One of the saddest places in America has to be the humble stretch of ground at a Jacksonville, N.C., cemetery called “Baby Heaven.” Paul Stasiak, a U.S. Marine, and his wife, Darrell, buried their stillborn daughter, Eileen Marie, there in September 1966.
Years later, Darrell Stasiak phoned the cemetery, which lies just outside the massive Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, and said she’d like to install a grave marker. The cemetery couldn’t help her. So many babies had died in those days that workers took to burying them two or three to a grave, Stasiak was told. The best they could do was estimate Eileen Marie’s final resting place within 10 to 20 feet.
Between 1957 and 1987, the Stasiaks and hundreds of thousands of other Marine families probably consumed horrifically contaminated water at Lejeune, a fact confirmed by reluctant federal researchers who were shamed into investigating this tragedy by a small group of determined Marine veterans.
The researchers learned what the jarheads already knew: Lejeune was a toxic hell, a place where the drinking water ran thick with solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). A building once used to store and mix pesticides such as DDT was turned into a daycare center; a civilian worker says he buried 50 drums of either mustard gas or nerve gas there.
Heartbreaking birth defects were the norm. A baby was born without a cranium. Others had cleft lips or palates. There were cases of childhood leukemia and lymphoma. A 2003 federal study concluded that the rate of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly (a condition in which part of the brain or skull is missing), was 265 times higher than the national average. The childhood cancer rate was 15.7 times higher. But not only children suffered. Victims assert that they have identified the largest documented cluster of male breast cancer cases: 73 and counting.
Lejeune’s horrors are recounted by Mike Magner in A Trust Betrayed. A managing editor at National Journal and a meticulous reporter, Magner draws from a bounty of memos and other documents to build a devastating case against a generation of military leaders who ignored or played down the contamination at the base. He adds new insights into the appalling decisions made by Lejeune administrators who were alerted to the contamination but kept the water flowing without alerting residents to the severity of the problem.
The story is complicated, and at times the book reads almost like an inspector general’s report, heavily weighted with long citations from congressional hearing transcripts, clunky statements from politicians and passages from investigative reports. I found myself yearning for a more-streamlined approach to storytelling that focused on a few core characters and did a better job of building narrative tension.
The most compelling figure in the book is a tough but deeply emotional retired Marine master sergeant named Jerry Ensminger. He was born — and you just couldn’t make this stuff up — on the Fourth of July. Ensminger went on a years-long quest to understand why his daughter contracted the rare form of leukemia that took her life at age 6.
His journey embodies a core element of this sordid tale: the idea that the Marines as an institution promise to “take care of their own” but betrayed his trust. Magner accurately concludes that Ensminger and another Lejeune veteran, Tom Townsend, proved much more adept at unearthing damning evidence than the bunglers at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) or the obfuscators and stonewallers in the Navy and Marines. Ensminger, Townsend and several others relentlessly pressed the Marines do right by the victims.
“They created me, and now I’ve turned this weapon on them,” Ensminger says of his battle against the Marines.
Every time Ensminger and the others seemed to be making progress, they encountered more roadblocks. In 1994, a draft ATSDR assessment recommended more research about pre-term births and fetal deaths. “Navy officials threw a fit,” Magner writes. When an ATSDR official suggested that the military should pay for a survey of possible victims, “the Pentagon pushed back hard,” Magner says.
Even after volumes of research had identified likely cancer-causing chemicals in the water, the Marines were still not taking responsibility. In 2010, according to Magner, a brochure posted on the Department of Defense website and distributed to members of Congress cited a discredited study that claimed there was no link between the contaminated water and illnesses.
One former Lejeune resident was so desperate that she contacted Erin Brockovich, whose successful fight on behalf of water-contamination victims in California was depicted in a major motion picture. She also contacted Jan Schlichtmann, the lawyer played by John Travolta in the film A Civil Action, which told the story of the long legal battle to get compensation for water-contamination victims in Woburn, Mass. Neither Brockovich nor Schlichtmann got involved.
The long battle waged by Ensminger and other former Lejeune residents should have culminated happily in August 2012 with President Barack Obama signing the Janey Ensminger Act, which is supposed to provide medical care for Lejeune victims. But many are struggling with bureaucratic tangles to get those benefits.
In writing this book, Magner has done a great service to those Marine families, a service that the Marines failed to provide.
Manuel Roig-Franzia reviewed this book for the Washington Post.