By Dick Clapp
After years of diligent and effective advocacy by former Marines and family members, the House voted on July 31, 2012 in favor of the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act (H.R. 1627). The House version was amended by the Senate and passed earlier in July and the final version now goes on to President Obama for signing into law. The first section of the bill is named after Janey Ensminger, the nine year-old daughter of former Marine Jerry Ensminger, who was conceived and born at Camp Lejeune and lived there until she was diagnosed with leukemia, which subsequently took her life. She was exposed to contaminated drinking water, as were hundreds of thousands of others who lived or worked on the base.
The Act, among other things, provides that the Department of Veterans Affairs will give hospital care and medical services to those veterans and families exposed during the years 1957 to 1987 for a variety of conditions that may have been caused by chemicals such as TCE, PCE, benzene and vinyl chloride in Camp Lejeune drinking water. The House members who spoke in favor of the bill noted that the health studies establishing the link between the water and various diseases are still underway, but the process of setting up medical and hospital care should not wait until those studies are completed. The details of this portion of the Act are still to be worked out by the VA and the affected parties.
The most important lessons of this long process have been captured in a documentary film that features several Camp Lejeune Marines and family members, including men diagnosed with breast cancer. Semper Fi: Always Faithful documents the relentless advocacy that was necessary to raise the consciousness of the affected Marines, the general public and the Congress. As Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC) says in the film, Jerry Ensminger’s determination and commitment was more powerful than the lobbyists who patrol the halls of Congress. He said Jerry was a “powerful advocate, and it is a righteous power.” Jerry managed to traverse what he has called the “swamps” of Washington and participated in the discussions that finally led to passage of a compromise version of the Act.
The next steps in this process, after President Obama signs the bill into law, will include hammering out the details of who is eligible for hospital and medical care and for what diseases or conditions. Undoubtedly, some of these decisions will hang on the outcome of three health studies currently underway. The first, which will report on adverse reproductive outcomes such as low birthweight births, birth defects and childhood cancer, is nearly complete and is expected to be released later this year. It will update a previously published study that was completed before full information of the extent of contamination was provided to the researchers. Approximately 1,200 subjects who were previously considered “unexposed” in this study will now be correctly re-classified as exposed by the current water models developed by the ATSDR. A second study, comparing mortality of Camp Lejeune veterans with Camp Pendleton, California veterans, is also nearing completion; this will examine the pattern among 18,818 deaths that occurred in the years 1979-2008 and will also take into account exposure to contaminated drinking water on Camp Lejeune. A third study, just getting underway, will focus on male breast cancer incidence in Marines captured in the VA central cancer registry from approximately 1995 through 2010. This study is not expected to be completed for several more years but may provide important new insights about the environmental causes of breast cancer. A voluntary survey of over 200,000 former Camp Lejeune residents is also being evaluated to see if reported conditions such as cancer can be confirmed.
After decades of activism and research, the House passage of the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act on July 31 was a watershed event. After President Obama signs it into law, the next phase of the process can begin and some much-needed medical care can be given to those who need and deserve it. The ATSDR health studies, when they are completed and made available to the public, will also be important additions to the scientific understanding of how chemically-contaminated drinking water affects people’s health. Stay tuned for more on that over the coming years.
Dick Clapp has been a member of the ATSDR Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel since 2006.