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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Sep. 1, 2011 | 2:25 PM

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When former Marine Jerry Ensminger first appeared before congress to testify about the consequences of decades of poisoned drinking water at the US Marine Corp base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the subject of the hearing was “Poisoned Patriots.”  Directors Rachel Libert & Tony Hardmon could have easily appropriated that title for their disquieting documentary about toxic chemicals at American military bases.  Instead, in focusing on Ensminger’s tireless quest to get the Marine core to admit culpability, they chose the more evocative Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which also happens to be the U.S. Marine corps motto. In a quest that has so far spanned decades, Ensminger appears to have lived by this motto his whole life.  Libert and Hardmon show his dogged attempts to get the Marines to do the same.

The last few years have brought us a glut of activist documentaries from all sides of the political spectrum.  Advocating for social change, the danger of such films is that they tend to attract viewers who already agree with their viewpoint.  The goal is to raise awareness, with the hope that awareness may lead to action.  Having a subject as determined as Ensminger certainly helps, but what really sets Semper Fi apart is the sheer magnitude of the injustice committed and the vast cross section of people affected.

Camp LeJeune is the largest military base on the East Coast.  Ensminger was stationed there as a Marine instructor throughout the 70’s, during which time he married and started a family.  When his daughter Janey was diagnosed with leukemia, like most parents he placed his focus on getting her the best possible care.  After her death at age 9 in 1983, he began to question the causes.  A TV news report that Ensminger happened to catch about possible pollution of the water supply at Camp Lejeune was a revelation that he might in fact be able to determine what caused Janey’s illness.

The facts unearthed by Ensminger and Mike Partain, who was born at the camp in 1968,  are shocking.  In the most extreme and widespread example of water contamination in U.S. history, the drinking water at Camp LeJeune was highly toxic for close to 30 years, with close to a million Marines and their families affected.  Ensminger lost his daughter to leukemia, and some of the other victims revealed in the film almost make him appear to be one of the lucky ones.  Partain was stricken with male breast cancer, which is extremely rare, and discovered dozens of other men who had also developed the disease.  Worse, cancer growth accelerates most rapidly in children, and many of the victims of the water at the camp were infants.

While the film focuses primarily on Ensminger and his quest to discover what went wrong at Camp LeJeune, Semper Fi also reveals that the contamination there was far from an isolated incident.  As the word gets out about what happened at Camp LeJeune, Ensminger finds that he’s opened up a kind of toxic Pandora’s box, with similar stories filtering in from bases across the country. 

Semper Fi offers little sympathy for the inevitable Marine Corps stonewalling and denials of wrongdoing, even if some doubt remains as to how long they knew about the water contamination before taking action to stop it.  Other corporate interests also rear their heads in the film to prevent the story from being told.  Labeling chemicals like Benzene as carcinogenic can reduce corporate profits due to increased regulation, so studies are commissioned to discredit any science which makes such a claim. If Benzene doesn’t “officially” cause cancer, the Marine Corp doesn’t have to remove it from the water, and the cycle continues.  That Ensminger manages to make any progress at all is a testament to his determination to speak truth to power.

Even at 76 minutes, Semper Fi is not an easy film to watch.  Ensminger’s still seems to be picking up the pieces from losing his daughter decades later, and other parents from Camp LeJeune reveal their own tragic tales of loss.  But the way that these former marines rally the troops offers hope that those who enlist to serve in the future won’t have to question their basic health and safety.

Semper Fi: Always Faithful opens Friday, September 2nd at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatre in West Hollywood.  The filmmakers will be present for audience discussion after the screenings on September 2nd, 3rd & 4th.  Visit for tickets and showtimes.

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