WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed into law on Monday legislation to provide health care to thousands of sick Marine veterans and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.
Retired Marine Jerry Ensminger and cancer survivor Mike Partain stood looking over the president's shoulder as he, with the swipe of his pen, vindicated all their late nights poring over undisclosed documents, cross-country trips to seek out other victims, and countless battles with Marine Corps officials who, they say, continue to ignore their pleas.
"Sadly, this act alone will not bring back those we've lost, including Jane Ensminger," Obama said before signing the bill, named partly after Ensminger's daughter, "but it will honor their memory by making a real difference for those who are still suffering."
Janey Ensminger was just 9 years old when she died in 1985 of a rare form of leukemia. Her father spent years trying to make sense of her painful death.
But in 1997, he saw a news report about contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Janey Ensminger was conceived at the base in the 1970s and diagnosed with leukemia in 1983.
Her father's life then turned into a David and Goliath story, as he and Partain took on the 236-year-old Marine Corps, culminating with the signing of the law in the Oval Office.
"I'm still in shock," said Partain. "We've been fighting for justice for so long. Fighting the juggernaut of the Marine Corps. They should have quashed us a long time ago. And they almost did."
Despite its previous contention that there was insufficient evidence to prove the illnesses were related to service at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps said in a statement Monday that it was pleased and supported the new law.
Partain, who was born on the base, already had been diagnosed with male breast cancer when he learned of Ensminger's efforts. A claims adjustor for State Farm Insurance, Partain figured his investigative skills would be helpful to their mutual cause.
Their combined efforts eventually led to the passage of a bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would provide health care for people who lived or worked at the base from Jan. 1, 1957, through Dec. 31, 1987. They also must have a condition listed within the bill linked to exposure to dangerous chemicals.
The law is expected to help thousands of veterans and their families who were exposed to drinking water that was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride.
McClatchy obtained documents in 2010 showing that potentially as much as 1.1 million gallons of fuel, containing benzene, leaked from underground storage tanks on the base. Benzene is a fuel solvent known to cause cancer in humans.
Burr, along with Sen. Kay Hagan and Rep. Brad Miller, both North Carolina Democrats, has advocated strongly for the government to help the sick Marines and their families.
The law provides health care for 15 diseases and illnesses, including several cancers, female infertility and scleroderma, a group of diseases that causes skin and sometimes internal organs to become hard and tight. Miller, the original sponsor of the Janey Ensminger Act, which was included in a modified version of Burr's bill, said studies are under way to learn whether there are connections between the poisoned water and other illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease.
Meanwhile, the federal scientists who have been studying the contamination have several reports yet to come: on the extent and type of contamination, on death rates among Lejeune Marines, on male breast cancer and on miscarriages and birth defects.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will determine the process for how veterans and family members can obtain health benefits under the new law.
Partain and Ensminger say their fight for justice is far from over. They want a meeting with Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, and for members of the corps to be held accountable.
"This is just like Penn State," said Partain, referring to the child sexual abuse scandal that school officials allegedly attempted to keep under wraps. "These people recognize what they did. They recognize what it could possibly do to the Marine Corps as far as the damage to its reputation. And they chose to cover it up rather than do the honorable thing and stand up and say, 'We made a mistake and we hurt some people. Let's take care of it.'"
Ensminger dedicated 25 years of his life to the Marine Corps. What hurts most, he says, is that the Marines continue to not take responsibility for their sick members.
"If a family has a problem, don't they usually sit down and talk things out?" Ensminger said. "They do unless they're dysfunctional. So guess what? The Marine Corps family is dysfunctional."