May 23, 2024

Relocations: The few, the proud, the poisoned

A map from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs website shows the area of Camp LeJeune where former residents are eligible for disability benefits.
July 21, 2023

The Camp Lejeune catastrophe is not the first or the last time we’ve poisoned our own service members

By Herbert Rothschild

Wells supply the household water at Camp Lejeune, a large Marine Corps base on the coast in Jacksonville, North Carolina. In 2012, the U.S. government finally acknowledged that service members and their families who lived on the base between 1957 and 1987 were subjected to severe health hazards from the well water. More than 70 chemicals have been identified as contaminants. Probably the contamination continued after 1987, but that hasn’t been officially conceded. As many as 2 million people may have been exposed at the base over a period of 30 years.

Herbert Rothschild

Because of EPA mandates, in 1980 the testing of water at Camp Lejeune began. The following March, officers in charge of the camp received test results from a lab in the U.S. Army’s Environmental Hygiene Agency that found the water was highly contaminated with halogenated hydrocarbons and chlorinated hydrocarbons. In 1982, a private company, Grainger Laboratories, contracted by the Marine Corps to examine the problem, provided the base commander, Marine Major General D. J. Fulham, with a report showing that the wells supplying water for the base were contaminated with perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry cleaning solvent, and trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreaser. Fulham took no action.

Grainger issued additional warnings in December 1982, March 1983, and September 1983. Nevertheless, in a spring 1983 report to the EPA, Lejeune officials stated that there were no environmental problems at the base. That June, North Carolina’s water supply agency asked base officials for Grainger’s test reports. The request was denied. In December 1983, Lejeune officials scaled back the testing.

Finally, one of the contaminated wells was shut down in November 1984 and the others in early 1985. They notified North Carolina of the contamination in December 1984 but failed to disclose that benzene had been discovered in the water, probably from massive leaks of underground fuel tanks, and told the media that the EPA didn’t mandate safe levels of PCE and TCE. The wells were soon reopened.

For two decades afterward, military officials withheld from the public information about the toxic exposure, although in 1999, directed by a federal health study examining possible birth defects among children born at the base between 1957 and 1987, it began to notify some former base residents of their possible contamination. An advocacy group that named itself The Few, The Proud, the Forgotten, then formed. Additionally, in 2007, a retired Marine master sergeant named Jerry Ensminger found a 1981 document describing a radioactive dump site near the camp’s rifle range with waste containing Strontium 90. His daughter, Janey, had died of cancer in 1985 at age 9.

In August 2012, President Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act into law, which authorized medical care for people who have been affected by the contamination. Ten years later, Congress passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, which provides damages for past injuries to the Marines, their families and civilian workers who were on the base during the worst years. National law firms are now advertising heavily to identify victims. Here’s a partial list of the illnesses they cite as qualifying for compensation: cancers of the bladder, breast, esophagus, kidneys and lungs; leukemia, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, infertility and miscarriage.

Appalling as this story is, in the main it isn’t unique. Even more egregious was the deliberate exposure of servicemen from all branches to radiation from nuclear testing, mainly to ascertain the physical and psychological effects of the explosions. Along with thousands of others who were ordered to clean up at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the test sites, they were sworn to secrecy, which included seeking no health care from private physicians. Their efforts to receive care and compensation traced the same trajectory as the one described in connection with the Camp Lejeune poisonings, but they were far more drawn out and met with fiercer resistance by the Department of Defense. A brief but useful history can be found at the Atomic History Foundation website.

The exposure of servicemen to Agent Orange, the potent herbicide we used extensively in Vietnam from 1962 to 1970, wasn’t a deliberate poisoning, but poisoned they were. True to form, the military refused to accept responsibility, even though shortly thereafter the EPA banned the use of herbicides containing dioxin in the U.S. because it’s a carcinogen that stays in the body for years. A 1984 class-action lawsuit filed by more than 100,000 Vietnam veterans at last led to the Agent Orange Act of 1991 and presumptive disability benefits for those exposed to the herbicide during military service.

When it comes to depleted uranium (DU) munitions, there has never been an admission of their toxicity and there may never be. We used them first in the 1991 Gulf War, then in the Balkans, and far more extensively in Desert Storm. Now, the Biden administration has agreed to provide Ukraine with DU shells to equip the M1A1 Abrams tanks that the U.S. is sending there. Britain has already delivered tanks to Ukraine equipped with DU shells.

The military adopted DU munitions because U238 is heavy and DU shells are able to pierce any armored vehicle. And all that U238 was just lying around after most of the fissionable U235 isotope had been extracted for military and civilian uses. The military contends that DU munitions pose no danger of radiation. That would be true were all the U235 removed or if the metal remained in a solid state. Neither is true. Of the 0.7% of naturally occurring U235, about 0.3% is still present. And on impact, the munitions usually vaporize, so the alpha particles, too large to penetrate the skin, get inhaled, where they remain to radiate the lungs.

A former Army captain tasked with investigating DU effects in Iraq after Desert Storm stayed at our home in Houston during his speaking tour. He left gobs of his hair in our tub after each bath. He told us he was dying.

The U.S. military is the nation’s largest polluter. It may also be our largest violator of workplace health and safety regulations. But in these regards, as in so many others, we give it a pass. A vet’s best friend may be a trial lawyer.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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