A leading activist for Camp Lejeune veterans exposed to toxic tap water said Tuesday he will ask Congress to allow families poisoned at the base to sue the federal government for damages.
Retired Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, whose daughter died of leukemia after her family lived at the North Carolina base, said in Atlanta that he wants Congress to pass a new law that will mitigate the impact of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively blocked Lejeune families from seeking relief through the courts. Under the court’s ruling, those impacted by the water would have had to file a legal claim by 1994, when many weren’t even aware of the contamination or the associated health consequences.
“The only avenue I had to seek relief for all the hell she went through, my family went through, was stripped from me,” said Ensminger. “It was stripped from all of you who had dependents that were effected by this. Our judiciary system stripped us of the very damn constitutional rights that all of us were there serving to protect.”
Ensminger made his comments to those attending the Lejeune Community Assistance Panel at the Emory Conference Center. The base’s tap water was contaminated from 1953 to 1987. Recent federal programs were enacted to assist poisoned Lejeune veterans and their families, but family members told the AJC in an article published last week that the programs do not treat them fairly.
Some one million people — veterans and their family members — were exposed to the contaminated water over four decades. Georgia has one of the largest concentrations of Lejeune veterans and their families in the country with more than 10,000 registered on a site for those exposed to the water.
Ensminger said he’s already spoken to some Congressional offices about proposed legislation that would be called the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
“All I want is for my case and your cases, if they are valid, to be allowed to go before a court of law based on their own merits,” he said. “That is what they are afraid of. They know the merits are not on their side.”
Not everyone on the panel agreed with the proposal.
Chris Orris, who was born at the base and has a heart birth defect, said Congress should extend the same benefits to family members that Lejeune Marines have received. He said going back before a judge to fight the case is another way to delay benefits to families and dependents.
“We want medical care and we want compensation just like the veterans receive for the same illnesses,” Orris said.
The community panel is administered at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
At least a dozen veterans and family members rose to address the panel and officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday. They described a litany of health problems and struggles they believe are linked to the contaminated water.
Wayne Hunt, of Atlanta, wore a placard across his chest to make sure his message was heard: “The Marine Corps poisoned me at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and The VA is letting Me Die!”
He said he is diagnosed with colon cancer and prostate cancer and may also have breast cancer. He said the VA keeps denying him when he applies for help.
“You all need to stop killing Marines,” he said. “You need to stop letting veterans die.”
Decades of industrial waste and chemicals seeping into the base’s water supply caused the contamination. The Marine Corps downplayed the problem and continued to obscure the harm caused, even after the contaminated wells on the base were shut down in the mid-1980s. Activists like Ensminger and others fought for years to get the government to acknowledge the harm and do something to help those who became sick.
In 2012, President Obama signed into law a program of cost-free health care for veterans who had been harmed by the poisonous water and a less expansive health plan for their families. In 2017, launched a $2 billion program to extend disability payments to veterans who had health conditions linked to the toxic water. The disability program does not cover family members.
Veterans and their families say they are not getting the help they need. The 280 people registered to attend the Tuesday meeting was the largest number yet for a panel in Atlanta. Mike Partain, a panel member who was born at the base and has breast cancer, attributed the interest to the spread of information and awareness to veterans connecting on social media.
“Getting the community involved is a big part now,” he said. “That’s how you guys make a difference is getting behind us and speaking out.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.