JACKSONVILLE, N.C. -- As she flipped through the cemetery register, Mary Blakely’s eyes filled with tears. On line after line, the entry read simply “Baby Boy” or “Baby Girl,” followed by a surname and a burial date.
Like Blakely, many of those buried in this lonely section of Onslow Memorial Park known as “Babyland” were the children of Marines stationed down the road at Camp Lejeune. How many of these fellow “Devil Dog pups,” she wondered, died because they or their pregnant mothers had swallowed or bathed in the base’s toxic water?
“These are my peers,” she cried as cars and trucks rushed by on busy U.S. 258 one recent blustery day. “I’m a Marine Corps brat. And this could be me.”
The 49-year-old homemaker lived on the southeast North Carolina base during the 1960s and ‘70s — at a time when levels of certain cancer-causing chemicals were among the highest ever recorded in a public drinking water supply.
Federal health investigators have been studying the effects of those chemicals for two decades now. After numerous fits and starts, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hopes to issue a long-delayed study on birth defects and childhood cancers later this spring.
In mid-January, Blakely traveled to the agency’s Atlanta headquarters, where she handed over two plastic tubs containing 2,500 death certificates.
It may be impossible to know how many — if any — of those deaths were due to the poison in Lejeune’s water. But Blakely wanted to make sure that the occupants of this and other babylands would not be forgotten.
“Most of them would have grown up and become Marines,” Blakely told the health officials gathered there, her voice trembling with emotion. “All we want is the truth.”
Blakely was 6 in 1969 when her dad, Master Gunnery Sgt. James Joseph Leake, was stationed “aboard” Camp Lejeune the first time, following a deployment to Germany and Turkey, and a tour in South Vietnam. For the next two years, she and her three siblings lived in a duplex in Berkeley Manor on Arkansas Street, just across Holcomb Boulevard from the golf course.
“That was the first, like, American town that we ever lived in,” says Blakely.
For the next few years, the family moved around as Leake’s intelligence and code-breaking duties took him to Massachusetts, Hawaii and back to South Vietnam. After a final three-year deployment to Japan, the family returned to Lejeune in 1976 and bought a house off base.
In 1996, Blakely’s mother, Mary, died of brain cancer. Blakely did not begin to suspect a connection to the base water until she went home to see her dad and visit her mom’s grave in the spring of 2011.
She had become Facebook friends with Jessica Ensminger, whose father, Jerry, had served as a drill sergeant at Lejeune. Jessica’s sister, Janey — the only one of the four Ensminger girls conceived, carried or born at the base — died of leukemia in 1985 at age 9.
The two women visited the “baby garden” at Jacksonville City Cemetery, across from the state veteran’s graveyard where Blakely’s mother was laid to rest. Ensminger said there might be more infant graves at Onslow Memorial Park.
Of the three dozen graves in “block A,” only two were marked. One, nearly swallowed in grass and weeds, appeared to be a temporary tin marker; the words “Baby Girl Ward” and a date (1950-something) were barely legible.
When Blakely attempted to clear the dirt from the fragile marker, it crumbled at her fingertips. Her emotions oscillated between sorrow and rage.
“Please, God,” she remembers praying silently. “If there is anything you would like me to do that might help them to not be forgotten, speak to my heart and I will do my best at whatever it is.”
That prayer led her to the Onslow County Register’s office.
Studies have linked the kinds of volatile organic compounds found at Lejeune to such birth defects and cancers as spina bifida, cleft lip and palate, anencephaly, childhood leukemia and childhood lymphoma. Blakely decided to make copies of every child and fetal death certificate she could find between the years 1950 and 1990 with a connection to the Marine base.
“What I was going to do with them, I didn’t know,” she says.
Many of the certificates listed the cause of death as unknown. Other records listed such conditions as anoxia, premature placental separation, prematurity and respiratory problems.
Most — like Baby Girl Ward, who was born May 30, 1955, at the U.S. Naval Hospital on base — had agonizingly short lives.
According to the death certificate, the girl — daughter of Maj. Charles C. Ward, who won the Silver Star for rescuing a downed pilot during the Korean War’s vicious Chosin Reservoir campaign, and his wife, Margaret — was premature, and suffered from congenital heart disease and a “horseshoe” kidney — a condition in which the kidneys are fused. She lived only 15½ hours; the official cause of death was cerebral anoxia.
Blakely’s father died on Jan. 5, 2012, eight months after being diagnosed with Agent Orange-related lung cancer. In a posting to a Lejuene survivor website a week later, she said his cancer had spread “as if it had been fertilized by Miracle Grow.”
“I am convinced that fertilizer was the water at Lejeune,” she wrote.
Although the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been studying the Lejeune case since 1993, it has yet to publish definitive results that would settle the debate over the effects on human health.
Since at least 2000, the agency has collected more than 12,600 health surveys of children born to mothers who were pregnant between the years 1968 and 1985. Scientists confirmed they had found 103 cases of childhood cancers and birth defects potentially linked to the water at Lejeune.
In 2011, Jerry Ensminger nominated Blakely to the community assistance panel set up by the CDC investigators to keep families abreast of Lejeune developments. When the group met on Jan. 17, she was there.
Blakely told the panel that she dropped out of school her junior year. Many years later, she discovered that she had a learning disability — and she can’t help wondering if it had anything to do with the water.
Then she handed over the grim fruits of her labor. All of the death certificates were for children with some connection to the base; none was over the age of 4.
Frank Bove, a senior epidemiologist, accepted Blakely’s death certificates and had his staff enter the data into a spread sheet. Spokeswoman Bernadette Burden says the agency is not conducting a study on infant deaths, but will keep the digital information “should we have a need for it in the future.”
Standing in Babyland recently, Blakely was once again overwhelmed with emotion.
“It’s wrong that they’re over here!” she shouted over the din of passing traffic. “They should be over THERE, with headstones.”
Blakely says she’s not interested in money or even revenge. She wants those babies and all the others who may have been affected by this poisoning to be treated with dignity.
“I don’t want the Marine Corps to be destroyed,” she says. “I just want them to be Marines. And Marines are honorable.” --
AP newsman Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C., also contributed to this story.
A crumbling tin plaque marks the grave of an infant buried during the 1950s in the “Babyland” section of Onslow Memorial Park in Jacksonville, N.C. Mary Blakely, a Marine’s daughter, has scoured this and other cemeteries for the names of children who may have died because of contaminated water at nearby Camp Lejeune.×
This undated photo provided by Mary Blakely shows her as a child with her mother, Mary, and her father, James Leake, background, in Germany while he was stationed at Bremihaven just prior to leaving for Camp Lejeune.×
A certificate of fetal death sits atop a file box in the trunk of Mary Blakely’s van parked at a cemetery in Jacksonville, N.C.×
Entries for nameless infants cover the “babyland” page of a burial register at Onslow Memorial Park in Jacksonville, N.C. Many of these were the children of Marines stationed at nearby Camp Lejeune, site of one of the worst cases of drinking water contamination in U.S. history.×