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WKYT Investigates | Toxic water at Camp Lejeune

A central Kentucky man is fighting for more to be done to help his fellow Marines.
Published: Mar. 11, 2021 at 3:30 PM EST
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WINCHESTER, Ky. (WKYT) -- Looking back, Brian Amburgey says serving in the Marine Corps made him a man.

“Here I was just a kid from Knott County, and come back a Marine, and proud as I could be of it,” said Amburgey, who now lives in Winchester.

But ironically, part of what built him could be to blame for what he says is now breaking him down: Memory loss. Tremors. Tooth decay.

Still, he knows others are worse off than he is. He cites the example of Janey Ensminger, the daughter of a master sergeant on the base, who died of leukemia.

“We signed that dotted line saying that we would put our lives on the line,” he said. “We did not sign our wives’ [lives], our husbands’ [lives], our children’s [lives], to be poisoned by the United States government.”

For decades it was a silent danger flowing through the faucet; and to this day veterans, civilian employees and family members are still dealing with health issues linked to water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

U.S. government officials have admitted that water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with toxins from leaking storage tanks on the base and a dry cleaner off the base. The Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges those exposed as veterans who served on the base at least 30 days total between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987.

As many as one million military and civilian staff and their families might have been exposed to the contaminated drinking water, according to estimates from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The Marine Corps base is in North Carolina, but thousands of Kentuckians are believed to have gone through there while the water was toxic. About 4,400 people in Kentucky are registered through the military for notifications on the issue, although that number is not necessarily limited only to those exposed.

Amburgey says he spent three months at the base for combat engineer training.

“We had to keep hydrated. Lots and lots of water,” Amburgey told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “It had a little bit of a funny smell to it, a funny taste, but, being from the country, I grew up with well water so I didn’t really hardly know the difference between that and city water.”

A law passed in 2012 - named for Janey Ensminger - provides health care coverage for 15 conditions for veterans and family members who lived on the base. Veterans are also eligible for disability compensation for eight conditions presumed to be related to the contamination.

Two on-base water wells were found to have the chemicals trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride and other compounds.

Dr. Ray Dorsey, a neurology professor and co-author of the book ‘Ending Parkinson’s Disease,’ says that TCE is one chemical known to cause health problems.

“TCE causes cancer, and TCE increases your risk of Parkinson’s Disease by 500 percent,” Dr. Dorsey said. “It contaminates up to 30 percent of groundwater in the United States, and we think it is a major contributor to the rise of Parkinson’s Disease.”

Parkinson’s Disease is one of the eight illnesses with presumption of service connection to water contamination at Camp LeJeune. But Brian Amburgey believes the actual list of health conditions linked to the toxic water is likely much longer.

That is why he and others are getting signatures for a petition to try to pressure lawmakers on Capitol Hill for a health registry. They hope the registry - like what is already in place for service members exposed to Agent Orange, for example - will help further study what is happening to the veterans who were exposed, and eventually expand coverage to more conditions.

Between January 2011 and June 2019, 77 percent of Kentucky veterans’ claims under the CLWC (Camp Lejeune Water Contamination) were denied by the V.A., an investigation conducted by 11Alive in Atlanta found.

“We feel like we’re being treated as second-class citizens,” Amburgey said.

Amburgey and others plan to present the petition to members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation and state legislators on March 17.

Even now Amburgey says he still meets veterans every day who served at Camp Lejeune but know nothing about the toxic water that flowed there for decades. It is why he continues to speak about it to try to draw attention to the cause - including protesting outside V.A. hospitals and political events.

“Marines have always got a saying: ‘Leave no man behind,’” Amburgey said. “We’re a brotherhood. Once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine. That’s why I’m fighting for my brothers and sisters. We all deserve justice.

“We served our country,” he said. “Our country needs to serve us now.”

Amburgey said he feels betrayed by his country for the limited help he and his fellow veterans have been provided after laying their lives on the line. And yet Amburgey still has strong pride in his service and a deep love for his country.

“Best country ever was,” he said. “It was an honor to serve the country. If they called me back today, I’d go back right now.”

He says he is just waiting for his country to return that feeling.

Copyright 2021 WKYT. All rights reserved.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the military base as Camp LeJeune instead of Camp Lejeune.