It took persistence and sustained pressure, a lot of it coming from North Carolinas two senators, but finally last week the Senate passed a bill that rights a long-standing wrong to thousands of Marine veterans and their families. The bill provides health care to military personnel and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at the Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, N.C., over a 30 year period from 1957 to 1987.
Its shameful that it has taken nearly 30 years since poisons were discovered in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune that the U.S. government is now getting around to help those who were exposed. Marines first discovered the contaminated water in the 1980s and shut down wells polluted with toxic chemicals from a nearby dry cleaner. Yet officials dragged their feet on the matter, ignoring evidence of contamination, then wrangling endlessly over which government agency should take responsibility for dealing with it.
In the meantime, many died after exposure to the tainted water. Others are still getting sick today. The stories of those sickened are heart wrenching.
Mary Freshwater, who lived on the base in the 1970s, was one of several women who lost babies to birth defects. Her first son was born with an open spine; a second one was born without a cranium.
Jerry Ensminger, a career Marine who raised his family at Camp Lejeune, watched his 9-year-old daughter Janey die of leukemia in 1985.
Mike Partain, whose father was stationed at Camp Lejeune when his mother became pregnant with him, had breast cancer. Partain has documented 80 cases of male breast cancer among men who were born or served at Camp Lejeune.
Ensminger and Partain eventually joined forces to find people who were exposed and get help for them.
Both Sens. Richard Burr, a Republican, and Kay Hagan, a Democrat, were instrumental in pushing through the Senate bill to address this problem. Burr got involved first and was the lead sponsor of the legislation. He has been persistent on the matter and was in a standoff with fellow Republican, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, on the issue. DeMint had put a procedural hold on the measure because he thought there werent enough safeguards to prevent fraud.
But Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who heads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, brokered a deal on modifications that averted a stalemate. Said Murray: These families have waited for decades to get the assistance they need and not be forced to wait any longer.
Shes right, and so is Burr, who acknowledged the added shame that it took so long to get this done.
Unfortunately many who were exposed have died as a result and are not here to receive the care this bill can provide, Burr said. While I wish we could have accomplished this years ago, we now have the opportunity to do the right thing for thousands who were harmed during their service to our country.
This bill now goes to the House. We urge the members to heed Murrays and Burrs words. Its time to do the right thing. The House should pass this bill so that President Obama can sign it into law.