[24 August 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
When we began making the film we were somewhat cynical about how much one man could achieve when fighting the U.S. government. Jerry and his team have dispelled any doubts that we had.
“In 1997, I was fixing a plate of food in the kitchen,” says Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, “Getting ready for the evening news.” What he heard on the TV changed everything: a scientific report linked birth defects and childhood cancers to water contamination at Camp Lejeune, where he and his family had lived. “I dropped my plate, right there. I mean, it was like God was saying to me, ‘Here is a glimmer of hope, that you will find your answer.’”
Ensminger’s question concerned the death of his nine-year-old daughter, Janey, some 14 years earlier. She’d had leukemia, and throughout her illness and after her passing, he wondered why. “That’s the kind of question that doesn’t go away,” he says. And he’s the kind of person, you come to see in Semper Fi: Always Faithful, who takes the Marine Corps’ credo utterly seriously. He assumed the military would want to look after its own people, but instead he runs into one roadblock after another, as he tries to learn how that contamination entered the water supply at Camp Lejeune—and also, how it the water remained contaminated from 1957 through 1987.
As Ensimnger and Major Tom Townsend (who lost his six-week-old son to a heart defect while he lived at Lejeune) investigate, the film shows Tom’s book-lined office in Idaho, shots of U.S. flags, photos of soldiers, and a bumper sticker (“One a Marine, Always a Marine”), emblems of their lifelong commitments that also hint at how disappointed they will be. When the Marine Corps accidentally posts a collection of documents on line that reveal it had improperly disposed of toxic cleaning solvents—and knew it was doing so—Townsend and Ensminger spend long hours on their dialup connection downloading. But, Ensminger says, the evidence hardly moves the powers that be to take responsibility. “You name it, they committed it: stonewall, incorrect information” he says. “I started to slowly realize that these people were not going to do right by their people they were going to have to be forced to do it. And that burden fell on me.”
Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon’s film—opening as part of DocuWeeks at New York’s IFC Center on 26 August and in LA 2 September—follows Ensminger and Townsend as they put together their case, along with two other victims and activists, Mike Partain, who was born at Lejeune and diagnosed with male breast cancer in 2007, and Denita McCall, once stationed at Lejeune and then diagnosed with aplastic anemia and parathyroid cancer.
In her first scene in the film, McCall sits at her kitchen table to read a letter describing her condition. “This stuff happens fast,” she says. “Lots of people are given a really bad prognosis and told that they’re going to die and that there’s no chance,” she goes on, “I just can’t believe that, Rachel. I refuse to believe that there’s no chance.” It’s an unsettling moment in a film that’s full of them, for as McCall explicitly addresses her interviewer, she’s speaking to you as well, breaking through the usual distance you assume between yourself and a documentary’s talking head.
The film’s appeal is much like the strategy devised by Ensminger and his fellows, as they come up against numerous and sadly predictable obstacles. A Congressional committee holds a hearing, Ensminger testifies, and then, nothing. (As he puts it, “They held the hearing, they got great accolades for it, and then they just dropped the ball.”) The group members bring their own skills and energies to the mission: Townsend doesn’t like to travel, but researches tirelessly, while Partain, an insurance adjuster, knows how to dig into files for pertinent information. Jerry Ensminger is a charismatic speaker and dedicated to the cause; his two adult daughters lament that he’s been so “overly consumed with this, this is his life,” but also understand that he means to do right by Janey, and also to help those other victims who don’t know they are victims.
When the Marine Corps (embodied here by several officers who talk around the issue and especially, a Marine Corps representative named Kelly Dreyer) indicate that “It would be a very difficult and laborious task” to contact all people who might have been contaminated at Lejeune (and, it turns out, other bases as well), the former Marines and Partain, the son of a Marine, undertake to “look after their own,” themselves, “You don’t quit, you just keep going,” Ensminger asserts after yet another bureaucratic setback. “And I’ll go kick some damn doors down tomorrow.”
This door-kicking involves media appearances as well as visits with veterans’ groups. When Partain’s wife admits that she’s not inclined to “make a big scene,” the camera pans directly to Mike, seated beside her: “I’m totally opposite of that,” he says. The movie shows him and Ensminger addressing one meeting after another, as Partain explains that the afflicted population’s “weakness,” that they are spread all over the country now, rather than consolidated like the people at Love Canal, soon becomes their strength. “As word of this gets out,” he says, they will be able to pressure hundreds of congressmen and senators, “because we’re in every town in America.”
As the film follows their travels, it also advocates for their cause. Given the passion that Ensminger and others bring to the story, Semper Fi mostly needs to observe, though occasional images or empty swings in a back yard or Jerry traipsing through the woods with his hunting rifle (“I come up here to get away from the daily stress”) help to underline its poignancy and also, their perseverance. It’s not startling, anymore, to hear that a bureaucracy is refusing to take responsibility for damage it’s done. But it is still heartening to see the commitment of those fighting. As McCall puts it, “To a point, it’s the Marine Corps’ fault that Jerry and Tom and I and the rest of us veterans are fighting so hard. They trained us to be this way.”