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Taking care of veterans means getting justice for Camp Lejeune

In 1986, Audrey Williams Pride laid her infant son to rest. She blamed herself for his death—but it was actually the government’s fault. The authorities at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina Marine Corps base Audrey called home, had contaminated the drinking water.

Audrey is not alone. From 1953 to 1987, more than a million men, women, and children bathed in and ingested Camp Lejeune’s toxic water. Hundreds of babies died, so many filling a stretch of a nearby cemetery that it received the grim title “Baby Heaven.” And children were not the only victims of the poisoning. Tens of thousands of Marines, military family members, and civilian staff have since developed severe illnesses, from cancer to Parkinson’s, linked to the contamination. 

For years, government officials covered up their crime. Then, when the truth came out, they relied on legal loopholes to escape the consequences. North Carolina’s strict 10-year statute of repose, which has been altered by the state legislature but still applies to past cases, denies most families the ability to sue in court. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has refused care to those in need on the basis of “insufficient evidence of causation.” 

Former residents of Camp Lejeune served their country in the belief that their government would take care of them. Yet, like members of the military exposed to toxic burn pits on tours of duty, they have received nothing but excuses. They deserve justice—the time for delays is over. 

Fortunately, change is just over the horizon. 

I know change is possible, because I’ve helped make it happen before. Not too long ago, the VA was a cesspool of bureaucratic negligence and outright abuse. VA officials denied much-needed care to wounded veterans and overlooked outrageous conditions at VA medical facilities. That began to change in 2017 when Congress passed my VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, a law that empowered VA administrators to fire employees and established robust protections for whistleblowers. 

While this bill made a real difference, there are still problems in the VA. Transforming the culture of government is hard work. But our veterans and their families never shied away from hard work, and neither should we. 

That is why I am committed to supporting the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. That bill was introduced by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to help victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune work around North Carolina’s statute of repose and take their cases to court. Sen. Tillis has the solution—now we just need to implement it. 

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act was included in the House-passed Honoring Our PACT Act, which also addresses the needs of burn pits victims. These bills are critical to doing right by our nation’s veterans. We can and should pass both. 

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act is not without its detractors. Some members of Congress worry that allowing sick veterans and their families to seek restitution for Camp Lejeune will take too much money away from the federal budget. To those members, I say this problem was created by the government, and the government must solve it. There is simply no choice in the matter. 

Other members assert committee jurisdictional reasons to argue that Camp Lejeune cannot be included in the PACT Act. To those members, I say committee jurisdiction shouldn’t stand in the way of helping Americans suffering from toxic exposure. One way or the other, we can’t let any more excuses delay justice. 

As a Floridian, I hear from veterans and their families all the time. I know that no amount of money can make up for the loss of a loved one or the cost of a life-changing injury. But recognition of and compensation for the government’s wrong actions is the least we can do to honor those who have made such great sacrifices on our behalf. 

Until we get justice for Camp Lejeune, its former residents—the babies who died in stillbirth, the Marines suffering from cancer, the women sterilized by toxic chemicals—will be a living witness to government negligence and incompetence. I call on my colleagues in Congress to do the right thing and pass the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. 

Marco Rubio is the senior senator from Florida. 

Tags Honoring Our PACT Act Thom Tillis

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