FWD: 'Semper Fi' tells of two Marines' final, emotional fight
Jun 23, 2011 16:21 PDT
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From: "George Bitsoli" <GBitemail@example.com>
Date: Thu, 23 Jun 2011 07:16:03 -0700
'Semper Fi' tells of two Marines' final, emotional fight
BY BARBARA BARRETT - Washington correspondent
Tags: national | news | politics | state
WASHINGTON -- Thirty minutes into a new documentary film about one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, a male breast cancer survivor describes the faith that exists among veterans of Camp Lejeune that justice will be done.
"As word of this gets out, our weakness becomes our strength," Mike Partain says in the film. "We're in every town across America. We're in every town, in every city and every state. And every one of us has a congressman and a senator."
"Semper Fi: Always Faithful" illustrates the overwhelming odds in fighting the Defense Department, Congress and powerful special interests over the historic water contamination at the Marine base near Jacksonville. The two men at the film's center, Partain and veteran Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, remain skeptical of the powerful operators inside the Beltway.
But not so cynical that they don't see some hope.
"You can help," Ensminger, of White Lake, tells one group of veterans. "Write a letter to your member of Congress."
The film will be shown tonight on Capitol Hill as three North Carolina lawmakers host a screening in the hope of swaying their peers to pass legislation to help victims of the contamination. U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan and U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina, along with U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, plan the screening.
All have sponsored legislation that would provide health care to any Camp Lejeune veteran or family member with illnesses related to the contamination. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week.
Filmmakers Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon met Ensminger in June 2007 and trailed him to a hearing on Capitol Hill. That would become the opening sequence of the 70-minute film.
Throughout, they followed Ensminger as a central character who is relentless in his journey to force the Marine Corps to atone for the death of his daughter.
"We knew we had a powerful voice," Hardmon said in an interview Tuesday. "We didn't know where the story was going to end, but we had a beginning."
The story took four years and 400 hours of filming, and became one of how everyday Americans can fight the forces in Washington that were, advocates believe, covering up one of the nation's worst cases of environmental contamination.
"We weren't dumping toxic chemicals into the ground," a Marine official says in one TV news clip in the film.
Yet it's estimated that up to a million people were exposed to toxic chemicals in the water at the base from 1957 to 1987. Thousands of records, many uncovered by Ensminger and Partain, show the extent of the contamination and how the military was warned of the danger years before it closed poisoned water wells.
Libert said this week that she wanted a broad story about the regulation of toxic chemicals and the Defense Department's role as the nation's largest polluter.
The news that Ensminger's young daughter, Janey, dies of childhood leukemia in 1985 comes in the first moments of the film. Ensminger then sets up the central question of the movie:
"My reaction was to question it. Why?" Ensminger says in the film. "And that nagging question of why stayed with me through her illness, through her death and for 14 and a half years. That's something that doesn't just go away."
What happens next is his quest, eventually joined by male breast cancer survivor Mike Partain of Tallahassee, Fla., to find answers. The journey takes them to conference rooms, hearing rooms, boardrooms and living rooms on Capitol Hill, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in homes from Idaho to Texas.
Their goal was to force the Marines to notify every veteran who was on base during the time of the contamination. Later, they would seek health care for ill veterans and their families. And they would unearth documents with explosive information that the water was laced with a known carcinogen, benzene, from millions of glass of spilled fuel.
"The main thing is, don't let this issue die," Ensminger says in the film.
Among the film's most emotional scenes comes is a meeting in Jacksonville, outside Camp Lejeune, with the National Academy of Sciences. There, graying veterans and former base civilian workers - mothers and fathers - stand before a microphone to catalog cancer after cancer, recalling dead spouses, dead children and their own illnesses.
A woman opens a small box and pulls out a tiny blue romper still stained with vomit that belonged to her baby.
"This is the suit he was wearing the day he died in my arms," she tells the scientists. "We are not numbers in a study. We are human beings that have had great tragedies."
The film also shows how Ensminger has ingratiated himself onto Capitol Hill. In 2007, he's shaking the hand of Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, and asking, "Do you remember me?"
Three years later, Burr is giving him a hug at an emotional press conference.
The film ends with that news conference, in February 2010, and the introduction of the Janey Ensminger Act, a bill named in honor of his 9-year-old daughter.
Libert said she chose that ending to show some progress in Ensminger's ongoing quest.
But much more has happened since.
And just this week, federal scientists will begin mailing letters to 300,000 people for a national survey comparing the health of veterans of Camp Lejeune to those of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Scientists hope the survey results will offer a comparison so they can understand the impacts of the water contamination.
The letters are being sent by order of Congress - a direct result of Ensminger's fight.
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