Sick Families of N.C. Military Base Water Contamination May Finally Get Help, 30 Years Later

Camp Lejeune may be the site of the largest water contamination in U.S. history.

ByABC News
June 28, 2012, 12:45 PM

June 28, 2012— -- Camp Lejeune, a military base in North Carolina, is home to hundreds of thousands of Marines and their families. It's also the site of what may be the largest water contamination in American history.

Now, nearly three decades after poisons were discovered in their drinking water, Congress is set to vote on legislation that will provide health care to those who suffered.

From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the Marines who lived on the base with their families drank water laced with cancer-causing chemicals. Hundreds of thousands of Lejeune residents were exposed over the 30-year stretch. Many died and others are still getting sick today.

The Marine Corps doesn't often talk about the base's water contamination history. But two men with ties to Camp Lejeune, Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain, have worked tirelessly to get the word out to Lejeune alumni -- maybe as many as a million people -- who may have been exposed. For both men, the mission is personal.

Ensminger is a career Marine who raised his family at Lejeune. His daughter Janey died of leukemia when she was just 9 years old. She died in 1985, just shy of her 10th birthday. "She said, 'I love you.' I said, 'I know.' I whispered in her ear, and I said, 'It's time to stop fighting,'" he said.

"After I had time to sit and think about it, I did what any normal human being would do, I started wondering why," Ensminger said. "That nagging question of 'why' stayed with me through [Janey's] illness, through her death."

Ensminger said his first clue came from a local TV station's report in 1997, saying that contaminants discovered in the base's drinking water had been possibly linked to childhood cancer and birth defects, primarily leukemia.

"I dropped my plate of spaghetti right there on the living room floor," Ensminger said. "That started this journey for the truth."

He was soon joined by Partain, who also had cancer -- breast cancer, which is extremely rare among men. Partain's father was stationed at the base when his mother became pregnant and gave birth to him there, but he's lived most of his life in Florida, where he's an insurance adjuster.

His life's work, though, has become a search for answers about what happened in the water and how it has affected his own health and those of thousands of others. Through his own research, Partain has documented 80 cases of male breast cancer among men who were born or served at Camp Lejeune.

The Marine Corps dragged its feet in contacting and alerting those who had lived at Lejeune about the water contamination and the possible health consequences. So Ensminger and Partain decided to team up and help get the word out. Their efforts are the focus of a 2011 documentary, "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," which was short-listed for an Oscar.

"The Marine Corps needs to get people notified," Partain says in the film. "They need to get on the TV, they need to get on the news, and they need to tell people what is wrong."

But it is already too late for some of the tiniest victims. During the years when the water was contaminated, stillborn babies were commonplace on the base, so many that the local cemetery has a section locals call Baby Heaven, lined with the graves of children who never made it to their first birthdays.

Mary Freshwater was a young mother who lived on the base back in the 1970s. She said she and the other women at Camp Lejeune suspected something was terribly wrong.