For decades, veterans, their families, and civilian staff stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina have sought justice for the unlawful exposure to toxic water. Due to an obscure North Carolina statute, those impacted have been denied the opportunity to seek justice via the judicial system. Proposed legislation currently under review in the U.S. Senate would rectify this egregious breach of justice.
From 1953 to 1987, residents and staff at Camp Lejeune were poisoned by contaminated water containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at levels up to 3,400 times the established safety standards.
In 1963, the Department of the Navy created a set of water supply standards, which outlined water quality protection and proper water supply operations. These standards governed Camp Lejeune but were woefully ignored for more than three decades.
Documents from 1980 show that the water contamination was identified on Camp Lejeune, yet resident exposure continued for another seven years. Additionally, several documents clearly show the military became aware of the contamination and subsequently covered up that discovery.
In violating these established standards, the Department of the Navy broke its own laws. When someone breaks the law, they typically must defend themselves in our court system. Yet no one has been tried or held accountable for this egregious crime against U.S. military personnel, their family members, or civilian staff at Camp Lejeune.
If the military were a private company, Camp Lejeune victims would have seen our day in court long ago. Why is it so difficult for us to hold the military accountable? The military is meant to protect and serve — they should be held to even stricter standards — based simply on that enormous responsibility.
I dedicated my life to the Marine Corps. For almost 25 years, I served this country and trained thousands of recruits. I spent nearly 12 years at Camp Lejeune, where my youngest daughter Janey was conceived. For the entirety of her first trimester — a crucial period for development — Janey’s mother unknowingly consumed water filled with known carcinogens such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE).
At age nine, Janey died of leukemia. Janey was the only of my four children conceived at Camp Lejeune, and we have no history of cancer in either family. Her suffering resulted directly from exposure to the toxic water on the base.
Because of current North Carolina law, Janey’s loss has never been acknowledged by the military or the government. Unfortunately, my story is not unique.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act, currently under review by the Senate and part of the Honoring our PACT Act, provides the wrongfully harmed citizens stationed or working at Camp Lejeune, along with their dependents, a genuine chance for justice. Without this legislation, no one will be held accountable for my daughter’s death or the hundreds of thousands of dependents suffering health problems due to this exposure. They have no way of recouping a fraction of what they lost, or access to medical support, without having their day in court. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act will allow that to happen.
To lose a child to a catastrophic long-term illness is hell on earth. As a parent, you feel entirely helpless. I prayed constantly that the suffering be taken from my Janey and put on me. But that never happened. Instead, I watched my daughter suffer for years until she ultimately succumbed to cancer. To this day, it is the most painful experience I have ever endured.
Of all the service branches, the Marine Corps prides itself on honor and integrity. Where is that honor and integrity as it relates to Camp Lejeune? The people this country relied upon to protect them and their freedoms were poisoned by their own government. Our military men and women, their family members, and the civilian employees deserve more.
Our only chance to seek and receive justice is through this legislation. We must urge our elected officials to protect our citizens where the government has failed us.
J.M. Ensminger is a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and is a resident of North Carolina.