President Obama signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 on Aug. 6. From left are, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine Corps master sergeant who served at Camp Lejeune and advocated on behalf of affected veterans and families, and Rep. Brad Miller, D-Fla. (Haraz N. Ghanbari / The Associated Press)
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RALEIGH, N.C. — President Obama said the United States has a sacred duty to protect its men and women in uniform, even when the dangers lurk on the bases where they lived.
The president signed a bill into law Monday that provides health benefits to Marines and family members exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune from 1957 to 1987.
"I think all Americans feel we have a moral, sacred duty toward our men and women in uniform," Obama said in an Oval Office ceremony before signing the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act. They protect our freedom, and it's our obligation to do right by them. This bill takes another important step in fulfilling that commitment."
The law also bans protesting within 300 feet of military funerals.
The bill passed Congress last week with bipartisan support. Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted groundwater at the base along the North Carolina coast.
Jerry Ensminger of Elizabethtown was one of those affected and attended Monday's ceremony. He led the fight for information about the water problems at Camp Lejeune since his daughter, Janey, died in 1985 at the age of 9 of a rare form of childhood leukemia. Other soldiers, who suffered from a rare form of male breast cancer, also said the government spent years trying to hide the problem and the poor response by officials.
"Some of the veterans and their families who were based in Camp Lejeune in the years when the water was contaminated will now have access to extended medical care," Obama said. "And, sadly, this act alone will not bring back those we've lost, including Jane Ensminger, but it will honor their memory by making a real difference for those who are still suffering."
Documents show Marines leaders were slow to respond when tests in the early 1980s show higher than normal levels of contaminates in ground water and the base, likely caused by leaking fuel tanks and an off-base dry cleaner.
"The Marines affected by this tragedy have sacrificed to keep our country safe," Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said in a statement. "I am pleased that today, we are ensuring that our veterans and their family members are taken care of in their time of need."