“There are over 130 contaminated military sites in the United states. This makes the Department of Defense the nation’s largest polluter.”
These words stand as the most salient message of the documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful, a film that encompasses the worlds of environmental justice, the military, politics and science.
The protagonist of the narrative is Ret. Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger — a formidable presence. When framed against the backdrop of the United States Capitol, his physical demeanor telegraphs that he is a man to be reckoned with. For Ensminger, the narrative begins with his daughter, Janey, who died at the age of 9 from a rare form of childhood leukemia. Trying to understand the reason behind her illness is the subtext of Ensminger’s quest, as well as the connective tissue for the ensuing narrative about water contamination at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Ensminger’s relentless search for truth is driven by the need to get answers not only for himself, but also for the nearly one million people who were unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals at the base.
The backstory gets set in motion in 1941, when a fuel depot in operation at Camp Lejeune had leaks that were seeping into the ground — 1,500 feet from a drinking water supply well. The estimated start date of the water contamination was 1957, when other improperly disposed of solvents additionally entered the mix. In 1975, Ensminger was living at Camp Lejeune. His wife was pregnant with Janey. In 1983, his daughter received her diagnosis. Ironically, unbeknownst to Ensminger, between 1980-1984, the water was being tested at the base with results consistently finding contaminants and “health concerns.”
In 1985, the Commanding General at Camp Lejeune notified residents to conserve water because of well closures, but neglected to mention that 11 wells were closed due to contamination –referencing only “minute [traces] of several organic chemicals” present in the water. In actuality, the chemical levels were 20 to 280 times the safety standards of today. The last contaminated well was closed in 1987, without notification to any of the residents of Camp Lejeune, either past or present.
It wasn’t until 1997 that Ensminger had a clue about the situation. He heard a report on the local news about a “proposed health study on adults and babies” exposed to carcinogens in the water supply at Camp Lejeune. Then it all started to click.
When Ensminger found out that the Marines were not taking care of their own, he felt totally betrayed. Yet his close to 25 years of military service as a drill sergeant had comprehensively prepared him to become a forceful opponent to the Department of Defense (DOD). He applied the Marine mindset — “Don’t give up ground; No person left behind” — to the task at hand. It gave him the tenacity and grit to take his case all the way to the halls of Congress. The juxtaposition between hardnosed non-com and grieving parent presents Ensminger as a multidimensional anchor for the action around him. The film captures Ensminger’s righteous anger in a sequence when he visits a cemetery near Camp Lejeune, pointing out a series of headstones marking the graves of babies. Later, while detailing the pain his daughter endured from her illness, it comes as no surprise when he states emotionally, “You understand my resolve.”
Ensminger came to realize that he was dealing with a cover-up, and that the government regulations “were a burden that was unwelcome” by the DOD. An interaction between those who have been harmed and Marine Corps representatives is telling. “A very difficult and laborious task” is how the Marines qualify notifying those who have been impacted, adding feebly, “We could try.” One of the key characters fighting cancer, former Marine Denita McCall, is overwhelmed by frustration. She states, “If I die tomorrow, my family gets nothing.”
The movie, which began shooting in mid-2007 and wrapped at the end of 2010, is able to encapsulate Ensminger’s journey through the political maze. He graduates from consistently unreturned phone calls to finding support from Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). Miller has reintroduced the Janey Ensminger Act, which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to veterans and their families who have been impacted from their exposure to toxic water at Camp Lejeune. Burr has sponsored a bill in the Senate, the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011.
With approximately 1 in 10 Americans living within 10 miles of a contaminated military site, Ensminger comments, “Camp Lejeune is just the tip of the iceberg.” His verbal asides lend color and a down to earth voice amidst the technical jargon of science, military, and law material. A meeting at the National Academy of Sciences to review the classification of the chemical PCE, is an opportunity for Ensminger to weigh in on the testifying suits. “These people come flying in on jets… Why is the benefit of the doubt going to the chemicals?… It’s all about money.”
Semper Fi: Always Faithful had its world premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, and is rolling out in theaters on August 26. At a time when the Environmental Protection Agency is coming under attack for “over-regulation,” the film stands as a testimony to what happens when the public’s health is neither protected nor considered.
I spoke with Rachel Libert (who co-directed the film with Tony Hardmon), to discuss the political ramifications of the documentary, and her commitment to creating films that “raise awareness and effect social change.” Libert characterized the information they encountered as similar to “layers of an onion peeling away.” She never expected to learn how “broken” the public health and environment regulatory systems were. Libert expanded on the enforcement issues the EPA was having with the DOD, clarifying that as a government agency — the DOD has been able to circumvent standards that would be strictly applied to private companies.
As Libert explained it, Ensminger’s search for the truth rippled out into an examination beyond water contamination and illness. It entered the spheres of the clout of special interests and how to determine guidelines on regulating toxic chemicals. She said, “When you make a film like this, it doesn’t just exist in the entertainment world. Our first question was, ‘What can we do?’ Film is a very powerful tool to reach people you wouldn’t normally reach. It has the ability to do that. It’s a pathway to action.”
To that end, the film’s website has a “Take Action” link which encourages the public to write their representatives in support of the pending legislation. Community screenings have been set up across the country, and partnerships have been forged with environmental groups.
For Libert, the fact that the film could push forward an agenda was a “dream” for her as a filmmaker. It also left her with a new sense of optimism. Despite the fact she knew that Ensminger was a man of “relentless determination,” she was cynical about how much he could actually accomplish.
Liebert pointed to the ultimately “hopeful message” — Individuals can make a difference through the power of one.
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID