HIFF Review: ‘Semper Fi: Always Faithful’

Oct. 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

Retired Marine staff sergeant Jerry Esnminger leads an investigation into polluted water at Camp Lejeune in "Semper Fi: Always Faithful." (Courtesy HIFF)

REVIEW BY BURL BURLINGAME / bburlingame@staradvertiser.com

The United States Marine Corps is a service branch unlike any of the others. Every Marine — and there are no “former” Marines — is rated a riflemen, the basic unit of military service and pride, and that includes cooks and generals, top and bottom of the ranks. The usual class distinctions generally don’t apply. Marines are focussed on getting the job done with a minimum of nonsense, and they do so with the tremendous loyalty to each other that is characterized by their “Semper Fidelis” motto.

‘Semper Fi: Always Faithful’

HIFF Gala Presentation

Hawaii Premiere

Screens at 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 and 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19

That loyalty, mind you, is supposed to go down as well as up. And so it was disturbing to retired Marine drill sergeant Jerry Ensminger that when he discovered his nine-year-old daughter may have been poisoned by polluted drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that Marine authorities didn’t care to investigate. His daughter died, and an ad hoc investigation by Ensminger discovered dozens — maybe hundreds — of child deaths at the base, as well as incredibly large clusters of rare cancers among Marine and dependent adults once stationed at Lejeune.

Ensminger hooks up with Michael Partain, a 30s-something insurance adjuster who was born at Lejeune and who suffers from breast cancer. Together, they form an interesting partnership, digging out, piece by piece, information about the Marine base’s poisoned drinking water. It turns out that the wells were poisoned in the 1950s and were not shut down until the late 1980s, and only after repeated requests by environmental testers.

We’re not talking about trace elements here. In one well, more than a million gallons of gasoline and petrochemical brews like benzene were absorbed, to the point where base firefighters, turning on their hoses, had to wait for explosive gas fumes to dissipate. This is the same water mothers were washing their babies in.

Eventually, there are hearings, and Marine Corps representatives refuse to contact former Lejeune personnel to inform them that they might have a health risk. Doing so is “too difficult” say the generals. Lobbyists for the toxic chemical companies, whose products have leached into the Lejeune water table, staunchly defend themselves. Both bureaucracies, corporate and military, oppose studies.

“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” carefully follows the conduct of this case, which is largely unknown by the general public. It is superbly constructed without being preachy. One problem is that this is an ongoing situation, and negotiations are continuing. (As of this writing, House members say that surveying and providing health care to service personnel and dependents poisoned by Camp Lejeune water can only be accomplished by denying basic services to all other military personnel.)

The central irony here is pointed out by retired Marine Denita McCall, who says that if Ensminger and others weren’t Marines, they would have given up long ago. McCall herself died before this documentary film was completed, of mysterious cancers contracted at Camp Lejeune.
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