RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The first wave of lawsuits involving people exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune are now being filed after President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law this week, giving the people impacted by contaminants the opportunity to pursue justice.
Jerry Ensminger, a Marine Corps veteran, has been fighting that battle for decades.
His daughter Janey was nine when she died of leukemia in 1985. Ensminger struggled to understand how she developed the illness until more than a decade later when he heard a story on the news about contaminated water at Camp Lejeune and a connection to children and leukemia.
“I dropped my damn plate of spaghetti on the living room floor. That’s what Janey died from,” he said.
It was 1997 when he heard that report, that launched a crusade to try to seek justice, not just for his family, but for many veterans and others impacted.
The PACT Act, that includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, will allow the people affected by the contaminated water to pursue lawsuits against the government.
This week, Ensminger stood next to President Biden at the White House during the bill signing.
“It meant the world,” he said. “I privately went back to the hotel into my room and told Janey that we did it.”
Mike Partain, who now lives in Florida, joined Ensminger in his battle more than a decade ago.
Partain was born at Camp Lejeune. When he learned he’d developed breast cancer, he had no idea there could be a link to his time living at Camp Lejeune until he heard Ensminger’s story.
“Within 90 days I went from being a father of four, happily married man to ‘oh, you have breast cancer and it’s pretty serious’ to ‘oh, by the way, you were poisoned at your birthplace, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And, they knew about it and didn’t bother to tell you or your family,’” he said.
The two spent a lot of time in Washington trying to get the PACT Act passed.
They were dismayed when the bill came back to the Senate for a final vote after the House made a technical correction and more than 40 Republicans voted against it. It had previously passed the Senate by a wide margin.
“I can’t describe the amount of heartbreak and anger that happened when they pulled that,” Ensminger said.
Ensminger and Partain were there for the final vote when the Senate approved the PACT Act 86-11.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) was among those who voted against it even though he worked on parts of the legislation, including the provisions dealing with Camp Lejeune litigation.
He explained why in an interview with WJZY.
“One of the things that’s wrong with Washington is they get so caught up on what they want to do, they don’t spend the time on how to do it. I’m worried that we’re making a promise that we’re not going to keep,” Tillis said. “And, I’m absolutely convinced that we’re gonna have to come back in the next Congress and do a lot of work to make sure that veterans do not have unacceptable wait times.”
Ensminger was dismayed by the senator’s vote.
“And, he better pray to God that he doesn’t run another political campaign in North Carolina because if he does, I’m coming after him,” he said.
J. Edward Bell, the founder and senior partner of the Bell Legal Group, worked with Ensminger and Partain for years on this issue and said the firm has filed its initial wave of lawsuits against the government. The law firm said there are more than one million people impacted by the issue.
“What better end can you imagine there and seeing that through all this hard work and perseverance that we have prevailed. And, we’re going to get our opportunity at justice,” Partain said. “At least now we have the opportunity to have our day in court.”