For thousands of former Marines and their families, Monday marked a milestone in an ongoing fight for truth and justice. In an Oval Office ceremony, President Obama signed into law the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act (H.R. 1627), which will provide healthcare for those exposed to contaminated water while living at Marine Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
“I’m still in shock,” Mike Partain, a breast cancer survivor born at Camp Lejeune, told The Kansas City Star on Monday. “We’ve been fighting for justice for so long—fighting the juggernaut of the Marine Corps. They should have quashed us a long time ago.”
Retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger has led the charge. The title of the new law that would provide healthcare for Camp Lejeune veterans and their families is named for his daughter, Janey, who passed away from leukemia in 1985 at the age of 9, while they were living on the base. Since Ensminger first learned about the toxic water 1997, he has tirelessly sought answers to why so many have fallen ill and died.
Both Partain and Ensminger stood behind the president as he added his signature to the bill. Of the many victims of the contamination, Obama said:
Jerry Ensminger (in the suit) at a POGO reception after the signing. Mike Partain (in the blue shirt) is in the background.
“They protect our freedom, and it’s our obligation to do right by them. This bill takes another important step in fulfilling that commitment. … Sadly, this act alone will not bring back those we’ve lost, including Jane Ensminger, but it will honor their memory by making a real difference for those who are still suffering.”
While the passage of H.R. 1627 is a considerable step forward, the Marine Corps and the Navy have yet to come clean and take full responsibility for the deadly contamination. In fact, they continue to withhold information related to the toxic water from the public and even from members of Congress.
Marine leadership has also been sluggish on notifying those who may have been exposed, and the Navy has delayed the release of crucial documents to members of Congress. Still, the Marine Corps has issued a statement saying that it is pleased with the law.
“These people recognize what they did,” Partain told the Star. “They recognize what it could possibly do to the Marine Corps as far as the damage to its reputation. And they chose to cover it up rather than do the honorable thing and stand up and say, ‘We made a mistake, and we hurt some people. Let’s take care of it.’”
From 1957 until 1987, as many as one million Marines, their family members, and civilians drank and bathed in water from wells contaminated with dozens of carcinogens and other chemicals. One chemical, trichloroethylene (TCE), was present at 280 times the legal limit and has been connected to several types of cancer. A rare form of male breast cancer, as well as childhood cancers such as leukemia, have been especially common among former base residents.
“After a long and hard-fought battle for truth and justice, those who have suffered will finally have some respite and care,” said Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy at the Project On Government Oversight. “That is the very least that they deserve.”