JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Janey Ensminger wanted to be known as the girl who lived.
The 9-year-old lay in a North Carolina hospital room in 1985, her body broken by leukemia. Her mouth was covered in sores. Everything hurt.
Janey had agreed to take an experimental drug. By doing so, she might help others. With a child's bottomless store of optimism, she thought her recovery would be long remembered.
That was important to her. An aunt recalled Janey saying she "wanted to make a difference."
Two weeks later, Janey died. Her dad, a tough Marine gunnery sergeant, cried by the bed.
Janey's father, Jerry Ensminger, will visit Tampa on Saturday for a meeting of former Tampa Bay Marines, sailors and their families to tell Janey's story and tell them something it took him years to accept.
Ensminger, 58, says his beloved Corps poisoned them.
The former Marine says Janey's death is linked to tainted water at Camp Lejeune, N.C. And for more than a decade, Ensminger has become the public face of what may be one of the worst drinking water contaminations in the nation's history.
For 30 years ending in 1987, up to 1 million people drank, bathed and cooked with the base's water, which was polluted with a stew of cancer-causing chemicals.
Ensminger is something of a force of nature who served nearly 25 years in the Corps and trained recruits as a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C.
Some credit him with doing more than anyone to raise awareness of pollution at Camp Lejeune. He has testified three times before Congress. He has given hundreds of media interviews.
In 2010, a bill was introduced in Congress to provide medical help for ill Lejeune veterans and family members. It was titled the Janey Ensminger Act.
"Jerry's one of the most effective advocates for exposed communities I've ever seen in my 40 years of public health work," said Dick Clapp, professor emeritus of environmental health at Boston University.
That federal scientists are today studying whether base water caused health problems is, in part, a testament to Ensminger's tenacity, Clapp said.
In a sense, a father gave his daughter her one last wish.
Janey did make difference.
• • •
Born on the Fourth of July, Ensminger was an unruly kid who didn't like boundaries or rules, said sister, Marie Yeager.
Ensminger joined the Marine Corps in 1969, serving in southeast Asia and billets around the world during his career. He'd spend two years as a drill instructor, the stereotypical no-nonsense Marine with crewcut, stiff posture and a voice seemingly hewn by broken glass.
Ensminger was stationed from 1973 to 1975 at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base near the coast just outside Jacksonville, N.C. He had married and Janey was conceived on the base. Her mom spent the first trimester there.
Janey became ill in 1983 at age 6, when her father was again stationed at Lejeune. Doctors thought she had strep throat, but antibiotics wouldn't work.
Her dad took her to the base hospital. A doctor gave him the devastating diagnosis: acute lymphocytic leukemia.
• • •
The next three years were a whirlwind of hospitals and doctors. At times, Janey would appear to be in remission. But then the leukemia would return with increased ferocity.
Ensminger said he wanted to learn everything he could about leukemia. Neither his nor his wife's family had any history of it. How did this happen?
He learned researchers think most childhood cancers are linked to exposures to pollutants.
What Janey went through still haunts her father. Chemotherapy made finding veins for IVs difficult. For one surgery, doctors had to stick her skin 20 times to get an IV line going. They finally found a vein on her head.
One drug caused painful ulcers over Janey's body. The girl would stare at her mouth in a mirror, obsessed with the sores inside.
Ensminger said the details of Janey's last hours are seared in his mind. The words. The emotion. The utter helplessness.
Janey hated morphine. It made her sleepy. But now, the pain was too much. She told her dad, "I hurt really bad." As a nurse came to inject morphine into an IV line, Janey stopped her.
Barely able to talk, Janey said, "I want some for my daddy ... My daddy's hurting, too."
Ensminger never cried in front of his daughter. He wanted Janey to get strength from him. But now she was slipping fast. He could see it. The Marine started to cry. "Stop it," Janey whispered.
"Stop crying," Janey said. "I love you.
"I love you, too."
Janey told him, "I know."
Those were her last words. A half hour later, Janey died.
• • •
In the mid 1990s, Ensminger retired after nearly 25 years in the Corps. He and Janey's mother divorced but still lived near Camp Lejeune.
In 1997, Ensminger had just finished making dinner. As he walked to his living room, he heard a news report on TV: Scientists suspect pollutants in Camp Lejeune water may be linked to childhood leukemias.
Ensminger said he dropped a plate of spaghetti on the floor.
Ensminger's daughter, Jessica, said he called her mom in the middle of the night saying, "I think I know what killed Janey."
The ex-wife thought him crazy.
In those early days, Ensminger fought virtually alone to get answers and raise public awareness about base pollution.
He became a nuisance to the Marine Corps, calling officials repeatedly. Ensminger sought out public health scientists. He networked with ill veterans.
But progress was slow. Reporters didn't want to write about Camp Lejeune. It was old news.
If he got frustrated, Ensminger said, he'd go outside at night, look to the stars and say a prayer to Janey and God.
"I'd say, 'If what I'm doing has meaning, if what I'm doing is right, then give me a sign.' "
Something would always happen to keep him going, as if he were being directed by Janey's invisible hand, Ensminger said.
There was the time he persuaded a Washington Post reporter to write about Lejeune pollution.
He met the reporter at a restaurant. To Ensminger, the timing was no coincidence. It was Sept. 24, 2003 — the 18th anniversary of Janey's death.
The Post story got congressional attention. Ensminger testified at a hearing. More reporters called. It was a start.
Interest at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry became increasingly focused on Camp Lejeune.
As scientists started releasing records obtained from the Corps, Ensminger said, he saw proof the Marines knowingly kept tainted wells open.
A St. Petersburg Times review in 2009 found the Corps started receiving warnings about contaminated water in 1980 but didn't start closing polluted wells until late 1984.
The Corps, which would not comment about Ensminger, says it closed wells immediately upon confirming pollution and has accused critics of speculating.
With those records in hand, it was getting harder to ignore this stubborn Marine.
What makes Ensminger so effective, friends say, is his tenacity, organization and speaking skills. These are no fluke. Ensminger said he learned these skills in the Corps.
That's not all he learned there.
Ensminger can snap at people and use profane language. If he thinks someone is wrong, he says so, and isn't diplomatic about it. It's an endearing view inside the soul of a Marine, his friends say.
Mike Partain was born at Camp Lejeune and diagnosed with a rare breast cancer. He has worked with Ensminger and sometimes feels his barbs.
But Partain said Ensminger is a gifted leader. "I'd follow him to the gates of hell. He's the prodigal son come home to make the father atone for his sins."
Ensminger said he blames Corps leadership, not Marines at the unit level, for failing to live up to their own high standards. He said the Corps should admit its mistakes and help ill veterans and families get medical help.
"Nobody is more disillusioned with the Marine Corps than I have been," Ensminger said in an interview at his home, a 90-minute drive from Camp Lejeune.
"I trained over 2,000 recruits. I instilled in those Marines our motto, semper fidelis. Always faithful. It's not something we follow only when it's convenient. I want the Marine Corps to live up to our motto. And I won't give up this fight until they do what's right or until they blow taps over my dead body."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432