Topics: Veterans Affairs

Watchdog: Lejeune Marine lost daughter but still fights bureaucrats, politicians

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Photo - Jerry Ensminger holds a portrait of his daughter, Janey, in this May 9, 2007 file photo in White Lake, N.C. (Photo: Gerry Broome/AP file)
Jerry Ensminger holds a portrait of his daughter, Janey, in this May 9, 2007 file photo in White Lake, N.C. (Photo: Gerry Broome/AP file)
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Part three of a three-part series

There is nothing the Department of Veterans Affairs can do to help Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who spent 11 years exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

Anything he needed from the agency ended in September 1985, when his nine-year-old daughter Janey died of leukemia.

But Ensminger is not willing to give up the fight. Last year he muscled a law through Congress that recognized the connection between the lethal mix of chemicals that had been leaching into the water at the North Carolina base and the devastating health effects that followed.

Unfortunately, that law, named in honor of Janey, only granted VA medical care to veterans and their families who contracted the 15 specified medical conditions.

It did nothing to recognize service connection when those same veterans seek disability benefits, which is something Ensminger is determined to change.

VA's Camp Lejeune delays
Department of Veterans Affairs officials refuse to recognize proven links between toxic water at Camp Lejeune and diseases that are killing Marines.

Wednesday: VA bureaucrats fiddle while Camp Lejeune veterans die
Yesterday: VA knows it will be around long after Lejeune Marine dies
Coming Friday: Lejeune Marine lost daughter but still fights bureaucrats, politicians

Read the entire series at this link

"We need to force this thing back into Congress and say 'how can you justify saying you were poisoned on active duty at Camp Lejeune, and we are going to give you health care, but you still have to jump all the hurdles to get your service-connected benefits?'" Ensminger said. "How do you justify that?"

There doesn't seem to be much stomach in Congress or at VA to recognize the connection anytime soon. Elected officials who championed last year's bill would not talk with The Washington Examiner about granting a presumption of service connection for disability benefits.

Instead, they sent written statements touting their past success and indicating they will wait for ongoing studies by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR) to gauge the level and health consequences of the water contamination.

VA officials also say they are awaiting those findings, the last of which is not due until 2014.

"The findings in these studies will help guide our actions in Congress," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chief sponsor of last year's bill.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., had a similar response to The Washington Examiner's questions.

"As ATSDR completes the studies, we will have a full picture of the events that led up to and followed findings of water contamination at Camp Lejeune," she said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, also cited the ongoing studies that will guide VA's decision on whether to grant a presumption of service connection.

"We have received a commitment from VA to evaluate a presumption of service connection for the purposes of disability compensation following the completion this year and next of several specific scientific studies on Camp Lejeune water contamination," Miller said.

"Until then, the department has an obligation to ensure every individual Camp Lejeune-related disability compensation claim receives a thorough, fair and timely evaluation."

VA officials would not agree to an interview.

Janey Ensminger was conceived and carried through her first trimester at Camp Lejeune. At the time, no one knew about the lethal mix of chemicals that leached into the groundwater since the early 1950's, and the devastation it would wreak on the estimated one million Marines and family members who lived and worked there.

Ensminger, who has none of the illnesses listed in the law, said he originally sought recognition from Congress of a service connection both for medical and disability benefits. But all he could get was medical care.

"I figured that after we got this law passed that would open the door up for service connection and the rest of their benefits," he said. "But I guess I was wrong."

VA figures show about one in four claims filed by Camp Lejeune veterans seeking disability benefits is approved.

Concern over costs is likely what is making Congress and VA reluctant to grant full presumption, said Joe Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.

Both VA and the Department of Defense opposed last year's legislation, telling Congress there was "insufficient scientific evidence to conclude that a particular illness is attributable to such contamination."

VA officials estimated in June 2011 the cost of providing medical care to Camp Lejeune survivors would be $1.6 billion over five years, more than three times the estimate of $459 million from the Congressional Budget Office.

Actual costs to date were not available. Nor is the estimated cost of granting presumptive status for disability claims.

Violante said it makes no sense that Congress recognized the link between contaminants and illnesses listed in the law, yet continues to force veterans seeking disability benefits to prove that same connection in a system that can take years for resolution.

"In our mind, there's a connection that's already been made," Violante said. "Therefore, why are they making these individuals jump through these hoops? If there is a cause and effect relationship, why not make it easier on the veteran?"

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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