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Always Faithful: President Signs Bill Expanding Health Care for Vets Exposed to Toxic Water

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

We walked up to the White House Appointments Desk at 17th Street and State Place NW, headed for the West Wing. The security officer examined Jerry Ensminger's military identification card and then said "Semper Fi!" With no sense of irony, Jerry responded "Semper Fi," the "always faithful" Marine mantra he had repeated so many times before.

Jerry was on his way to a signing ceremony in the Oval Office with President Obama. Not long afterward he stood by the President's side as Obama signed the bill named for Janey Ensminger, Jerry's daughter, who died at age nine from a rare form of childhood leukemia.

The new law - the only new environmental health bill passed this Congress - will provide health care for thousands of veterans who were stationed at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune from 1957 to 1987, which we now know was the site of one of the nation's worst cases of drinking water contamination. For years, Marines and their families drank water laced with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry cleaning solvent, and trichloroethylene(TCE), a carcinogenic degreaser, while the Department of Defense covered up the tragic scandal.

Camp Lejeune is also the site of one of the largest clusters of male breast cancer cases ever identified - 80 victims - all of them veterans or children of veterans. Their only common link? They all lived or worked at Camp Lejeune from 1957 to 1987.

We were joined at the White House by Mike Partain, who has been Jerry's right hand during his journey to uncover the truth about the contamination at Lejeune and to get veterans and their families access to expanded health care services to deal with their ongoing medical conditions. Mike, who was born on the base, was diagnosed with male breast cancer in his late 30s.

Jerry and Mike's 15-year battle to make this bill a reality and to seek justice for the veterans was chronicled in the award-winning documentary "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," directed by Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert, who also attended the bill signing. Rachel and Tony spent four years making the film, a compelling narrative that sparked interest on Capitol Hill and helped give the bill political traction.

As he signed the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, the President remarked, "Sadly, this act alone will not bring back those we've lost, including Janey Ensminger, but it will honor their memory by making a real difference for those who are still suffering."

But the new law isn't just about a shameful episode at one military base. The bill will provide relief to thousands who were exposed to toxic water contamination and help us all learn more about the environmental links to breast cancer, leukemia and a wide range of other illness. As the nation confronts significant toxic pollution at other military bases, we must pledge to protect our military families. They train and fight for us every day. The least we can do as a people is to make sure they have access to clean, safe water to drink and air to breathe.

We at the Environmental Working Group are thankful for the bipartisan leadership of Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, as well as Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), along with countless other champions in Congress who worked together to help the Camp Lejeune families. Our colleagues at POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, also deserve much credit for their work to encourage greater transparency on this issue and to support Jerry's efforts.

At EWG, we're also proud to be part of this watershed moment in environmental health and especially grateful to our friend Erin Brockovich, who helped keep up the drumbeat for the legislation, and to our EWG colleague and Policy Associate Alex Rindler. Alex has worked around the clock to make this bill become law and to ensure that these families finally receive the justice they deserve.

Yesterday was not just a win for the families of Camp Lejeune or for environmental health advocates. It was a victory for all of us. And it was a powerful reminder that a tireless, fearless and always faithful voice for change like Jerry Ensminger can make a difference. 


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