Fourteen years ago, a hug may have saved Mike Partain’s life.
It was 2007 and Partain had been working as an insurance adjuster in Tallahassee, Florida, where he and his then wife lived a short drive from the Gulf of Mexico.
The hug was an innocuous one, but Partain’s wife felt something out of the ordinary: a hard knot in her husband’s chest.
They thought it might be a cyst or an ingrown hair. But when two weeks passed and the lump hadn’t gone away, the 39-year-old went in for a mammogram. Partain is an amateur astronomer—he spends nights peering up at the sky to help, as he says, “keep things in perspective.” That’s why, when the radiologist pulled up the scan showing a mass of cancerous cells illuminating his chest, all he could think about was a globular cluster, the spherical collection of millions of ancient stars he had seen so often through a telescope.
A biopsy confirmed the cancer: a tumor the size of a large grape lodged in Partain’s right breast. Being diagnosed—on the day of his wedding anniversary, no less—was the most afraid he had ever been, even more than the time he had been robbed at gunpoint working at a restaurant in college. He couldn’t sleep, and eventually called his doctor asking to have his surgery moved up.
“I’ve never been more scared of anything in my life,” Partain says.
The operation was a success, and a month later Partain began chemotherapy. He had questions, namely, why had an otherwise healthy, still-young man who didn’t drink or smoke, with no family history of the disease or preconditions, ended up with breast cancer—a diagnosis that occurs for men in less than one percent of all cases?
Partain still vividly remembers his first day of chemo. It was a clear, hot Florida afternoon when he emerged from the clinic to a call from his father. The elder Partain was a Marine through and through, born on Parris Island in South Carolina and a veteran of the Vietnam War. Partain was not used to seeing his dad emotional, so when he picked up the phone and heard a shaky voice on the other end of the line, he knew something was wrong.
“You need to go home now and turn on CNN,” Partain’s father told him.
Partain rushed back and switched on the television. On it, Bart Stupak, a representative from Michigan, was speaking before a congressional committee.
Partain made it in time to catch the end of Stupak’s introduction: “…whether individuals born between 1968 and 1985 to mothers who drank contaminated water while they were pregnant and living at Camp Lejeune are at increased risk of developing certain childhood cancers.”
It was a line Partain says he will never forget.
“I realized right then and there I was one of those kids,” he says. “I knew what had happened to me.”
After nearly 15 years and countless hours spent researching, organizing, and traveling to Washington, Partain is among a cohort of thousands still fighting for recognition and compensation from the U.S. military over decades of negligent water contamination at Lejeune that caused myriad cancers and other significant negative health impacts in servicemembers, their families, and employees on the base.
A new bill working its way through Congress aims to provide relief to some of those thousands affected by the toxic water. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act would allow anyone exposed to contamination on the base between 1953 and 1987 to sue the government for damages.
“For decades, thousands of service members and their families were exposed to contaminated tap water at Camp Lejeune, likely increasing their risk of developing cancers and adverse birth outcomes. The state of North Carolina, where this tragedy occurred for nearly 30 years, has made it clear they wish to allow those who have been suffering for too long to have their day in court,” says Rep. David Price (NC-04), one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
“It is now the federal government’s responsibility to right this wrong and provide the opportunity for these individuals to seek long-overdue justice.”
Justice for servicemembers
Built in 1942 in Jacksonville, North Carolina as a training facility for troops for World War II, Camp Lejeune, at more than 240 square miles, remains one of the largest military bases on the East Coast. Lejeune currently supports roughly 100,000 people, plus a mall and 80 firing ranges.
In the early 1980s, the Marine Corps discovered elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the drinking water on Lejeune, including PCE (tetrachloroethylene) and TCE (trichloroethylene). Other contaminants, including refined petroleum products such as benzene—a known carcinogen—had tainted the drinking water far beyond levels deemed acceptable to both the EPA and CDC via the leaking of underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, and waste disposal sites. As much as 1.1 million gallons of fuel may have leaked from storage tanks on the base, according to a separate report. Further research has indicated that the contamination may have begun as far back as 1948.
A 2017 CDC report concluded that the contaminants “increased cancer risk and increased potential of experiencing adverse, noncancer health effects” for those who had been on the base and consumed or otherwise been exposed to the water.
Considering Lejeune’s size, and the fact that the contamination lasted decades, the government has since disclosed that as many as one million military and civilian staff and their families may have been affected. Nearly 275,000 have signed up as part of the Marines Corps’ database intended for those who lived or worked at Lejeune during the period in question.
Moreover, documents show that, despite being notified by a testing agency of contamination as early as 1982, over the years the U.S. military has dragged its feet on addressing the issue and notifying those impacted.
Partain’s parents arrived at Lejeune in 1967. Having graduated from the Naval Academy a year earlier, Lejeune was Partain’s father’s first duty station. Partain was born on the base on January 30, 1968, not long before his father deployed to Vietnam.
“Luckily for me and my mom, my mom hated Camp Lejeune,” Partain says. They remained on base another five months after his birth before heading across the country to live with Partain’s grandparents in California. But by then, Partain says, the damage had already been done.
“Everytime my mother drank water from Camp Lejeune, went to the Burger King and got a soda, took a shower, cooked on the stove using the water, every time that happened, those dice rolled,” he says.
Partain has consulted with many epidemiologists and health experts since his diagnosis, all of whom have helped crystalize his understanding that his cancer was caused by the water at Lejeune. Indeed, his younger sister, who was born in Maryland, has remained healthy. Partain’s mother has also been spared any significant health complications.
The first person Partain spoke with after switching off the television in 2007 was Jerry Ensminger. Ensminger, a former Marine who Partain calls a “walking human encyclopedia” on all things Lejeune, was the driving force behind the “Poisoned Patriots” testimony with Rep. Stupak. By the time of that hearing, Ensminger, who served as a Marine for nearly a quarter of a century, had been fighting for a seat at the table for years. He’d often get up at 3 a.m. so he could drive from his home in North Carolina to Washington D.C., meet with lawmakers and “get the hell out” of the capitol before the afternoon rush hour.
In 2012, Ensminger helped pass the Janey Ensminger Act. Named after his daughter, who was born at Lejeune and died of leukemia at the age of 9, the bill provided health care for people who lived or worked at the base between 1957 and 1987. That win, however, has proved short-lived. According to one report, between 2011 and 2019, less than 25 percent of the more than 84,000 Lejeune-related claims by veterans and their families made to the VA were accepted by the agency. In 2019, the Navy said it would deny the more than 4,000 pending civil claims against it over the water contamination, citing a lack of legal standing on behalf of the claimants.
The new Justice Act is more broad and, perhaps most importantly, includes a clause that would circumnavigate North Carolina’s statute of repose, a much-maligned state law that prevents affected parties from filing suit more than 10 years after the “last act” of the defendant. That limit means that for Partain, Ensminger, and thousands of others, the window for filing any sort of legal action for what happened at Lejeune closed long before they ever knew they were in danger.
In 2013, a U.S. Supreme Court decision further cemented the state’s statute of repose, finding that it takes precedence even over federal law. In response, the North Carolina General Assembly inserted a clause the following year, effectively exempting groundwater contamination from the 10-year limit.
But for Partain, the change was too little too late, and he is resigned to pinning his hopes on the Justice Act. The bill has gained traction, attracting more than 60 cosponsors in the House, while a similar bill has also made its way into the Senate. Partain and other proponents believe the best way to move forward is by attaching the bill to the National Defense Authorization Act—the military’s budget—the same way the Janey Ensminger Act was eventually passed. So far, though, the strategy has fallen flat.
“We still have hope,” says Besa Pinchotti, executive director for the National Military Families Association, one of the groups helping push the bill. “This is the closest we’ve ever been on the Lejeune issue.”
“Jerry and all of these tens of thousands of victims of the water contamination, they give their all for our country,” she adds. “They sign up to protect us, to fight for us, and then we don’t do the same for them? It’s a gross injustice and something I can’t believe is still happening.”
Matt Slavoski, a spokesperson for. Rep. Matt Cartwright, the Pennsylvania Democrat who sponsored the Justice Act, echoed Pinchotti’s sentiments. The congressman “remains committed to working with the Judiciary Committee to find a path forward for this bill,” Slavoski wrote in an email.
Ensminger isn’t holding his breath. He calls the Defense Department the “800-pound gorilla” in the room on Capitol Hill, a behemoth of an agency that is equal parts powerful and blame averse. That, coupled with precedent like the Feres Doctrine—which effectively prevents military members from receiving damages from the government—makes fighting in situations like this feel like an impossible, unending slog.
A chance at securing damages
Part of the issue is proving causality. As a kid, Partain got sick frequently. When he put on dry-cleaned dress clothes to go to church on Sundays, he would break out in a rash. He nearly failed to graduate high school because of how many sick days he was forced to take. Now, he says, he has neuropathy stemming from the chemotherapy. He has joint and tendon issues and says that he skipped middle age and went straight to being an old man. But while he might not be able to prove without any shadow of a doubt in court that Lejeune and the DOD are to blame for the cancer and his health issues, he at least wants a chance to try.
“It’s not guaranteed we would win. We could still lose. If my case was heard in court and was heard fairly, and they came back and said ‘Mike, the government made a mistake, but they are protected,’ I could understand that,” he says. “But to use a technicality on something that is just wrong—that doesn’t sit with me.”
But the surgical precision with which the Justice Act was written means that folks like Partain might have a real chance at securing damages from the government, says Ryke Longest, co-director of the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic and clinical professor at Duke University Law School.
“The good news for the plaintiffs is the language of the text, if it were passed, has a very specific set of procedures laid out,” Longest says. “All they have to do is show they were harmed and that there was a relationship (between Lejeune and the harm). The evidentiary burden here would be very reasonable.”
Partain has a larger point he wants to drive home though, one about the way the military treats its veterans and servicemen and women. He saw it with his father, who was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and with his fellow Lejeune survivors, many of whom have since passed away.
“The government poisoned a million marines and their families over a 38-year period. And they washed their hands and walked away from it on a technicality. What does that say about our country, our values and what we’re about?” he says.
“This is about individuals who served their country, their family members who supported them, and what the government did through their own negligence and how they’ve just walked away from it like nothing happened. That’s wrong on every level.”
A 2011 documentary about the Lejeune contamination, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, features Ensminger and Partain, along with a host of other veterans and their family members, some who have remained close over the years, bonded through shared trauma. But Partain is constantly reminded of those who did not make it. Names like Joseph Moser and Peter Devereaux. The other day, Partain sent me a photograph of an obituary from a newspaper in Florida of a woman, born in Lejeune a few years before him, who had died of cancer.
This Sunday, Lejeune survivors plan to gather in Jacksonville to perform outreach and push for the passage of the Justice Act.
Samantha Via, a lead organizer for the event and administrator for the 17,000-member “Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Survivors” group on Facebook, lived on the base with her family from 1976 to 1988. Her father—a Marine for 24 years—died in 2020 due to Lejeune-related chemical exposure, Via says, and her mother passed a year later to multiple myeloma. Via herself has suffered from multiple bouts of cancer.
“I made a promise to my father that I will keep fighting for his brothers in arms,” Via says. “I want nothing more than the Camp Lejeune Justice Act to get approved so it can save the lives barely hanging on.”
In 1989, Lejeune was declared a Superfund site by the EPA, one of some 130 such sites on military land across the country. But despite the ongoing cleanup effort, contamination troubles have continued. Last year, the agency found elevated levels of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in the groundwater in multiple areas on the base.
For Partain, the whole situation is emblematic of the way powerful groups treat the environment and people, the Lejeune cohort just happen to be “canaries in the coal mine.”
“Our modern industrial society has a lot of benefits, but there are always hidden costs. And those hidden costs come in the form of our health,” he says.
Partain is now in remission, or No Evidence of Disease (NED), as the parlance goes. “Ned and I are good friends now,” he jokes. And because he is still able, he believes it his duty to continue fighting—faithful to the cause to the very last.
“I’m every bit as indignant with the government as when I started,” Partain says.
“There’s a lot of people who aren’t here right now, who don’t have a voice,” he adds. “Because I survived, I had a responsibility to speak out. If I don’t speak out, then who does?”
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