Jerry Ensminger

Retired USMC Master Sergeant


It was late spring 1983, and my then six-year-old daughter Janey was diagnosed with Strep throat. The doctor prescribed antibiotics as a treatment. The only problem was that the antibiotics didn’t seem to work. Janey’s strep throat persisted for nearly a month and a half. Each time we took her back to the Naval hospital, the doctors would prescribe a different antibiotic. On a very hot Sunday afternoon in July 1983, Janey developed a very high fever; the standard fever-reducing analgesics weren’t working, so I took off Janey’s shirt to place cold compresses on her torso. Then, I noticed little blemishes under her skin, which resembled small hickies, all over her torso. It was a new and frightening development, and I immediately put Janey in the car and took her to the base hospital’s urgent care clinic.

It was my good fortune that my battalion surgeon was on duty that day at the clinic, and when I told him how long this ordeal with the Strep had persisted, he ordered blood work on her. After going to the laboratory, a short walk from the clinic waiting area, we sat there for what seemed an eternity. Janey had fallen asleep in the chair next to me, and all of the other patients seen were gone. It was only Janey and I sitting in the large waiting area. I noticed the two Navy Corpsmen (medics) who were the receptionists for the clinic looking at us and whispering to one another. When I focused my attention on them, they averted their eyes, and I noticed one of them lowered his head and shook it in a sign of gloom. That was all it took. I was already on pins and needles, and when I saw that individual shake his head in a gesture of sadness, I was at the counter in about two leaps! I asked them why they were looking at us and whispering to each other. I also wanted to know why the one had shaken his head in a sign of gloom. I asked them what was taking so long and exactly what we were waiting for. One of the Corpsmen had left the counter and had gone into the clinic treatment area to get the doctor once I had confronted them.

The doctor came out immediately because I was getting extremely loud with my interrogation of the lone Corpsman at the counter. He ushered me to the far side of the counter out of view of Janey (who was awake now), and he told me that they were waiting for the head of pediatrics to come in to speak with me. (It was Sunday, and she was off duty.) That was when the doctor told me that they suspected Janey had leukemia. I remember dropping to my knees in the hallway, my forehead went down onto the tile floor, and I started to sweat profusely. I was beginning to go into shock! My sweat soaked my shirt, and I knew I had to regain my composure. Janey was all alone in the waiting area. The doctor ordered the Corpsmen to attend to Janey, and I crawled through the double doors into the clinic treatment area, where I got to my feet and drank some water the doctor gave me.

Janey’s diagnosis was confirmed and the little hickey-looking lesions on her torso were what is known as petechiae, her blood platelets were so low that everywhere there was an imperfection in her blood vessels, blood was coming out under her skin. She was at serious risk of hemorrhaging internally and dying.

It wasn’t until I started to do what any parent would do after the shock of Janey’s diagnosis wore off and the hustle and bustle of getting her to a treatment facility. I began to question why. I checked my and her mother’s family histories and could find no other child that had ever been diagnosed with leukemia. Janey was followed and treated at both Penn State and Duke University medical facilities. I would find the cancer research departments and ask questions about childhood leukemia. It seemed that no one could or would give me an answer to that nagging question of why.

Janey succumbed to her disease on 24 September 1985, and I still didn’t have an answer. It wasn’t until August 1997, three years after I retired from the USMC, that I finally got a glimmer of hope that I might finally get an answer. I was coming out of the kitchen with a plate of spaghetti in my hand to watch the evening news when the reporter on TV said that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry had just released a report on Camp Lejeune and the chemicals which had been found in the base drinking water could be linked to childhood cancer, primarily leukemia. I dropped my plate of food onto the living room floor. Janey was the only one of my four children who had been conceived, carried, or born while living at Camp Lejeune! Of course, my first thoughts were of Janey, but later that evening, I began to think of all the other people potentially exposed at Camp Lejeune who were now literally spread out worldwide! How many of them were still seeking their glimmer of hope for their nagging question of what happened to me or what happened to my loved one(s)? I knew right then and there. The only way those people would ever have a chance of finding out was for me to push for answers and do everything I could to ensure they got notified!

Janey’s illness and ultimate death had a traumatic and lasting impact on me and my life. I watched my daughter go through hell! Every time Janey would have a procedure done to her body (which there were many), I was there holding her for the doctor. She was subjected to many bone marrow extractions and spinal taps, and each time she was subjected to one of these, it was my ear that she screamed into saying, “Daddy, Daddy, please don’t let them hurt me!” The only response I could offer her was, “The only reason they are hurting you is that they are trying to help you!” I felt so utterly helpless. I would pray and ask God to take this illness off of her and place it on me. Of course, these prayers always went unanswered.

When Janey received her outpatient chemotherapy, we would leave the hospital and head home, only to make it a few miles down the road when she began vomiting in the car’s back seat. I would pull off on the shoulder of the road, sit in the backseat with her, and rub her back to soothe her, all while being overwhelmed with a total sense of helplessness!

Janey’s treatments also had a detrimental impact on her physical appearance. When taking the steroid prednisone, Janey would gain 30 plus pounds in one month, with her hair loss. This created an appearance that caused other children to make fun of her. They would call her names such as “Cabbage Patch Kid,” and when Janey could attend school during her two-plus year illness, she would come home with hurt feelings and crying.

During my 14 and a half year fight for truth and justice in this issue, I have often reached a point of despair and discouragement. The only thing it took to rekindle my resolve was to replay these traumatic memories of what my child endured in my mind. It kept me going… it still does, only now I have the traumatic stories of so many others helping to drive me forward!

When I first learned of the contamination issue, I had all the faith and confidence that the Marine Corps I had served for nearly a quarter century would step up and do what was right by their people. But as time passed and I made more and more personal contacts with representatives of the Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy, I realized that not only were these organizations not going to do what was right by their people, they were engaged in doing the opposite. They were knowingly providing investigators with incorrect data. They were obfuscating the facts. They hid data/information in password-protected electronic files and told many half-truths and total lies. When I began to witness this misconduct, I realized that they were going to have to be forced to do what was right. That said, I want to assure everyone that the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis” and our slogan “we take care of our own” are still alive and well down at the unit levels. The scariest and most disillusioning discovery for me in this issue has been the deceitful conduct at the highest levels of leadership. These people hold the rank and file of the Corps to those lofty standards of honor and integrity and can’t or won’t live up to those standards themselves!

The developments at Penn State University are a prime example that we all should learn from. When the leaders of ANY institution place that institution’s safety and/or protection over their people’s health, safety, or welfare, they are wrong. It doesn’t matter how they try to justify their misguided loyalties; they are wrong! After all, without people, there are no institutions, none!