From 1953-1987, the drinking water provided to Marine and Navy families and civilian staff at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, NC contained deadly toxic chemicals, including three known human carcinogens and one suspected human carcinogen. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which is currently undergoing the legislative process, is expected to pass in the coming weeks and provide long overdue relief for those exposed and impacted by Camp Lejeune’s poisonous water.
I am one of the babies from Camp Lejeune, now age 54. My parents arrived at Camp Lejeune in April of 1967. My father taught the radio school at Montford Point and my mother became pregnant with me shortly after they arrived. I was born at the Naval Hospital in early 1968. A small photo taken by my father on my birthday shows me in my mother’s arms. Located in the bottom left-hand corner of the photo, on a nightstand, is a glass of water and formula bottle containing tap water drawn from the base’s Hadnot Point Water Distribution System – the worst contaminated water system discovered aboard Camp Lejeune.
Like many families who rotated in and out of Camp Lejeune, I am not from Camp Lejeune. My hometown is Winter Haven, Fl, where we resided permanently after my father resigned his commission from the U.S. Marine Corps. For most of my life, Camp Lejeune represented nothing more than a name on my birth certificate.
That changed shortly after my 39th birthday, when diagnosed with male breast cancer. My ex-wife felt a lump in my chest, odd shaped and hard, but not painful. After two weeks of believing it to be an ingrown hair, I went to the doctor, launching a whirlwind of tests that resulted in my breast cancer diagnosis.
I do not drink nor smoke. I tested negative for the hereditary breast cancer markers BRCA 1 and 2. My diagnosis came out of the thin air and for two months we were left wondering what happened to me.
My father happened to catch a CNN story detailing how children born at Camp Lejeune between 1968-1985 were being studied for exposure to toxic chemicals in Camp Lejeune’s water. I watched the news story and immediately realized the connection between the Camp Lejeune study and my male breast cancer diagnosis. In less than 90 days, my life had been turned upside down. Since then, Camp Lejeune has become one of the largest clusters – 125 men – of male breast cancer cases ever seen. The cluster was investigated by the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2015. Their study found that exposure to solvents in the water at Camp Lejeune likely accelerated the onset of male breast cancer in men aboard Camp Lejeune.
As a young father of four children, the prospect of fighting cancer gave me nightmares. I couldn’t sleep until after my surgery. Having cancer is like owning a house with termites; you know they are infesting your home leaving a path of destruction but there isn’t a damned thing you can do until the exterminator comes. In my case, Dr. Schneider from Tallahassee Memorial Hospital saved my life. Cancer leaves its own bitter legacy of broken families, disfigurement, and long-term health issues. I was no exception.
For the past 25 years, the Camp Lejeune community has fought the Department of the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps for a full accounting of the drinking water contamination. Our first victory occurred in 2009 when Jerry Ensminger and I successfully established that the government’s initial public health assessment for Camp Lejeune omitted exposures to benzene from leaking fuel depots at the base. As a result, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was forced to withdraw and revise their public health assessment for Camp Lejeune.
All of our forward progress in the fight for justice abruptly halted in June 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision in the CTS Corp v. Waldburger case, concluding that North Carolina’s statute of repose superseded federal statutes, thereby imposing a strict 10-year limitation on claims. In my case, it meant that I had to file a claim against the government 12 years before my cancer diagnosis when I had no knowledge of exposure.
Now, with the impending passage of the Honoring our PACT Act, which includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, we may yet again have our day in court. The passage of this legislation will provide justice by restoring the rights denied to the very veterans and families who volunteered to serve and protect our great country.
Michael Partain is a resident of Homosassa, Florida and co-founder of The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten. He was born at Camp Lejeune and is a male breast cancer survivor.