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Ohio family looks to Camp Lejeune for answers
Scientists continue to study water contamination that lasted three decades

Laura Fong
Pfc. Robert Rees died at age 28 of Acute Myelocytic Leukemia. It is believed to be linked to contaminants in the water he drank while stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Courtesy of Laura Fong
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Pfc. Bob Rees died in 1985 of an aggressive form of leukemia. He was 28.

More than 25 years have passed, and both his mother and sister believe he is one of thousands of victims of contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune. Years of studies confirm that toxic chemicals had leeched into the water, but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how much, how long and how many of the million Marines who passed through the base over three decades may have been affected.


One story from Camp Lejeune that echoes thousands more

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Bob Rees’ family had no history of cancer, certainly not of the acute myelocytic leukemia that – in just a few months -- took him from a 180-pound Marine vet to a man who spent his last summer confined to a hospital bed.

His sister, Betsy, remembers their last conversation.

 It was the hardest conversation I've ever had.  I went in and talked to him and we talked about how bad he was feeling and that there was no quality of life and that there was probably really only one way he was going to leave that hospital room.  And I told him that I would always love him, that I would always miss him, but I loved him enough that I didn’t want him to suffer anymore and it was OK to go.  And he asked who was going to do this for me and who was going to that for me and I told him that I was resourceful, and I would figure it out.  And he made me promise I would do three things for him..that I would always wear my glasses, that I would always wear my seatbelt and I would always take care of mom.  And I promised him I would do that.  And then he asked me to leave.”

After his death, Betsy and their mother, Eugenia Sexton, packed away his Junior Olympic Swimming medals, his letters from Camp Lejeune, his report cards, year books, even a letter he wrote to Santa when he was 8.

Still, they both continued to wonder what had killed Bob Rees so fast and so young.

In June of 2010, they clipped a news article about a Marine with male breast cancer.  He’d been stationed at Camp Lejeune. And he’s now one of 74 men who share breast cancer and a connection to the North Carolina base that’s been on the federal Superfund list since 1989.

Despite the differing diagnoses, Betsy Rees says the article made a connection with her brother.

"And he believes that his cancer is linked to the water contamination.  I read this article, it was the first time I had that concrete piece that tied the contamination to an adult.”

So Gene Sexton and Betsy Rees set out to find out more.  They began with internet research, and that led them to Jerry Ensminger and a lot of information about chemicals with names like benzene, trichlorethylene and perchloroethylene.

Ensminger is a retired master sergeant who still lives about an hour from Camp Lejeune. He’s also become the face of those stationed, working and even born on the base who developed largely unexplained illnesses and birth defects.

"I didn't even find out about it until after I retired.  And only because I retired close to Camp Lejeune.  I've been fighting this thing for 14 years."

Ensminger's 9-year-old daughter Janey also died of leukemia in 1985, just two weeks after Bob Rees. But it wasn’t until 1997 that he heard a story on the evening news about links between contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune and childhood cancer.

Ensminger wants the same thing that Gene Sexton and Betsy Rees want.  They want all of the federal agencies and the U.S. Marine Corps to develop a system to identify, document and treat the Marines and their families who were exposed to the contaminated water.  Betsy Rees feels for those other families.

“Bob was 28 when he died.  Sometimes I wished that he’d gotten married and that he’d had children and there was a piece of him that was still here. Well knowing what I know today, there’s a really good chance in the way people have been affected they’ve passed it on to next generations.  So today I’m glad he never had children.” 

She says this risk was a great unknown for them all.

"When people go into service and they go into service during a time of war and they know they’re in combat there’s always a risk of chance of a loss of life -that’s a known.  But to me, this is like being killed by friendly fire.”


What everyone agrees on is that the contamination of the water at Camp Lejeune was linked to fuel storage tanks, a dry cleaner and the dumping of everything from used batteries to pesticides. Two of the three main chemicals identified – benzene and trichloroethylene – are human carcinogens.

The reason for the ongoing studies is to find out just how extensive the contamination was and who may have suffered for it.

Spokeswoman and Capt. Kendra Hardesty says the Marine Corps' main job now is outreach and notification. A Marine registry now has 175,000 names on it.

“The Marines and sailors, civilians, their families they all deserve to hear the whole story, it’s an incredibly complex issue”

The Department of Veterans Affairs says the issue is complex because individual responses to chemicals vary, and because it takes time, the correct data from all parties, and money to produce studies that draw a clear line from Camp Lejeune to those who were exposed.

Dr. Christopher Portier is director of the agencies trying to sort it all out, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  He says a key piece of the study is scheduled to be released some time this year.

“With the water modeling exercise we’ll be able to know of the two big water systems on Camp Lejeune that appear to be affected by this, we’ll know, we’re estimating the average contamination levels for every month ..if we know when someone was residing at Camp Lejeune we can actually estimate exactly how much they got.”

After the water model is complete, the next step will be a population study to determine if the rates of cancer and other illnesses are higher than the national average.

In 2010, the VA opened an office in Louisville, Ky., where eight employees are dedicated to evaluating each Camp Lejeune case to determine if benefits are paid.

Marine spokeswoman Hardesty says the whole effort has the Marines’ support, but by definition, that’s limited.

“To be honest with you the Marine corps is limited in this particular situation about what we can do because the Marine Corps doesn’t do tort claims; that falls under the department of the Navy. As far as medical care, the Marine Corps doesn’t do that either..if you’re out of the Marine Corps it falls under the Department of Veterans Affairs and if you’re still in the Marine Corps if falls under the Department of the Navy."


Some 2,900 lawsuits have been filed.  So far, the family of Bob Rees is not among them.

But Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who sits on the Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel, says the links are clear.   

"..and so at that time the water system, depending on where he was living, was contaminated with differing amounts of PERC and trichlorethylene,  TCE and PCE are the two nicknames, and so trichlorethylene is now called a human carcinogen and PERC is called a probable human carcinogen, and there are studies of people exposed to both of those chemicals that got leukemia, so I think that this family has a good case."

Gene Sexton says it’s not about a lawsuit. It’s about her son’s life and many others.

"I remember this really adorable little blond-haired boy that I could see when he was going to school how smart he was and what potential he had and I thought what are you going to be like when you grew up and I think about where he might be today and who he might be, and when all of this stuff came out last year I started to see that here was an answer."

It’s an answer that has helped to ease the loss of a first-born son and big brother,  even though will be many more years before the full extent of the water contamination is known. 

NOTE:Semper Fi: Always Faithful - award-winning documentary premeires on MSNBC Friday Feb.24 at 10PM 


VA Facilities in Ohio


VA Benefits Handbook

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Camp Lejeune Info

United States Marine Corps Camp Lejeune Site - register if you were lived or worked at Camp Lejeune

The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten

Semper Fi: Always Faithful - award-winning documentary premeires on MSNBC Friday Feb.24 at 10PM

File a VA claim for benefits online

Listener Comments:

Interesting reading. By chance are reservist included in thias also?

Posted by: Dennis (ky) on September 20, 2014 7:09AM
My husband and both of his brothers served at camp LeJeuene and his one brother is suffering with esophageal cancer right now. What is sad is I stumbled upon this water study and was shocked! No one talked to us about this and John his brother was told by Social Security that if he used the VA or his military benefits he would loose what he is getting from S.S. and so he and he family have struggled for two years battling this cancer. He can't eat or drink or work and has a stomach tube; and now I worry about my husband who is husband didn't even know he could use the VA till I did all the research...our vets need to know what benefits they have and deserve! So, I am working feverishly to try to get John help in Cleveland,Ohio while we live in TN and it is frustrating!

Posted by: peggy czwal (tennessee) on August 28, 2013 9:08AM
My husband was at "Camp Hell" during 1971 and 1972, when the contamination was the worst. Now in 2013 he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and possibly Hodgkin's Lymphoma, not to mention a very rare blood disorder, Esophenilia. It is a disgrace at how he has been treated by the VA in Kentucky and now the DOD with his new diagnosis. No one wants to help. He has two sons who are 14 and 18. He will probably no see his 14 year old graduation from high school or his 18 year old graduate college. I cry constantly because I cannot find anyone to help us. He is currently on non-service related disability pension, for PTSD, which took me over a 16 months to finally obtain for him. So far that's all the VA says he qualifies for. THIS IS REDICICULOUS. I am a retired nurse currently a law student. I will get him the compensation that he is entitled to for his service in this hell hole. Erin Brockovich you are my hero.

Posted by: Johnston Family (Kentucky) on June 11, 2013 6:06AM
Thanks, Laura, for your excellent coverage concerning just one more problem our government has only recently admitted to although those affected were stationed at Camp Lejeune during the 1970's and who knows how long before.

Posted by: Tom Saal (Akron, Ohio) on February 8, 2013 10:02AM
I am so happy the VA has half way stepped up to the plate. I say half way because it's deny deny deny.

Anyway I was stationed at Redstone Arsenal now a superfund site. I have stomach cancer. A connection yeah I think so.

I will fight this until my last breath. It's time for the VA and DOD to stop with the denial.
WFT do they think will happen if you drink DDT?

deny deny deny.

I've written congress and the President.
I promise I am not going away

Posted by: Constance Richards (Akron) on November 17, 2012 12:11PM
My dad was on the base at that time and he just passed away with neck cancer . I was just asking if I could have passed the posion from the water that I drank when I was there to my baby who was dignosed with cancer on his brain steam when he was 1 1/2 years old Thanks

Posted by: james weir (casper wy) on September 21, 2012 11:09AM
My son and I where also victims .I had a large mass from ovary ,they removed ovary they thought it was cancer and have headaches with plured vision ,nerve damage . My son who was a few months old a the time has lots of problems, I am sorry for your lose .

Posted by: PAT SANTA (CLEVELAMD OHIO) on September 13, 2012 6:09AM
Contact your local Senators and Congressman to pass S.277 and H.R. 1627 for approval of Health care for families of contaminated water Camp Lejeune. Vote should be this month in July. There have been more before this one that have failed to pass. You can google S.277 Congress or contaminated water Camp Lejeune 2012 to get an update on more info. concerning this matter. Another source is google the few the proud the forgotten, discussion board then click here. We need support from many to get this matter going. Thanks Stationed Camp Lejeune from 1979 thru 1982.

Posted by: David Miller (Gahanna, Ohio) on July 14, 2012 4:07AM
I was on Camp Lejeune during 1975 thru 1978. Lived on Tara Terrace base housing. My son was a victim of the poison water. We are the few, the proud, the forgotten, from our United states Marine Corp.

Posted by: Tim Bailey (Bromley,KY) on March 8, 2012 8:03AM
Great article and is a tragedy that continues to play out in thousands of Veteran's homes and all those who lived and worked aboard Lejuene during the years of the contamination. My mother who died from one of signature cancers is buried in the military cemetery on Lejeune and on January 5, 2012 my Father died from agent orange related lung cancer and is now buried next to her. Thank you for continuing to write and show interest in Lejeunes water contamination and sharing the truth with your readers. Semper Fi! Mary Blakely

Posted by: mary blakely (Greensboro, NC) on March 2, 2012 10:03AM
Ms. Fong's story was very enlightening. We should never forget the sacrifices of our servicemen and women, nor those of their families.

Claimants may also seek assistance in filing for VA Health Care Claims or compensation related to this story, or any other service connected illnesses/disabilities, emergency financial assistance, or memorial affairs assistance, by visiting their County's Veterans Service Commission.

In Summit County:

In Portage County:

In Cuyahoga County:

For more locations:

Posted by: Bryan A. McGown, GySgt USMC, Ret. (Akron, Ohio) on February 29, 2012 10:02AM
I was also at Camp Lejeune and in 89 came down with AML also, I however did survive and as of last year it was service connected. originally grew up in the Falls and Kent.

Posted by: Bill Kofron (South Carolina) on February 25, 2012 11:02AM
I am a victim from the camp lejuene water contamination

Posted by: thurston lynn neal (105 walton drive grovetown georgia 30813) on February 25, 2012 7:02AM
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