Water At Camp Lejeune

Americans think of the dedicated men and women of the United States Marine Corps as protectors of the nation. It appears that for many years, however, the nation was not protecting the Marines. Starting in 1980, tests showed drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina had been highly contaminated with solvents. In the intervening decades, many Marines have been diagnosed with specific cancers that occur with much higher frequency in Marines who were based at Camp Lejeune than one would expect in the general population.

Contaminated Water and Elevated Risks

Over a period of decades, chemicals were dumped into storm drains, leaked from fuel tanks or buried in pits across the base. These chemicals seeped through the groundwater and into the wells that fed the base. When the wells were tested in the 1980’s several chemicals were identified in the drinking water at unsafe levels; in particular, the tests revealed elevated concentrations of trichloroethylene, benzene and perchloroethylene in the base’s water supply. Once discovered, the contaminated wells were taken out of service by the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of Marines and their families had been previously using water from those wells.

To date, 55 Marines have been diagnosed with male breast cancer and all have connections to Camp Lejeune. Male breast cancer is so rare — fewer than 2,000 men are diagnosed each year — that the findings have raised questions among epidemiologists. Additionally, the Marines who were stationed at Camp Lejeune and their families who lived on base have a higher incidence of leukemia, non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma and other diseases.

The Marine Corps says that science has yet to show a link between Camp Lejeune’s water and families’ illnesses and a report by the National Research Council released in 2009 found no definitive cause. That said, many in the Marine Corp and now some congressmen are asking for a more complete investigation into the causes and remedies. In an effort to raise awareness and tell the story from a personal perspective, many Marines helped in the production of a motion picture that was released to American audiences in the autumn of 2011.

A New Movie Documents the Effects

Several Marines’ personal struggles with the water contamination at Camp Lejeune are captured in the documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful. The movie tells the story of the contaminated wells and personal stories of Marines, sailors, civilians and their families stationed at the base, focusing on Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Master Sergeant. His daughter, Janey, who was conceived at Camp Lejeune, died in 1985 of a rare form of leukemia.

There is no question that the wells at Camp Lejeune were contaminated and, while science continues to debate the specific impact that this contamination had on the health of those who drank the water, it is reasonable to assume that the contamination played some role in the increased incidence of cancer and disease in those who lived and worked on base. These brave men and women stood strong for the United States – and it only seems appropriate that we should stand strong for them, now.