Former Lejeune Marines share health concerns about contamination at workshop

By April Bethea
Posted: Sunday, Aug. 01, 2010

Former Marine Sgt. David Jackson said his doctor was stumped.

He couldn’t find a reason behind a series of health ailments that had plagued Jackson, including a weight gain of more than 100 pounds. The doctor, Jackson said, had also treated other Marines for various conditions.

Now, Jackson said, he worries the health problems can be traced to water contamination at Camp Lejeune, the military base in Eastern North Carolina where he’d spent more than three years in the mid-1980s.

As Congress and health agencies probe the water at the base, members of the Marines and their families say they’re trying to learn more about the contamination and its lingering effects.

Jackson, of Belmont, was among 50 people who gathered Saturday at a Charlotte hotel to listen to advocates Mike Partain, a male breast cancer survivor from Florida, and Jerry Ensminger, a retired master sergeant in White Lake whose daughter died in 1985 of childhood leukemia.

The workshop was one of several the pair has hosted. The events are sponsored by Bell Legal Group of Georgetown, S.C., which has signed up clients for potential lawsuits.

As many as 1 million people are estimated to have been exposed to well water at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987 that was laced with benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and other chemicals.

The Marine Corps stresses that the water at Camp Lejeune is currently safe.

But studies continue into the past contamination, much of which had been blamed – until recently – on an off-base dry-cleaning company.

The Marines have said that officials at Camp Lejeune spent years trying to find the source of the toxic water and began shutting down wells in 1984 after tests revealed chemicals in them.

But memos and other documents have showed that laboratories had warned of contaminants in the water years earlier.

As the documents were flashed on a screen Saturday, many in the audience shook their heads in apparent dismay.

“It makes me feel betrayed,” said Don Ranes of Lakewood, N.M. He and his wife, Linda, lived at Camp Lejeune on and off between 1967 and 1970.

Linda Ranes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, but said her doctors have been hesitant to link the diagnosis to her time spent on the base.

However, she thinks it did play a role not only in her health, but also in that of other family members. A great-grandson, she said, has a condition similar to Down syndrome.

“I’d hate to think that little boy’s problems are because I was at Camp Lejeune,” Linda Ranes said after the workshop.

The military was required by law to contact Marine Corps veterans through the Internal Revenue Service to alert them of the potential danger from the water.

But on Saturday, many attendees expressed frustration about the difficulty in getting more information. At the same time, they shared tips and advice on things they’d pieced together so far.

Partain and Ensminger also encouraged the audience to contact their representatives in Congress to share their stories.

Ensminger said a congressional hearing on the water contamination is scheduled for September.

“Somebody’s got some serious questions to answer,” he said. “I hope they’re ready. I am.”