Marine families suffer from tainted water

I have endless amounts of respect and admiration for the men and women who serve this country. I know firsthand how demanding - and, of course, dangerous - their jobs can be. But who would have thought that the one of the greatest threats for many soldiers isn't the enemy on the battlefield. It's what's waiting for them at home.

It looks as if contaminated water was the cause of cancer and birth defects in the children of Marines based at Camp Lejeune, NC. More than a thousand former residents of the base have filed claims amounting to nearly $10 billion in damages from the government, and the Marines estimate that nearly half a million residents could have been exposed to the tainted water.

Of course, the research needs to be concluded in order for the veterans who've been exposed - and have lost family members - to get legal recompense. But here's the catch: the money for the study was running out, and the government was threatening to ax the whole thing.

At the eleventh hour, the Navy (reluctantly?) agreed to continue fronting the funds for the research, and believe me, handing over $522,000 was the least it could do.

Here's the details of the story that's been decades in the making

According to the study, solvents from a dry cleaner located next to the base as well as solvents from on-base industrial activities tainted the groundwater around Lejeune for a stunning THREE DECADES before the corrupted wells were finally shut down in the mid-1980s. Hundreds of thousand of Marines and their families were exposed to the tainted water during this time.

I'm not just talking about a little bit of contamination. For more than thirty years, people were drinking and bathing in water that had a toxicity level 40 times over today's government safety standards.

The Navy Judge Advocate General's office (the legal department of the Navy) promised Congress it would "thoroughly analyze each and every claim" of the 1,000 plus that are pending. But according to one congressman who has been following this investigation, "It seems like we're just delaying here - delay, delay, delay."

Congress has heard many of the horror stories of the families who've been affected by this tragedy. Former Marine Jerry Ensminger who spent 24 years in the service, lost his 9-year-old daughter Janey to leukemia. Former Navy doctor Michael Gros - an obstetrician/gynocologist at Camp Lejeune during the 1980s - learned recently that he had a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Gros's medical costs have exceeded a staggering $4.5 million. "I was completely unaware that we had been systematically, unethically, and heartlessly poisoned during our three years at Camp Lejeune," Gros said.

It's heartbreaking stuff. What's even more depressing is that there are actually eight other U.S. military bases throughout the U.S. where other such chemical exposure has occurred.

Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky said he was shocked that the many plaintiffs in the pending class action suit are only pursuing a civil action. His view is that the poisoning was so obvious and egregious, it's a wonder that criminal charges haven't been filed. "We have many people who have died," Whitfield said. "We have many people who suffered significant health problems."

As part of their investigation into the tainted water at Lejuene, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has created a website where the former residents can learn the levels of contamination that came from their faucets at different times. Perhaps this will help veterans and their families better determine just how much exposure they could potentially have endured during their time at the base.

But it will never help determine how it's possible that our most noble citizens continually get handed short end of the American stick.