Bill aims to support Camp Lejeune families exposed to toxic water

Bill aims to support Camp Lejeune families exposed to toxic water

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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Military families exposed to toxic water at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune can soon seek justice for health consequences following the Senate’s passing of the PACT Act this week.

What they’re saying: “I’m just so grateful that I got a chance to see that they finally acknowledged (it) because I didn’t think that they would,” said Audrey Williams Pride, as she dabbed tears over a Zoom call Wednesday.

  • The former Camp Lejeune resident now lives in Charlotte, but decades ago she lost her first child giving birth while living with her military husband at the base.
  • “After 36 years I didn’t think that they would finally say, ‘OK, we caused your son’s death and we apologize.'”

What’s happening: The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act aids roughly 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during service. It also includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which empowers people to pursue lawsuits for illnesses traceable to their time living on the Marine base.

  • President Joe Biden is expected to sign the PACT Act into law next week.

Why it matters: Military families for years have grappled with unanswered questions and frustrations over the military’s handling of their exposure to contaminated water. This legislation will help provide some closure, supporters say.

Flashback: Between 1953 and 1987, around 1 million service members, base staff and their families were unknowingly exposed to dangerous chemicals in the water supply, according to the CDC. Many went on to experience adverse health effects, including cancer.

  • In 1997, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirmed the water was contaminated. But analysts had identified toxins as early as 1980, and the military did nothing. 
  • A Jacksonville, N.C., cemetery received the nickname “Baby Heaven” for the number of infants who did not survive due to the poison.

In 1986, Pride was carrying her son without issue. Then, a few days before her due date, she went to the hospital for spotting. She was told she needed to give birth immediately.

  • Her son did not survive. She sent her baby’s body for an autopsy, hoping for answers. Weeks later, the results came back inconclusive.
  • “That was a drop-to-your-knees moment,” she said.
Audrey Williams Pride at Camp Lejeune

Audrey Williams Pride at Camp Lejeune Photo: Courtesy of Heartstrong Media

For years, the unknowns put Pride in a “dark hole” as she blamed herself for her son’s death. At one point, she contemplated suicide.

  • “I never did drugs. I never smoked. I never drank,” she said. “And I was trying to figure out, well, what did I do? What did I do?”
  • Then, in 2012, she caught a news report on the Janey Ensminger Act. President Barack Obama was signing the law ​​to provide health-related reimbursements to family members based at Camp Lejeune during the time of the water contamination.

The father of Janey Ensminger, whom the bill is named after, had a similar moment of clarity 15 years earlier while watching the news. More than a decade after his 9-year-old daughter died of leukemia, in August 1997, Jerry Ensminger was holding a meal in the living room when a news report came on announcing a participant search for children conceived and born at Camp Lejeune. The research was on birth defects and childhood cancers, particularly leukemia.

    • “I heard that, and I dropped my plate of spaghetti,” he said.
Jerry Ensminger

Jerry Ensminger testifies. Photo: Courtesy of Ensminger

Over the next 25 years, Jerry Ensminger would testify to Congress nine times. He would lead a decades-long fight for other veterans, who were spread out across the country, to spread awareness of the health risks Camp Lejeune may have had on other families. He cheered from the Senate gallery Tuesday when he heard the PACT Act pass.

  • Just days prior, Saturday, would have been Janey’s 46th birthday.

The other side: Despite sponsoring the Camp Lejeune Justice Act that was included in the PACT Act, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis was one of 11 Republican senators to vote down the PACT Act.

    • Tillis expressed in a statement reservations that U.S. Veterans Affairs could handle the comprehensive legislation because the department was reportedly already struggling to fulfill existing obligations. The senator argued the bill would prolong wait times, delay care and backlog claims.
    • “They’ll spend trillions and trillions of dollars on wars. But then, the aftermath, they don’t want to deal with,” Jerry Ensminger says.
    • The VA intends to implement the PACT Act “quickly and effectively,” Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.

    What’s next: Jerry Ensminger is traveling from Elizabethtown, N.C., to the White House Monday to stand by the president as he signs the PACT Act. Once a law, claims will be handled on a case-by-case basis — or the government could possibly seek a collective resolution, The Hill reported.

    • For years, Jerry Ensminger has kept the pen he received from Barack Obama when the president signed the bill named after his daughter. He only uses it to vote.
    • “I’m going to take it out and show it to President Biden,” he said. “And I’m going to say, ‘Look here, Mr. President, I got a pen from your former boss right here. And now I want one of yours.'”
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