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Marine daughter seeks dignity for 'Devil Dog pups'

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 18, 2013 at 9:39 am •  Published: May 18, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) — 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."

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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."

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