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Retired NC Marine Behind Lejeune Water Bill

President Obama
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Earlier this week, President Obama signed a law to provide health care to thousands of Marine veterans and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987. Retired Marine Jerry Ensminger was one of them. His daughter died of leukemia he believes was caused by the contamination. For fifteen years, Ensminger has led the fight to get help for sick veterans and their families. And he says it’s not over yet.

Jessica Jones: On Monday, Jerry Ensminger stood next to President Obama as he signed the bill into law in the Oval Office. The next night, an auditorium of about a hundred people in Raleigh welcomed Ensminger home to North Carolina with a standing ovation. But once on stage, the stern former drill sergeant unfolded a piece of paper, saying military officials still aren’t doing their duty.

Jerry Ensminger: I copied this piece out of an article the other day, which really bothered me.

Ensminger read “the Marines said they’ve worked diligently to identify people who’ve been exposed to chemicals in drinking water.”

Ensminger: There’s one problem with that statement. They didn’t tell you that it took a Congressional Act of Congress to force them to do the notification. And that Act of Congress didn’t take place till 2007.

Back then, Ensminger lobbied lawmakers to get that act passed too. In fact, he’s been a familiar visitor in the halls of Congress for years, where he’s served as a relentless advocate for Marine veterans and their families. It all started in 1997, as Ensminger recalled in the award-winning documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful.

Ensminger: I was fixing a plate of food in the kitchen, getting ready for the evening news. The reporter said “the contaminants found in the water at LeJeune have been linked in scientific literature to birth defects and childhood cancers.” My first thought was was this what happened to Janey. I dropped my plate right there.

It’s estimated that up to a million people were exposed before base officials closed contaminated wells in 1985. Ensminger’s daughter Janey died that same year of a rare form of leukemia. She was his only child to be conceived and born at Camp Lejeune. Ensminger says he cradled her through every injection and spinal tap.

Ensminger: It was me that was holding her and she was screaming in my ear, Daddy, Daddy, don’t let ‘em hurt me. The only thing I could say to her to try to console her was honey, they’re only hurting you cause they’re trying to help ya. And you know I hope nobody ever has to have my drive that drove me, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Ensminger’s determination to get help for other families grew into a carefully organized effort. A man born on base who suffered a rare form of male breast cancer began organizing a list of victims and perusing documents, as did another former Marine whose child had been mysteriously stillborn. But military leaders didn’t begin notifying former base residents of the exposure until 1999, as part of a federal health study. Senator Richard Burr first met Jerry Ensminger eight years ago.

Richard Burr: The pushback from the military, the pushback from the Secretary of the Navy, and the reluctance on the part of those agencies that are in charge of doing the investigation was so timid, that I think that made us dig in behind Jerry and not give up.

Burr, who’s a Republican, sponsored the Senate version of the bill the president signed. Democratic Congressman Brad Miller sponsored it in the House. On Tuesday night they both presented Ensminger with a flag flown over the Capitol on the Fourth of July- Ensminger’s birthday. After the ceremony, former Lejeune residents gathered to congratulate Ensminger. Ovarian cancer survivor Beth Barger says though she’s grateful for his efforts, she’s unsure what will happen next.

Beth Barger: Given the magnitude of this problem, I think it’s going to be a long road ahead of us to figure out okay what diagnoses are going to be covered, and what about people who’re treated years ago or how are we going to compensate those people who lost their lives. It could just go on and on and on.

The Department of Veterans Affairs will oversee that process. Meanwhile, Navy and Marine Corps leaders still haven’t turned over all documentation of water contamination at Camp Lejeune. Jerry Ensminger says he’s ready for that fight.

Ensminger: Whenever you have a perpetrator that’s responsible for this dictating to the investigators what they can and can’t use, that’d be like somebody going to court for robbing a bank, and the bank robbers are telling the judge what evidence they can use and what they can’t.

Ensminger says he’s already lobbying the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee to have those documents made public.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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