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25 year fight for justice; retired USMC MSgt and father of child victim continues to advocate for those impacted by toxic Camp Lejeune water

Jerry Ensminger.jpg
(Photo: Annette Weston-Riggs, Public Radio East)
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Perhaps the man who has fought the longest to get help for people impacted by the toxic drinking water – which was polluted by industrial solvents, benzene, and other chemicals in wells aboard parts of Camp Lejeune over a 30-year-span -- is retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger.

A series of town hall meetings began last week in Jacksonville and is moving around to areas near military installations across the country, addressing the years-long water contamination at Camp Lejeune, providing information for those impacted and introducing advocates for those people.

Perhaps the man who has fought the longest to get help for people impacted by the toxic drinking water – which was polluted by industrial solvents, benzene, and other chemicals in wells aboard parts of Camp Lejeune -- is retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger.

“Janey was the only one of my four daughters to have been conceived, carried or born while we were living on base, and Janey was exposed for nearly the entire first trimester of that pregnancy before we left to go to Parris Island,” he explained.

A few years later, doctors discovered Janey had cancer.

Ensminger said, “When Janey was six years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia and two-and-a-half years later she died.”

With no family history of the disease, Ensminger said it wasn’t until after the shock of Janey’s diagnosis wore off that he began to do what he believes any parent would do.

“After that shock wears off, the first thing that comes to your mind is why,” he said, “Did we do something wrong?”

Ensminger said he only found out about the water contamination in 1997, after his retirement and return to a farm in Jones County, when an eastern North Carolina television news outlet aired a story concerning a report released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“They were talking about ATSDR, the public health assessment, that they wanted to do more studies on the children that were exposed at Camp Lejeune in utero. And they primarily wanted to do studies on those kids for birth defects and childhood cancers, and they said primarily leukemia,” he said, “I had a plate of spaghetti in my hand and when they said that I dropped it on my living room floor.”

That night in 1997, after walking the farm to clear his head, Ensminger resolved to be an advocate, not just in memory of his daughter but also for thousands of others who had been exposed to the toxic chemicals in the drinking water aboard parts of Camp Lejeune for more than three decades.

“I thought to myself, ‘All this time I’ve been thinking only of Janey.’ And I thought, ‘What about all these other people?’ It’s the Marines, it’s the Navy. People that did an enlistment or two and got out and went back home to wherever they were from. The only reason I found out about it is I retired in this media market here,” he said.

After taking his fight before the U.S. Congress for years after he discovered the water was tainted, fatally for some, Janey’s Law was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012; it allows those who served aboard Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between 1953 and 1987 and their family members to file claims with the VA for illnesses caused by exposure to toxins found in the base’s water supply during those years.

In August of this year, President Joe Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Act; it allows people to sue and recover damages for harm from exposure to the contaminated water if they spent at least 30 days on base, including those who were in-utero and born by mothers who drank the water, between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.

People have just two years to file those claims.

Annette is originally a Midwest gal, born and raised in Michigan, but with career stops in many surrounding states, the Pacific Northwest, and various parts of the southeast. She has been involved in the media industry in eastern North Carolina for more than three years. An award-winning journalist and mother of four, Annette moved to ENC to be closer to family – in particular, her two young grandchildren. It’s possible that a -27 day with a -68 windchill in Minnesota may have also played a role in that decision. In her spare time, Annette does a lot of toddler and baby cuddling, reading, designing costumes for children’s theater and producing the coolest Halloween costumes anyone has ever seen. She has also worked as a diversity and inclusion facilitator serving school districts and large corporations. It’s the people that make this beautiful area special, and she wants to share those stories that touch the hearts of others. If you have a story idea to share, please reach out by email to westona@cravencc.edu.