By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

Jerry Ensminger, a U.S Marine Corps veteran who led the fight for justice at Camp Lejeune, a military base in North Carolina where severe water contamination went unaddressed and unresolved for over 30 years, shared his experience for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership series.

Raised in Pennsylvania on a dairy farm, Ensminger joked that he joined the Marine Corps because he needed a break from the farm life. In actuality, he joined in 1969 after his brother, who had volunteered for the draft to obtain the GI Bill after service, was wounded 78 times in the front of his body and lost the top left corner of his brain.

Ensminger had two daughters, the second, named Janey, was conceived at Camp Lejeune. She was born in Parris Island and then the family moved back to Camp Lejeune. For a while, Janey had a severe case of strep throat. Ensminger then noticed she had red spots all over her torso. When she was taken to the hospital he found out that the spots were petechiae, caused by broken blood vessels below the skin. He then was informed that his daughter had leukemia after her bone marrow was tested. Janey Ensminger passed on September 24, 1985.

Ensminger retired in 1994. In 1997, while getting ready for dinner, he heard a report about the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s public health assessment for Camp Lejeune. It found that drinking water contamination took place in Camp Lejeune from 1968 to 1985 and was suspected to have caused different types of birth defects and childhood cancer, specifically leukemia. Ensminger said the dates were incorrect and the contamination went further back. When he initially heard the news he thought only of Janey, but then remembered all those who lived on the base and were now all over the world and did not hear the local news. The only reason Ensminger found out was because he stayed in the area after his retirement. He said he almost felt physically ill from what was going on. He faithfully served for 24 and a half years and was betrayed, but he turned his sense of betrayal into astounding work.

“There were hundreds of thousands if not over a million people out there that’s had that same nagging question, ‘what happened to me’, ‘what happened to my loved one’, and I made it my mission to give them a possible answer to that nagging question, and that set me in motion.”

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene were among the contaminants found in the drinking water. These sourced from leaking storage tanks, dumping into the ground, dry cleaning, and industrial activities. It took Ensminger from 1997 to 2004 to get a major news outlet to take the Camp Lejeune story. The story was finally published by The Washington Post in 2004 titled, “Tainted Water in the Land of Semper Fi.”

Ensminger testified 9 different times to Congress from that point until August 2012 when President Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act. The Act established a connection between the illnesses associated with the water contamination at Camp Lejeune and allowed dependents to apply for Veterans Affair health care in relation to exposure.

“It’s not easy and if you only go into it half hearted they’re gonna beat you.” 

The Department of Defense holds that they will pay to clean up the contamination, because they are required to, but will not be held liable to pay any person for damages caused by the contamination. The Supreme Court upheld this notion. In response, Ensminger introduced the Camp Lejeune Justice Act to overturn the ruling. 

“The only way you’re gonna punish them, whether it’s industry or the Department of Defense, any polluter…is in their pocket.”

To learn more about the toxic water at Camp Lejeune, visit The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten.