McClatchy Washington Bureau
Jerry Ensminger sat in the balcony of the U.S. Senate chamber watching a vote that had begun to feel like a pipe dream.
In the 25 years since his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia from toxins found in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water, Ensminger had been fighting for justice — for her — and Marines around the globe.
Between 1953 and 1987, two sources of drinking water on Camp Lejeune contained dangerous pollutants, including trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Those poisons led to birth defects, miscarriages, and cancers like leukemia.
The PACT Act wouldn’t undo that damage, but it could help salve lingering effects. Ensminger looked on last week as senators debated the bill, which would provide health care benefits for members of the military exposed to toxins while serving. It would also permit Marines and their families who had been exposed to Camp Lejeune’s water to sue the federal government.
Only a week earlier, Senate Republicans had blocked the PACT Act from moving forward. Many believe it was in retaliation for a surprise budget bill Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced moments before the PACT Act vote. But the fact that Ensminger was now invited to watch the vote and it was being taken up a second time gave him hope.
Senators needed 60 supporting votes for the PACT Act’s passage. Ensminger held his breath as the final tally was read: 86-11 in support.
“Oorah,” Ensminger shouted. The Marine battle cry echoed throughout the chamber.
His friends celebrated and Ensminger smiled. He’d spent decades fighting for that moment.
For years, Ensminger didn’t know what caused Janey’s death.
At six, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died less than three years later on Sept. 24, 1985.
Ensminger said every couple he has met who had a child die of childhood cancer always tell him the same thing: After the initial shock wears off, they question why their child died, if they did something to cause it or did something wrong.
“I was no exception,” Ensminger said.
After 24 years in the military, Ensminger retired from the Corps and settled on a soybean farm in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
He typically worked from sun-up to sun-down. But one day in August 1997, while dishing up a plate of spaghetti in his kitchen, Ensminger decided to watch the evening news.
“When I walked into the living room, the reporter on the TV screen said that the (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) had released their public health assessment for Camp Lejeune that week and that they found all these chemicals in the drinking water and they wanted to do further studies on children who were conceived or born on Camp Lejeune between the years 1968 and 1985, and they wanted to look at them specifically for birth defects and childhood cancers,” Ensminger said. “And they said primarily leukemia.”
Ensminger’s spaghetti fell from his hands, crashing to the floor.
“I never thought I would have an inkling of an answer and when I heard that report it was like God opened up the sky and said, ‘Jerry, here is a glimmer of hope that you may get that answer to that question,” Ensminger said.
It is believed that the toxins in Camp Lejeune’s water seeped through the ground from a nearby dry cleaning facility, on-base units that cleaned military equipment and a verified fuel leak from underground fuel storage tanks.
Ensminger had fathered four daughters, but only Janey was conceived, carried or born on Camp Lejeune.
His mind was spinning from the news. He decided to go outside and walk along his farm. As Ensminger reached his property line, another realization struck him: The only reason he now knew how Janey died was because he lived in Jacksonville — still in the Camp Lejeune TV market area.
It was like someone hit him with a two-by-four, Ensminger said. He fell to his knees in grief.
“I thought, what about all those people who did their time and service and then when their families moved back to wherever their homes were and they were gone, they weren’t going to hear about that,” Ensminger said.
That’s when he made it his mission to make sure that never happened.
Battling breast cancer
In April 2007, Michael Partain was getting ready for bed when his wife leaned in to give him a hug. She felt a conspicuous knot in his chest.
The knot wasn’t painful, Partain said, but it moved around. When he showed it to a doctor he was immediately scheduled for a mammogram.
“I went through the whole process,” Partain said. “They sent me to a breast clinic so it was all pink and flowery and they gave me a smock that had flowers on it.”
Ensminger, who would later befriend Partain, laughed at the mental image as the latter man retold his story to McClatchy.
Partain said scans were done and from the look on the nurse’s face he knew something was wrong. He was asked to stay for the radiologist who saw the tell-tale signs of breast cancer in his chest.
For two days he worried about his results.
“On my wedding anniversary I’m told, ‘You have male breast cancer and it’s serious,’” Partain said.
He was confused by the diagnosis. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs and had no history of breast cancer anywhere in his family. But there he was with a 2.5 centimeter tumor in his chest.
Doctors removed Partain’s right breast, but no one could explain how he’d ended up with cancer.
A few weeks later, he visited the doctor again to have fluid drained from his surgery. As Partain was leaving the office, his father called, full of emotion. He told him to get home and turn on the news.
“I got home and turned on CNN and I saw Jerry (Ensminger) testifying about the children who were born at Camp Lejeune between January 1968 and December 1985 and they were studying the toxic effects of the chemicals in the drinking water,” Partain said.
Partain was born at Camp Lejeune on Jan. 30, 1968. He comes from a family of Marines.
“I realized I was one of those kids, and I about fell over,” Partain said. “I knew right then and there what happened.”
Joining the fight
Partain, a former school teacher with a degree in history, reached out to Ensminger and started working with him.
Together they gathered documents and researched what happened on the base. Partain said the Marine Corps’ original story was there had been contamination on the base but nobody was exposed.
“As we dug into the documents, the story didn’t match,” Partain said. And the more they dug, the worse the story got.
So much so, that in 2010, Partain was asked to testify before Congress, contradicting the Marine Corps, based on his findings of water contamination.
But legal action elsewhere was about to deal Partain and Ensminger a major blow.
Toxins from an electroplating company in Asheville had leaked into local well water causing childhood leukemia and cancers. Area families sued, but a federal judge sided with the company and said that a person couldn’t sue more than 10 years after the polluter’s last action.
That set a precedent for Marines who were just learning that they had been exposed to toxins on at Camp Lejeune decades earlier.
“What that meant was I would have had to turn in my claim for a cancer I did not yet have for an exposure I did not know existed until 12 years later,” Partain said.
Another breast cancer case
Around that same time, a former Marine named Brian Amburgey was just beginning to learn about the water on Camp Lejeune. A year earlier he had received a letter warning him he had been exposed, but he hadn’t thought about Camp Lejeune since he left the Marine Corps and had no known health issues linking back to the water. He tossed the letter aside.
Then in 2014, while watching the news, he saw Partain and Ensminger. He thought there might be something to the letter he received so he started doing research. Two years later he attended a meeting in Atlanta presided over by Veterans Affairs.
The session was supposed to conclude with a Q&A.
“We get up and get ready to ask the questions and the VA gets up and leaves,” Amburgey said. “Well that got me fired up. If they’re willing to get up and walk out and not talk to the veterans, something is going on.”
Amburgey started reaching out to other veterans in his home state of Kentucky, letting them know about the water at Camp Lejeune. A woman put Amburgey in touch with Congressman Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky. There, Amburgey also met Partain and Ensminger.
“We were in Washington D.C. and he was one of the first co-sponsors of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act,” Amburgey said of Barr.
Unlike Partain and Ensminger, Camp Lejeune’s water had not affected Amburgey personally when he started campaigning for answers.
But that changed.
“Last year, like Mike, I had a knot — his was on top, mine was on bottom,” Amburgey said. “We kept trying to get the VA to check it, but trying to get the VA to do something is tough.”
Amburgey had a tumor pulled out of his breast that was the size of his thumb. He has another spot that is being checked every three months.
Amburgey sat with Ensminger and Partain in the Senate gallery last week and called the vote “a dream come true.”
He said he had been devastated when the PACT Act failed in an earlier session.
Senators first passed the PACT Act in June 88-14 and sent it to the House to concur, which passed it 256-174 but added a technical correction. That meant it needed to come back to the Senate for one final vote. But with no substantive changes made, it should have be an easy passage.
Except it wasn’t.
Forty-two Republicans voted against the PACT Act that Thursday.
“I thought for sure that it would never be brought back up and for that many Senators to reverse their votes from the last time that they voted, I was at a loss for words,” Amburgey said. “I didn’t think we’d been sitting here in D.C. today.”
Amburgey had gone to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office earlier in the day and was let down. McConnell was a no-show for the meeting and Amburgey felt he was being fed “the party line.”
But within an hour, Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, sent out a tweet that gave the men hope. And when they were invited into the gallery a week later, they were confident the vote would pass.
The PACT Act is now before President Joe Biden who plans to sign it in the Rose Garden Wednesday.
All three men — Ensminger, Partain and Amburgey — plan to attend.
It will be the second bill signing for Ensminger and Partain. In 2012, they attended former President Barack Obama’s signing of the Janey Ensminger Act, which extended care to members of the military and their families exposed to toxic waters.
“I have one of President Obama’s pens, so does Mike,” Ensminger said. “And so, I’m gonna take President Obama’s along with me when we go to the White House, and I’m going to take it out and I’m going to show it to President Biden and I’m going to say, ‘I got one of your former boss’s pens here, and now I want one of yours.’”
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