Marine training at Camp Lejeune | Photo by Lilibeth Serrano, public affairs specialist, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Senate passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act on Tuesday night after the Aug. 3, 2022, issue went to press. Thousands of South Carolinians served at Camp Lejeune during 34 years of toxic water contamination.

Proposed legislation currently under review in the U.S. Senate would rectify the egregious breach of justice that veterans, their families and civilian staff faced at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. 

From 1953 to 1987, residents and staff at the North Carolina base were poisoned by contaminated water containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at levels up to 3,400 times the established safety standards, causing debilitating and fatal health complications. Due to an obscure North Carolina statute, those impacted have been denied the opportunity to seek justice via the judicial system. 

Last week, 42 U.S. senators — including South Carolina’s very own Sen. Tim Scott — turned their backs on veterans and their families. Just six weeks ago, 25 Republicans voted “yes” on The Honoring Our PACT Act, which includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. The bill would provide the wrongfully harmed citizens stationed or working at Camp Lejeune, along with their dependents, a genuine chance for justice. But 25% of the U.S. Senate reversed votes to “no” last week, stalling a decades-long fight.

When elected officials need veterans’ votes, they’ll say anything to win us over. But when it comes down to us needing their vote — when our lives and livelihood depend on it — they fail us. Actions always speak louder than words. 

I dedicated my life to the Marine Corps. For almost 25 years, I served this country and trained thousands of new recruits. I spent nearly 12 years at Camp Lejeune, where my youngest daughter Janey was conceived. For the entirety of Janey’s mother’s first trimester — a crucial period for development — she unknowingly consumed water filled with known carcinogens. 

At age 9, 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 Camp Lejeune’s toxic water. 

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. There are more than 1 million people who spent time at Camp Lejeune during those three decades and were unknowingly exposed to toxic water. 

If the military were a private company, Camp Lejeune victims would have seen our day in court a long time ago. Why is it so difficult for us to hold the military accountable? The military is meant to protect and serve — it should be held to even stricter standards based simply on that huge responsibility. 

Without the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, 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 completely helpless. I prayed constantly that the suffering be taken from my Janey and put on to 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 branches of service, the Marine Corps prides itself on honor and integrity. Where is that honor and integrity as it relates to Camp Lejeune? The people of this country rely upon it 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 and demand that they reciprocate our support.

U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry M. Ensminger, retired, is a resident of North Carolina. 

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