Janetta Johnson spent four-plus decades dealing with a double mastectomy, skin lesions, tooth loss, a complete hysterectomy and chronic severe headaches.
Johnson traces the ailments to the mid-1960s, when, as a young wife and mother, she moved into the Tawara Terrace housing complex at Camp Lejeune, N.C., with her husband, then an active-duty Marine.
Now, Johnson is suing the U.S. government, claiming exposure to chemically tainted water caused her illnesses. Johnson is seeking compensation and answers about why she has to live with the fear of cancer returning or facing another exotic illness. The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Covington, Ky., seeks unspecified damages. Johnson had sought, but didn’t get, $20 million in compensation through the federal government’s administrative claims process.
“I’ve lost just about all my body parts,” Johnson, 71, told The Associated Press.
The U.S. Marine Corps in 2008 notified thousands of people that they may have been exposed to toxic chemicals that contaminated the water supply on the base from the mid-1950s through the 1980s.
“When you start having thousands of people that have the same story, you’ve got to go, ‘What’s going on here?”‘ said Johnson’s attorney, Bill Noelker, a former Navy fighter pilot in Danville.
Marine spokeswoman Capt. Kendra Hardesty said multiple investigations have cleared the Marine Corps of intentional wrongdoing and that water on the base “was consistent with industry standards that existed at the time.” The Marine Corps has a database of about 178,000 people who registered to be notified about any news concerning the drinking water and seeks to help anyone claiming illnesses related to the base, Hardesty said.
“The Marine Corps is committed to supporting scientific and public health organizations to seek science-based answers to the questions that have been raised,” Hardesty said.
Johnson, her husband Orval, and their daughter, Robin, arrived at Camp Lejeune in July 1965, about a year after getting married. They stayed until October 1966. During that time, the Johnsons used the water for drinking, cooking and bathing. After about 3 months, the illnesses started to set in, first with 9-month-old Robin.
“I couldn’t get her well. She was sick constantly,” Johnson said. “It’s like we have no immune systems to fight off anything. It’s always something.”
The family moved around, ending up in northern Kentucky in the 1970s, where her illnesses lingered. Multiple treatments didn’t stop the cancers from recurring and surgeries failed to relieve the pain.
“I went through a lifetime, a whole lifetime, not knowing why we were sick all the time,” Johnson said, her voice cracking. “These were physical things. You couldn’t possibly have made yourself sick with these things.”
For decades, the Marines denied any connection between the chemically laced water and the illnesses. Eventually, the Marines started notifying some former Camp Lejeune residents about possible exposure to contaminated water.
Johnson got her notification in 2008, stating that she and her family may have been contaminated by multiple cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene and trichloroethylene, from roughly 1957 to 1987. Some of the contamination came from an off-base dry cleaner, while the rest came from drums of industrial solvents being buried around the base.
Noelker said the drums leaked after being buried, with chemicals slipping into the water supply.
“I don’t believe any of this was willful, but I do believe it was reckless and negligent,” Noelker said. “I think what happened is it was a failure of leadership.”
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concluded in 2009 that Camp Lejeune’s water had been contaminated and that as many as 1 million people were exposed to it.
Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who served about 25 years and spent part of that time on the base, said former Camp Lejeune residents have “a horrendous level” of kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and liver cancers. Ensminger, who helped found the group “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten” to help other former Camp Lejeune residents, said the Marines have been “minimizing” to the public the exposure to chemicals for 50 years.
“Why did you place the drinking water supply wells … near known potential contamination sources?” asked Ensminger, whose 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of cancer in 1985.
Johnson, who said she is constantly worried about what the next illness will be or whether the cancer will return, wants answers to that and other questions about what happened at Camp Lejeune.
“I really hope and pray that they’re able to get everyone identified who was affected by this,” Johnson said. “Because it’s not fair for people to be this sick with these many ailments … and not know why. Because it’s not normal.”
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