Misled and betrayed: Camp Lejeune contamination survivors have waited decades for justice
It took over a decade for the Department of Defense to admit that the water at the Camp Lejeune Marine base in North Carolina was contaminated, long after the toxic chemicals were first discovered. Since then, veterans have been fighting to hold government agencies accountable and receive compensation.
At a recent town hall dedicated to the water-contamination issues at Camp Lejeune, Erin Brockovich, the environmentalist, consumer advocate, and legal consultant, introduced a gruff, slightly older man with close-cropped greying hair.
“So Jerry, is a master sergeant in the Marines. And his daughter got very ill, and she died. And he later learned on the TV it was because of the cover up of the contamination at Camp Lejeune, where the government never informed the military or their families, what they had done," Brokovich said.
She’s talking about Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant, who lost his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, to childhood leukemia in 1985. Many years later, studies confirmed the chemicals found in the water on base were linked to numerous cancers, including childhood leukemia.
“The reason no one knew is because the United States Government deliberately and consciously concealed and hid the information from these families,” Brockovich said.
Many veterans, their families, and those contracted to work on the base were not informed by the US Military of the contamination when internal studies confirmed the presence of toxins in the early 1980s.
In 1999, the Marine Corps began telling former base residents that they “may” have consumed contaminated water. As time passed and more information came to light, it was clear that the Corps had not been forthcoming.
That’s something Ensminger spoke about pointedly:
“They obfuscated facts," he said. "They told half truths, a lot of total lies.”
At one point, the military even tried to put blame on the EPA for not having guidelines in place for toxin levels in water. But eventually, Congress forced the military’s hand.
In 2008, the Marine Corps began a Congressionally required notification campaign to notify former base residents of the issue.
The chemicals found in the water were tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and benzene. All of these chemicals are known to be hazardous to human health.
Mike Partain, a son of a Marine born in 1968 on Camp Lejeune, developed male breast cancer later in life. He thought nothing of Lejeune other than it was the place he was born. But when he watched Ensminger’s testimony on CNN, he immediately connected the dots.
“I mean, between Jerry and I, we've testified 11 times in Congress, and trying to get the story out, because the original narrative was, it was a dry cleaner that was responsible, and a lot of people, a lot of Marines believed it was ABC dry cleaner that poisoned the water And that's not the case," Partain said.
Ensminger criticized the legal policy of Sovereign Immunity, which in many cases means people can’t sue government bodies. He says it’s the one thing the Americans decided to keep from British monarchy rule. This is what the US Military tried to lean on in the early stages of lawsuit filings.
“I mean, that's an abuse of a privilege that they were provided,” Ensminger said.
Ensminger was proud to have been in the corps, having a hand in training around 2000 troops on Parris Island, South Carolina, as a drill instructor.
“I instilled in them our motto, Semper Fidelis, which means always faithful," he said. "And our slogan, we take care of our own.”
Ensminger compared the situation to what happened at Penn State when Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of raping young men and boys at summer football camps. The University fought tooth and nail to protect itself, Ensminger said, as an analogy to the Marine Corps:
“And the Marine Corps did the same thing to us. They belied their own motto. We were faithful to them. But respect and faith is a two-way street. As a leader you’ve got to respect your troops for them to respect you," he said.
Congress has taken action, most recently with President Joe Biden signing the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 in August. The language of the act is very clear: “Anyone exposed to water at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987, can file a claim for injuries sustained by such exposure.”
Victims have until August 10, 2024 to submit a claim.