When I arrived in Jacksonville, N.C., as a young reporter I had proud, patriotic American stars in my eyes. I was surrounded by a community full of Marine families that I assumed were taken care of — since they were so clearly taking care of all of us. I fell in love with a Marine and the Marine Corps community, so much so that I married into it. While my happy honeymoon with Dave continued, my blissful look at how Marine families are taken care of did not.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, substances like jet fuel, degreaser liquid, dry cleaning fluid and cleaning solvents flowed through the water supply at Camp Lejeune. Chemicals including TCE, PCE, benzene and vinyl chloride left service members and their families with rare cancers, thousands of birth defects and deformities, and even death.
A gut-wrenching interview with Jerry Ensminger highlighted this scary reality. His daughter, Janey, died of leukemia as a result of the water contamination aboard Camp Lejeune in 1985. How could a family who gave their lives to our country be treated this way without recourse for 20+ years? As a young reporter, I was angry and confused. Now, as the executive director of the National Military Family Association (NMFA), I know we must do better.
August is National Water Quality Month. That’s as good a time as any to fix America’s long — and shameful — history of water contamination across dozens of U.S. military bases. The growing list of chemicals found in drinking water of our service members and their families would shock you; but the list of resulting diseases, deformities and deaths should bring you to tears.
The damage done by contaminated water doesn’t stop at a diagnosis.
Even with health care costs covered by the government, many of these military-connected victims and their families live in poverty due to the illness and hardship they endure. And to make matters worse, North Carolina uniquely enforces a strict 10-year statute of repose that prevents victims from filing claims in court.
When an American volunteers to serve, they don’t agree to put their family in harm’s way. But that’s just what happened, and it’s our turn to fix it.
Because of North Carolina’s laws, Congress was forced to step in. Earlier this year, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (H.R. 2192) was filed in the U.S. House by Reps. Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized With Build Back Better, Dems aim to correct messaging missteps Pelosi calls for ethics, criminal investigations into Gosar MORE (D-Pa.), Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) and David PriceDavid Eugene PriceOvernight Defense & National Security — Biden officials consider more Ukraine aid Biden, first lady have 'Friendsgiving' meal with military troops Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term MORE (D-N.C.) and is now sponsored by more than 50 others. If passed, the bill would allow Camp Lejeune victims to exercise their constitutional right to legal action — just like any civilian has in every other state.
Our elected officials owe it to the victims to pass this legislation immediately. Many who served aboard Camp Lejeune are sick and dying of diseases caused by the toxic water. According to the Marine Corps’ database of Camp Lejeune contamination registrants, more than 26,000 victims live in North Carolina alone.
When service members and their families asked about the funny-tasting water at the base, they were told it was just a product of the soil in the region. It wasn’t until 2012 that the federal government informed Marines living at the base just how extensively dangerous chemicals had contaminated their water.
At the National Military Family Association, we’ve spent the past 50+ years on a mission to support and enhance the quality of life for every military family. The family members who stand beside the uniform have been largely left out of prior efforts to address this issue. Congress is offering a remedy that acknowledges the service of military families and allows our families to seek recourse for the suffering caused by the decades of toxic water at Camp Lejeune.
We cannot wait any longer to pass the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. Congress, let’s finish the job.
Besa Pinchotti is the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Military Family Association.