Almost 60 years ago, Joe Kirstein says he was discharged from the Marine Corps due to abnormally high blood pressure. Only 22 years old, he didn’t understand what could have happened to a young man who, just four years prior, joined with good health.
At an event hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics March 2, some of that story came into focus.
Kirstein, who said he was stationed at Jacksonville, North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in 1957 and 1958, would have been among the first people to be exposed to contaminated water used at the Marine Corps base, beginning in 1953. Laced with industrial solvents and other chemicals, the water has been found as a cause of diseases like leukemia, cancer and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that were diagnosed in those who worked and were stationed at the base since the 1950s. Kirstein, 81, now suffers from polycythemia vera, a blood cancer that creates problems with red blood cells that can cause clots and heart attacks.
As Kirstein watched a screening of Semper Fi: Always Faithful, showing as part of Kenan’s Ethics Film Series, he saw similar stories in the 2011 documentary. He also heard in-person from the film’s main subject, Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who worked to expose what became one of the worst water contamination disasters in the country’s history.
“I have lived with frustration through all this,” said Kirstein, who believes his time at Camp Lejeune is the source of his disease. “I have never been contacted by the Marine Corps or anyone else.”
During the event, visitors chatted with Ensminger to share their stories, ranging from finishing treatment for leukemia caused by the water at Camp Lejeune to worries about family members currently stationed there. Ensminger, whose 9-year old daughter, Janey, died of cancer in 1985, has spent the last 20 years researching the contamination and advocating for those who have been impacted. In 2008, an online health registry totaled more than 135,000 names of people from the base.
According to records discovered by Ensminger and others, Marine officials knew about the contamination as early as 1981.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love being a Marine,” Ensminger told a crowd of about 50. “Our motto and slogan are still very much alive and well down at the unit and operating level. The problem here was the misconduct at the highest echelon of leadership – the same people who held all of us in the lower ranks accountable.”
In 2012, after years of effort by Ensminger and others impacted by the contamination, the U.S. Senate passed the Janey Ensminger Act, providing medical care to those who stayed at Camp Lejeune between Jan. 1, 1957 and Dec. 31, 1987.
For Kirstein, seeing the film and hearing from Ensminger provided much needed information.
“What I wanted to know was if we identified who was responsible and if there was anything that came from it,” he said.
“He wants to take names and kick some butt,” his wife, Jo Ann, added.
For more information about contamination at Camp Lejeune, visit:
- Camp Lejeune Water Contamination
- The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten
- The Official Website for Semper Fi: Always Faithful
The Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Ethics Film Series is a monthly program that provides unique ways to discuss ethical issues for audiences from the Duke and Durham communities. The next screening takes place April 6. This year’s film series is co-sponsored by DukeArts and the Environmental Alliance.