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New Study confirms higher risk of cancer for those stationed at Camp Lejeune

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A new study says military personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1975 to 1985 had a 20% higher risk for certain types of cancer.

The long-awaited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found a higher risk for some types of leukemia, lymphoma and cancers of the lung, breast, throat, esophagus and thyroid. Although the study can’t prove that contaminated drinking water caused the cancers, it sheds more light on a longstanding issue.

Janey Ensminger before she was diagnosed with leukemia. (Courtesy Jerry Ensminger)

Back in 1980 the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in Jacksonville discovered that certain drinking water supplies had been contaminated with industrial solvents for decades. When word finally got out to Marines who were stationed on base during that time, many of them or their family members were already seeing the health consequences. The base eventually shut the wells down, but over the years many people have criticized their slow response and failure to communicate.

Retired Marine Jerry Ensminger has helped lead the charge against the base ever since he personally saw the effects in his own family. His daughter, Janey Ensminger, was diagnosed with leukemia, and her dad has been fighting for answers ever since.

“I wanted the truth, and I found it,” Ensminger said.

Ensminger was stationed at Camp Lejeune for 11 years. During that time, one of his four daughters, Janey, was conceived, carried and born on base. When she was only 6 years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away three years later.

“Without exception, most parents or almost all parents who have a child that’s diagnosed with a long-term catastrophic illness, or a child that was born with birth defects, you get this nagging question of why? Did we do something wrong? What happened?” Ensminger said. “That is a question that you never really expect to get an answer to. And I was no exception.”

Years later Ensminger heard about Camp Lejeune’s water contamination on the local news. A group of researchers wanted to do a study on children born on base to see if they experienced childhood cancers including leukemia.

Jerry Ensminger and his daughter Janey during her cancer treatments. (Courtesy Jerry Ensminger)

“When I heard that, you know, my mind started to race, and I thought, my God,” Ensminger said. “And it was like God had opened the sky up to me and said, ‘Hey Jerry, here is a possible answer to that nagging question.’ And that got me started. That was in August of ‘97. And I’ve been doing this ever since.”

Since then Ensminger has raised awareness about the issue and testified in Congress nine times about the toxic chemicals and how they affected his family. He says he wants accountability and for no one to have to go through what he and his family and experienced. 

“When you’re a leader, your most sacred duty is to take care of your subordinates,” Ensminger said. “Not only did they fail in taking care of their subordinates when they found this out, they actually lied about it, told half truths. … And to this day, not one military leader has stepped forward and said, ‘hey, we’re sorry.’”

Today he keeps fighting for his daughter and for answers. Ensminger and others who are fighting for accountability have made some progress over the years. 

President Barak Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act in 2012, which made it possible for nonmilitary family members to get certain health care benefits if they were exposed to the contaminated drinking water. In 2022 President Joe Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which allows people to file claims and lawsuits for injuries caused by exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987.

Many Marines and their families hope the recent CDC study can help them get settlements after the Camp Lejeune trials, which are expected to start in March. As of January 2024 there have been $2.2 million of payouts, but the Camp Lejeune lawsuit has not been settled yet. Those affected by the contaminated water have until August of this year to file their claims.