Serendipity is often the starting point for documentary films and this was certainly the case with my film Semper Fi: Always Faithful. Nearly four years ago, my Co-Director Tony Hardmon and I were researching a documentary film about an innovative public health program when we met the sister of a man named Jerry Ensminger. She told us that her brother was in the process of exposing water contamination at a Marine Corps Base and she was looking for filmmakers to document it. We were skeptical but she laid out this incredible story of intrigue, heartbreak and betrayal. It piqued our interest enough that we showed up in Washington, DC two weeks later and met a gruff retired Marine on the mission of his life.
Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger was a devoted Marine for nearly 25 years. As a drill instructor he lived and breathed the "Corps" and was responsible for indoctrinating thousands of new recruits. Jerry moved to North Carolina's Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in 1975 when his wife was pregnant with their second child Janey. When Janey was six years old she was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia. Despite countless excruciating medical procedures and a tireless desire to live, Janey succumbed to her disease when she was only nine years old. Jerry's world collapsed and he was left with the nagging question "why?" He began a relentless search for answers in 1997 upon hearing a local news story on the issue, which led to the discovery of one of the largest water contamination incidents in U.S. history.
The drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune had been highly contaminated by carcinogenic chemicals for nearly thirty years. It's estimated that nearly a million Marines and their families drank, bathed and cooked with this water between 1957 and 1987.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful follows Jerry as he fights for justice on behalf of the Marines and their families exposed to these deadly toxins. In the process, we also witness this dutiful soldier transform himself into the activist he never imagined he'd become. We felt that this was a unique opportunity to tell the story of an environmental disaster from a very personal perspective.
When we first learned about the situation at Camp Lejeune, we were surprised that the water was contaminated for such a long period of time and that the Marine Corps hadn't notified former residents of their exposure to carcinogenic toxins until 2008. When we dug deeper and learned that the United States Department of Defense is our nation's largest polluter, we knew that this was an important story with far-reaching repercussions.
This issue does not just affect military personnel and their families. At the same time that we were documenting Jerry's efforts to raise awareness about Camp Lejeune, the Department of Defense was fighting for exemptions from environmental laws and battling with regulators over the safe standards for some of the most common contaminants found in this country. There are over 130 military sites on the EPA's National Priorities List for clean-up. At some of these sites, toxins have spread from the military base into neighboring civilian communities.
While making the film, I began to see that the Department of Defense is behaving the way that most polluters behave. They often bury their head in the sand and hope that no harm comes from what they've done. I think the difference here is that we expect more from our government than from private industry.
In many ways, the story of Semper Fi: Always Faithful is a classic David and Goliath tale and it was this conflict and heroism that initially attracted us. 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. We hope the film illustrates that social change is possible especially when undertaken by relentless and determined individuals.
(Semper Fi: Always Faithful premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on Thursday April 21, 2011 and will screen three additional times during the festival.)