE has been found to have leaked into ground water at the bases. We lived on base. I have been diagnosed 2x with breast cancer. Wish they would pay attention to all military bases

  9. We were stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1974-1977. We lived in Berkeley Manor. My husband has passed due to an accident – not from the contamination. I have 2 sons – both were diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in their early 40’s. My daughter has colon cancer – onset in her 40’s.
    My older son had primary progressive mls – devastating! He died a horrible death within 2 years of his diagnosis. My other son has relapsing remitting mls. He is doing well, if you consider having multiple sclerosis with all of its future implications doing well. His disease is being managed At This Time. My daughter is also doing well, again, if you consider surgery and chemo doing well. She is cancer-free but the fear of future reoccurrance remains.
    I absolutely lay their illnesses at the door of the brass at Camp Lejeune! Can I prove it? Nope. But, I totally believe it. As my children became ill, I researched 4 generations of my and my husband’s families. There are no neurological diseases or cancer of any type in our immediate predecessors. Nothing! Nada! Four generations – 80 years! I do not believe that they are/were sick because of anything hereditary. These diseases are not contagious, so that’s a non starter. We never lived in poverty or deprivation so that’s out.
    No, the water at Camp Lejeune is the only culprit. And, people need to know. They need to know the pain of having all 3 of your children affected. The pain of watching a child die, slowly, horribly over the span of 2 years. They need to pay! And, I don’t mean money – there is no money for children of service members and there is no amount of money that would atone for my son’s death and my other 2 children’s pain.
    The Marine Corps needs to own what they did. They knew it was dangerous – was deadly – and they hid it and continued to kill people for decades!! There should be a hot line – a way to contact someone for assistance. There should be support for those going through this nightmare. The handling of this illegal waste dumping should be broadcast – not swept under the carpet. It’s was and is wrong. What they did was criminal – they killed people, for heaven’s sake! And, the way they have handled it since it was exposed and proven is wrong. It is NOT a Proud action or reaction. It’s a disgrace! Semper fi obviously does not apply to their own family of Marines.

  10. The Janey Ensminger Act only covers the civilians who lived on base. I was born in the base hospital in 1969 and used the base myself for 19 months while my dad was stationed there. None of this made any difference because we had housing off base. Exposure for 19 months made no difference at all and that his why federal courts denied me for 7 years:

    Straw v. McDonough, 20-2090-ZZ (Fed. Cir. 2021)

    I feel betrayed. Do not write legislation for people like me and put language in it that excludes me and my family. Nothing about me without me.

    So now we need to amend the Janey Ensminger Act to ensure those EXPOSED get the coverage, not just those who lived on the base.

    1. Today is my birthday, 52 years after being born at Camp LeJeune. My mother died from a Camp LeJeune cancer, breast cancer, and I have another ailment on the list.

      Being exposed and sick is not enough and it is a crying shame. Next time they write legislation, they should NOT let lawyers for the government draft any part of it. There needs to be someone like me, a lawyer on OUR SIDE who will not look for ways to betray this group again.

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