Ten years ago I wrote about the disastrous groundwater contamination at Camp Lejeune, the vast Marine Corps base in North Carolina. That story in The VVAVeteran was one of the earliest looks at what has since been acknowledged as the most extensive water pollution disaster in U.S. history.
The powerful documentary film Semper Fi , originally released in 2011, examines that shameful episode with a spirit that is at once cynical and hopeful. This combination is hard to do well in any medium, but it works to potent effect in this film. For anyone who wants to understand the human cost of Lejeune’s unchecked poisoning of its own water supply, this film is a must-see.
Over a 40-year period (1957-87) as many as a million people at Lejeune–-–marines, their families, and civilian employees–-–drank and bathed in tap water tainted with dangerously elevated levels of toxic chemicals. This contamination resulted in epidemic levels of catastrophic human illness, including cancers, miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects. The water’s dangers were well known to the chain of command, including a series of base commandants, all of whom took little or no action, or mired those actions in endless loops of military red tape.
It took years of grassroots battles and lengthy federal inquiries before Congress passed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act in August 2012, assuring medical care to those injured by exposure to Camp Lejeune’s water.
Many people were involved in the long journey from cover-up to the signing of that bill, but one man in particular, retired Marine staff sergeant Jerry Ensminger, is at the center of the effort. His motivation is profound: one of Lejeune’s victims was his own daughter, Janey, dead at age 9 from leukemia, one of the illnesses now acknowledged to be a result of Lejeune’s bad water.
One in ten Americans lives within ten miles of a contaminated military site, and there are more than 130 environmentally contaminated military sites in the United States, making the Department of Defense the nation’s largest polluter. The sad tale of Camp Lejeune is not an outlyer or a tragic single event–-–it’s simply one of many military environmental debacles, most of which are stories yet untold.
S emper Fi is a memorable documentary of importance to veterans in general, and particularly to USMC vets and families who lived and served at Lejeune in those toxic years between 1957-87.
Semper Fi is available from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and SundanceNow. The film’s web site is www.semperfialwaysfaithful.com