Camp Lejeune’s history of poisoned drinking water causing illness, disease, birth defects, and death is one all Americans should hear about
By Nancee Kesinger
This tale of two knees is timely and true. The first knee is mine, touching down to meet the cool tile floor of a hospital exam room a few weeks ago in mid-September. Yes, I am the person kneeling, yet the story is not mine.
Far from stadium crowds and television cameras, under fluorescent clinical lights that render no warmth, I tilt forward out of my chair to approximate eye level with my loved one who is lying face down on the low table enduring the physical pain of a bone marrow biopsy and aspiration.
He has the pose of a day-dreaming sunbather with arms raised above his shoulders and hands casually crisscrossed under his head, but this beautiful black man doesn’t need a tan, and his relaxed position betrays some starker truths.
My taking a knee on this day is wholly in support of this glad-hearted and serene Marine—my partner of many years, my significant other, my mate—who is learning on this day the complete details of his alarming, week-old leukemia diagnosis (cancer of the blood and bone marrow). My sliding forward to strategically post one knee requires frequent adjustments and subtle head turns to avoid having my tears or my sweat roll off my face onto his bare skin as the hematologist-oncologist introduces a spinal-length needle into my man’s flesh to administer local anesthesia from skin surface through multiple muscle layers to hip bone before using the sheer force and leverage of his full body weight to drive a long metal rod with a hollow center down the same path until he hits bone.
Once the doctor reaches his destination, he pauses and gathers his strength to exert even more pressure to pierce the hip bone with the screw-driver-like instrument. A catheter is inserted to collect a bone marrow sample, and then the doctor continues through the hollow rod to chip away a piece of hip bone. The doctor’s assistant shows me the bone fragment, jiggles it in the tiny specimen jar before me like a precious baby tooth still smeared with blood in storage for the tooth fairy.
Of the eight hallmark diseases that medical evidence readily correlates to Camp Lejeune’s water poisoning, adult leukemia is often listed first…
Some living readers and many long-departed spirits may sense where this story of knees needing attention leads when it is revealed that my “fit, healthy, Marine Corps rugby-team-athlete” was duty stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in the early 1980s as an enlisted teenaged soldier far from his southern California home. Most Americans, however, will likely be unaware of the toxic legacy of the place and the countless men and women (and their family members) who were poisoned by contaminated water between Aug. 1, 1953 and Dec. 31, 1987 while in the service of our nation.
Extremely unsafe levels of five chemicals classified as causing or probably causing cancer, including trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroetylene (PCE) and benzene leached into the drinking water at Camp Lejeune from 1953 until the affected wells were shut down in 1985. Of the eight hallmark diseases that medical evidence readily correlates to Camp Lejeune’s water poisoning, adult leukemia is often listed first (the other seven presumptive diseases are aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease).
That the land he and other Marines swore to protect should be the very land that caused calamitous harm is not lost on all.
Camp Lejeune’s history of poisoned drinking water causing illness, disease, birth defects, and death is one all Americans should hear about, and it still may turn out to be the worst water contamination case our country has ever seen.
More shameful is that our government and our military have been complicit and negligent for over five decades, actively denying the toxic mixture of chemicals in the water at Camp Lejeune and repeatedly disregarding warning signs of contamination.
The government and military have long tried to cover up the scandal, suppressing vital information and environmental study results; meanwhile, the Marine Corps issued a number of dismissive statements to veterans and their families who were exposed to carcinogenic water at Camp Lejeune (while assuming no responsibility) even though documents released in 2012 show that the Marines knew about the contagion as early as October, 1980.
So, my taking of the knee in the hospital exam room was simply to comfort my loved one, a reticent man disinclined to making these circumstances public, a man who served his country honorably and appears to have been repaid for his service with an incurable disease. As epidemiologists agree, the extended latency period of numerous types of cancer suggests that my loved one’s adult leukemia is one of many more future cases attributable to Camp Lejeune contamination (and no reliable estimate exists of the number of total illnesses, disabilities, and deaths caused by Lejeune’s contamination-caused cancers). That the land he and other Marines swore to protect should be the very land that caused calamitous harm is not lost on all.
In 2012, dedicated advocates won a qualified victory when President Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act which aims to ensure that those sickened by Camp Lejeune water receive medical treatment through the Department of Veteran Affairs.
This illuminating discovery was made during an epic research blitz on adult leukemia, Camp Lejeune, chemotherapy treatments, bone marrow production, Philadelphia chromosomes, etc., that lasted several days after the troubling diagnosis, an online information-devouring marathon that only screeched to a halt on Sept. 23, 2017 when the evening news broadcast the U.S. president making remarks to a rally crowd in Alabama about NFL players “taking a knee,” referencing the gesture of quarterback Colin Kaepernick a year earlier.
This was the moment when all the impossibly raw emotions I felt in relation to my loved one’s dire health crisis, his bone marrow biopsy, his brave optimism during the first two rounds of chemotherapy he was undergoing that week, his “always faithful” sense of duty, the circumstances of his life and family history, could no longer hold, and my other knee decided it “wasn’t having it.” I closed all the tabs on the computer, wiped the screen clear, discontinued my research on bone marrow cancer, turned off the television, and opened a blank doc to compose this essay.
Allow me to insert, briefly, a metaphorical knee (not my second, real knee), symbolically lowered in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and all of the other professional athletes and protestors who were drawn to perform a simple, non-violent action to hold viewer’s attention on racial strife in the United States. Kaepernick’s was never a protest of the American flag, the U.S. military, the national anthem, or the United States itself, a misrepresentation that drew applause when a president cynically warped its expressed intent.
That the president wedged himself into a peaceful protest against racial inequality and made it about himself should surprise no one, but the lives of generations of decent African-American citizens in my loved one’s family are respectfully honored when Kaepernick and others take a knee.
As a black man in America, my loved one has experienced the discriminatory policing practices that continue to undermine our nation and devastate our people. He has faced the wide range of racism’s daily indignities and insidious “double standards” before, after, and during his military service, in and out of uniform, and in all parts of his life. His proud grandparents (both maternal and paternal) fled the segregation and brutal prejudice of east Texas to build lives in Los Angeles in the 1950’s, landing first in Watts, and were present during the riots which afforded them a California “lens” on resonant crises of racial disunity.
That the president wedged himself into a peaceful protest against racial inequality and made it about himself should surprise no one, but the lives of generations of decent African-American citizens in my loved one’s family are respectfully honored when Kaepernick and others take a knee. A maternal grandfather is buried nearby at Fort Rosecrans Cemetery, a WWII veteran, and many other family members have served devotedly in the U.S. military. It is their flag as well as the president’s, their song, their country, and every American’s right to call out and spotlight injustice where it is found.
There is no need to be coy in this hour as Veteran’s Day rapidly approaches, so replacing the metaphorical knee above (taken in support of Colin Kaepernick’s objective) is my real knee–the second knee of the title–down in rebuke and protest of U.S. military brass and the U.S. president.
I take a knee in protest of indefensible military brass that the president deems blameless whose negligence is and has been inexcusable, causing pain, anguish, and unnecessary death. I protest all hollow utterances of “support the troops” when proof shows U.S. military brass poisoned people and tried to cover it up at Camp Lejeune. I protest U.S. military brass for failing to own up to its role in the contamination. I protest U.S. military brass on behalf of the people who may fall ill in the years ahead from this toxic water scandal. I protest the U.S. president who mistakes love of country as being incompatible with love of social justice. I protest the president’s whitewashing of the entire “take a knee” conversation started by Kaepernick which had only to do with the myriad manifestations of racism in the United States.
It is their flag as well as the president’s, their song, their country, and every American’s right to call out and spotlight injustice where it is found.
If, as some observers note, taking a knee after the president’s Sept. 23 comments about NFL players “became” more or less a protest against a president who distorts truly salient issues with incendiary, race-baiting comments (repeatedly), I’m down. I’m taking a knee in protest of a president who crudely and cavalierly insulted and shamed the women who gave birth to some of our finest American athletes, insinuating that the men themselves forfeit First Amendment protections when they appear on a playing field (as if being a paid employee trumps being a free citizen with constitutional rights) and, who, further, laid down directives to NFL owners (as if being a corporate CEO in the United States means you, necessarily, follow the president’s every dictate). I protest a president who seems to expect blind obedience to his will and whim.
No taking of a knee compares to the combined words, actions, and inactions of the current U.S. president that, together, constitute the most egregious offense to our precious democratic process; he is the fake, but that is not news, so please give attention to two more knees.
Update: The documentary Semper Fi Always Faithful follows Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger exposé of toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune and the military cover-up of the disaster which continues to affect people today. Mr. Ensminger has commented below on this article.
Nancee Kesinger is an English Professor at Mesa College in San Diego, California. She is the author of a new college textbook titled Don’t Get It Twisted: Critical Thinking in the Classroom.