WASHINGTON -- The day after Janey Ensminger would have celebrated her 36th birthday, the House of Representatives passed a historic bill in her honor that would help thousands of sick Marine veterans and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
Legislation that has languished for years could soon be on the president's desk after the House followed in the Senate's footsteps and passed the measure under suspension of the rules by a voice vote.
Janey was just 9 when she died of a rare form of leukemia. Her family struggled for years to understand how, or why, she fell prey to the mysterious illness.
It was her father, Jerry Ensminger, who helped uncover that her daughter was one of as many as a million people who were exposed to contaminated drinking water at the Marine base near Jacksonville, N.C.
On Tuesday, the retired Marine said he felt pride for his daughter. He explained that a week before Janey's death, she told her aunt that she didn't want to die. She wanted to live longer because she hoped to make a difference in the world.
"Well, I know she's watching," Ensminger said. "And by God, she's made more of a change in this world through her death than most people make in their entire lives."
Leaders of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees called the episode "possibly the worst example of water contamination in our nation's history."
The Marine Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bill provides health care to sick military personnel and their family members provided they had lived or worked at least 30 days on the base from 1957 to 1987. They also must have a condition listed within the bill that's associated with exposure to the contaminating chemicals.
The bill could impact up to 750,000 Marine veterans and family members who may have been exposed to drinking water that was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Some medical experts have linked the contamination to birth defects, childhood leukemia and a variety of other cancers.
North Carolina lawmakers such as Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, and Rep. Brad Miller have been pushing Congress for years to provide care to military families for what they say are decades of neglect by the Marines.
Burr, a Republican, introduced the Senate version of the bill. Miller, a Democrat, was the original sponsor of the Janey Ensminger Act, which was included in a modified version of Burr's bill that passed in the House.
"This has been a long time coming," Miller said. "I'm kind of torn between thinking that it should not have been this hard and thinking it's remarkable that it's happened. I think the Marines and the Navy have not behaved well through all of this. Their reluctance to admit the water was contaminated, and the health effects of the contamination, has been shameful."
The families have faced decades of secrecy and cover-up while many suffered from cancers and other conditions as a result of their exposure, Burr said.
"We owe them nothing less than the care that this bill will provide," he said, "and I am hopeful the president will do the right thing for these people by signing this bill into law as soon as possible."
Ensminger, who led a relentless push to force the Marine Corps to atone for the death of his daughter and other sick families, said he's not done yet. The votes are recognition by Congress that the families were wronged by the Marines, he said. But he said he won't stop fighting until Marine Corps leaders are held accountable for covering up what they knew about the contaminated water.
"The Department of the Navy and the United States Marine Corps have to this day refused to release all of the information relating to this issue," he said.