One of the main reasons why I chose to write for a military website is to provide information and support to active military personnel, veterans and their families. This current article is perhaps the most important story (and the longest) I will ever write on Milpages.com and if you choose to read just one article of mine, without a doubt this is the one I would recommend. For those of you who are already familiar with this story, it’s urgent not only to continue to spread the word to Marines, their families and civilians who may have been affected, it’s also important to ensure that two bills currently in Congress are passed to support them.
The story is about the largest water contamination in the history of our country at the United States Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Although this story isn’t new, I became profoundly more aware of the situation just last week when MSNBC aired the documentary “Semper Fi Always Faithful”. The documentary features the story of a highly respected Marine Corps Master Sergeant, Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain, a civilian born on the base, along with an unknown amount of Marines, families and civilians who may have been affected by actions or inactions by the federal government. I had the greatest privilege to speak with Sgt. Ensminger for nearly a half hour yesterday and he sounds as passionate as I’m sure he did in the 1980s. Mike Partain, a former teacher who currently works in the insurance industry, was also kind enough to contact me and has contributed greatly to this article.
Sgt. Ensminger, who served in the USMC for 24 1/2 years, lost a young daughter, Janey, to leukemia when she was just 9 years old. In accounts from the documentary and other sources, it’s pretty evident that Sgt. Ensminger, a former Marine Corps drill instructor and his family, especially Janey, suffered mightily through the ordeal. When Sgt. Ensminger, a hardcore, bona fide Marine first became aware of Janey’s condition, the news brought the strong man to his knees. He described his daughter as dying a little bit at a time for 2 ½ years until passing away in September 1985. For 14 ½ years after Janey’s death, Sgt. Ensminger relentlessly investigated his and his former wife’s medical histories to find a link to leukemia but was unsuccessful.
It wasn’t until August 1997, when he happened to be watching the evening news on television when he came across a report that said that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an extension of the CDC, issued a public health assessment that chemicals were found in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune and that the water could possibly be linked to childhood cancer, in particular, leukemia. As he has recounted several times since then, he literally dropped his bowl of spaghetti onto the floor because this was the information he had been seeking for all of those years.
The water at Camp Lejeune was highly contaminated for over thirty years as a result of improper disposal of chemicals used as cleaning solvents and other toxic substances that were later determined to contaminate drinking water and pose multiple health threats including cancers, reproductive disorders, brain and spinal defects and birth defects. The four contaminants were identified as Trichloroethylene (TCE) Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) Vinyl Chloride and Benzene.
It is estimated as much as one million people on Camp Lejeune drank and bathed in water contaminated with toxins as much as 40 times over the today’s safety standard although the exact numbers are unclear at this time. 77 individuals, including Marines, civilians and children born on the base have been diagnosed with the rare male breast cancer, some of whom have already died. One of those individuals is Mike Partain, whose father was a Naval Academy graduate and served as an officer at Camp Lejeune. Mike had to undergo a mastectomy and along with Sgt. Ensminger, has been instrumental in bringing the situation at the base more national attention.
According to the documentary Semper Fi Always Faithful and several other news sources such as CNN, CBS, the New York Times and others, officials at Camp Lejeune were aware of a high water contamination as early as 1981 but did not shut the wells down until five years later. During this five-year period, Grainger Labs, a private company out of Raleigh, North Carolina, was contracted to conduct routine tests of the drinking water at the largest Marine Corps base on the east coast.
This is where an apparent deception became more evident by Marine Corps officials of withholding critical information to military personnel, their families and civilians about the safety of the drinking water. Countless numbers of people were drinking the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune during this 30-year period, many of whom have contracted cancer, and many who have died, including little Janey Ensminger. A multitude of lawsuits have been filed in response to the revelation that the government, in particular the Department of Defense, remained quiet about the water contamination. Sgt. Ensminger compared it to the recent incident at Penn State University where officials withheld information about the alleged sexual abuse of underage boys.
During my conversation with Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, one could sense his utter frustration with government in his fight against them. He blames much of the foot dragging to the Department of Defense during the Bush Administration and further singled out Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, who on his website, is described as the most conservative representative in the US House. Representative Miller currently serves as the Chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs and served on the House Armed Forces Committee, which Sgt. Ensminger pointed out to me was a conflict of interest.
Two bills are currently being under consideration in Congress: North Carolina Congressman Brad Miller has sponsored the “Janey Ensminger Act” (HR 1742), which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to veterans and their family who have experienced adverse health affects as a result of exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. According to Congressman Brad Miller’s website, the legislation is pending in the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a similar legislation has passed out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The other bill is S.277, the “Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011”, which is a bill to amend title 38 of the United States Code to furnish hospital care, medical services and nursing care for veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is the sponsor of the bill. Sgt.Ensminger said to me that he is scheduled to appear in Washington DC later this month.
For you the reader, you must support these two bills to see that justice is served to the men, women and children who were affected by government inaction. Former CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric called this “a travesty. People who are willing to give their lives for their country deserve better. At the very least, they should be guaranteed a certain quality of life that includes safe drinking water”. Sgt. Ensminger pointed out the definition of what it is to be a Marine. What he said to me in summarizing our conversation can also be found on his website: “I want to assure everyone that the Marine Corps motto ‘Semper Fi’ and our slogan ‘we take care of our own’ are still very much alive and well down at the unit level. The scariest and most disillusioning discovery for me in this whole issue has been the deceitful conduct at the highest levels of leadership. These are the very people who hold the rank and file of the Corps to those lofty standards of honor and integrity and they can’t or won’t live up to those standards themselves!”
Spread the word about the documentary, Sgt. Ensminger and Mike Partain’s website at The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and support these bills to help our fellow veterans, their families and those civilians who were affected by the lies and deceit stemming from the water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The broader picture is that this is NOT the only military base that may have been affected. According to the documentary, approximately one in ten Americans lives within ten miles of a contaminated military site.