TAMPA — It seemed as if everyone had a story about illness or death. They filled the room.
Men and women with breast cancer. Prostate cancer. Bladder cancer. Disorders of the nervous system. The parents of babies who died days after birth. Husbands and wives who recalled the agony of a loved one.
The one thing they shared other than illness brought them to Tampa Saturday:
They had all lived at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Up to 250 people, mostly Tampa Bay residents, gathered at the Tampa Marriott Westshore for an informational meeting about what scientists think is one of the worst incidents of drinking water contamination in the nation's history.
The meeting was organized by a law firm seeking clients.
But it was two of the leading advocates for the alleged victims of that tainted water who presented the case that the corps ignored stark warnings about pollution and waited four years to close those wells.
The advocates said they suffered, too. Former Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger's daughter was conceived at Lejeune and died of leukemia at age 9. Mike Partain, an officer's son, was born at the base in 1968 and is one of 67 men who lived at Lejeune and were later diagnosed with rare breast cancer.
Both men told the crowd to urge Florida's congressional delegation to get involved to help Lejeune's ill and dying.
"These are the people who lost a loved one to cancer or who had cancer or are dealing with cancer," Partain said after the meeting. "These are the people who loved and trusted the corps and now feel a sense of betrayal."
Corps officials, who did not attend the meeting, have insisted they closed wells immediately upon confirming contamination.
Federal scientists say that up to a million Marines, sailors and their families were exposed to a toxic brew of carcinogens for at least 30 years ending in 1987.
Men like Jerry Earls, 71, a Largo resident whose son died at Camp Lejeune in 1962 when he was 2 days old. Earl's wife was later diagnosed with breast cancer, and then the ovarian cancer that killed her.
"It was always in the back of my mind — what happened?" said Earls, who retired after 20 years in the corps in 1977. "It was devastating. Both deaths were. It always seemed so strange. Now I think I have an answer."
His infant son is buried in a cemetery not far from the gates of Camp Lejeune. He's buried in a section locals call "Baby Heaven." In it are row after row of headstones for the stillborn or the babies who died days after birth.
At the meeting, veterans displayed their Marine pride in every corner of the room. Some wore "USMC" caps or jackets. Others made reservations for the event using e-mails that began with Marine references like "sgtmc" or "corpsdog" or "Marine2mark." Their cars had Marine license plates.
Bob Kahaly, 52, of Ponte Vedra left his Marine cap in his car. It's the car with all the Marine logos on it. He's battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma for a decade and lost a Marine buddy to cancer.
Kahaly served in the corps from 1978 to 1980, including a stint at Lejeune. He is one of the few Florida residents who has won a monthly benefit from the Department of Veterans Affairs because it says his cancer was probably caused by polluted water.
"It's heart wrenching to know that the government you served knowingly let this happen," Kahaly said. "That the Marine Corps did it really hurts. The Marine Corps' leaders dishonored us."
But Kahaly said, "I'm still proud to be a Marine."
More than 14,000 Floridians who were exposed to tainted water have signed up for a Marine database, more than any state in the country other than North Carolina.
Dennis Antle, 60, commandant of a Riverview chapter of the Marine Corps League, said more still may be unaware of the issue.
Antle is a combat veteran of Vietnam with three Purple Hearts. He wears a red "USMC" hat. A patch on his jacket says, "Brothers forever."
Antle had wanted to be a Marine since childhood. He joined at 17 and has lived and breathed the Marine Corps motto ever since.
Semper fidelis — always faithful.
"We don't leave a man behind," Antle said. "We would never walk off from a battle and leave a guy lying there, dead or alive. We don't do it."
Then Antle said, "They left us behind on this one. Yes, it appears that they have."
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.