Decades after exposure to poisoned water, thousands are still waiting for help.
The bonds between former Marines are as strong as steel—and become even stronger when they share the belief that the Pentagon has done them wrong. Such is the case among thousands of Marine families who spent time at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during several decades when the base’s drinking water was tainted with toxic chemicals as a result of careless military operations.
The largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast appears to be the site of the biggest water-contamination case in history, with more than a million people potentially exposed to carcinogens such as TCE and benzene from the 1950s to 1985, when the poisoned wells were shut down.
Evidence is mounting that hundreds, if not thousands, of cancer cases, birth defects, and other serious illnesses may be linked to degreasing fluids that were dumped on the ground and petrochemicals that spilled from fuel tanks at the coastal base over many years. The deadly chemicals often ended up seeping through the sandy soil and into the aquifer that supplied drinking water.
The government’s response to the problems—which many victims of the contamination say has been characterized by stonewalling—is now in its 27th year. And patience among the affected Marines is running very, very thin.
One of the leaders of a large group of former Marines who believe they were harmed by Camp Lejeune’s water started an online petition last month demanding that Congress and the Veterans Affairs Department compensate victims of the contamination. Within weeks,the petition on the website Change.org gained more than 117,000 signers.
“Those of us who drank the water have suffered from cancers, leukemias, miscarriages, and birth defects from the cancer-causing chemicals in the water,” wrote the petition organizer, Jerry Ensminger, a former drill instructor who spent nearly 25 years in the Marine Corps. His daughter Janey was born at the Marine base in 1976 and died of leukemia nine years later.
“Thousands of people who were poisoned at Camp Lejeune are struggling without access to the medical care they need,” Ensminger said. “It’s time for the U.S. government to provide the people who are still suffering the effects of the toxic water at Camp Lejeune with health care. We volunteered to serve and protect our nation.... We never volunteered to be poisoned by our own leaders.”
A steady series of passionate comments have been added to the petition since Ensminger posted it in mid-May.
- Christy Basden: “In memory of my father Cleve J Bentle, GYSGT (RET), who served for 22 yrs and passed away at the age of 53 from prostate cancer caused by this contaminated water.”
- Roseanne Debruyn: “My ex husband of 17 years is 4th stage colon cancer. served in camp Lejeune in 82 and 83. He is very sick. Feeding tube, chemo every week. He’s 48 years old!!! My 16 year old son is devastated!”
- Joyce Bentle: “My grandson was born with [Duchenne muscular dystrophy]. We never had any type of MD in our family. We were told by the doctors that his cause is unknown. Normally the mother of the child is the carrier.... My daughter (his mother) was conceived at Camp Lejeune North Carolina. We think that it had to be the water on base.”
National Journal Daily