Semper Fi: Always Faithful
11/9, 6 p.m. • Cape Fear River Watch, 617 Surry Street
11/12, 4 p.m. • Thalian Black Box
310 Chestnut St. • $10
11/13, 3 p.m. • Northside High School
Auditorium, Jacksonville • Free
The United States military is, in its nature, inherently toxic. Consider the millions of gallons of fuel and cleaning solvents used daily, or smoke admissions from base electric plants—the gas, oil and toxins that go into weaponry. They are all a necessary evil that keeps our military functioning. However, the issue is not that these hazardous materials are used, rather how our military stores and disposes of them. Its recently come under fire, and for Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, a hard-core motivated soldier for nearly 25 years, the fact that these elements existed right under his feet and affected his family was a line that never should have been crossed.
A drill instructor trained in making boys into responsible, strong men, MSgt. Ensminger lived by the Marine Corps motto: Semper Fidelis or “Always Faithful.” He bled green in every sense of the word, but when Jerry’s 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of a rare type of leukemia, his world turned black and seemed faithless. For years he grappled with her death and tried to make sense of it all, often hunkering down in the mire of questions like, “How and why did it happen?” The answers led to a shocking discovery: a Marine Corps cover-up known as of one of the largest water contamination incidents in U.S. history. The drinking water at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base was highly toxic from dumping chemicals in it for nearly 30 years. In its wake, an estimated one million Marines and their families were exposed to astonishing levels of pollutants through the water.
Now, 22 years later, only a fraction of former residents know about their exposure to the toxins. In a cowardly act of injustice, the Marine Corps never made the issue public after closing the toxic wells. Thanks to directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon in their award winning documentary, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” residents (civilians and enlisted alike) are free from the illusion.
“I’m not a naïve person, but in making this film I began to feel naïve,” Libert reveals. “The government doesn’t always make the right decisions; we know this. But I honestly believed, at the end of the day, the agencies looking out for us were doing their jobs. And then I realized they weren’t. It was an eye-opening and disheartening experience, and a perspective shift for me.”
From a personal place, Libert reveals how making the film was hard to process as everything she and Hardmon had been exposed to was emotional, challenging and all-encompassing. In the end, it strengthened their resolve to tell an important story.
A David and Goliath tale of one marine taking on the formidable foe—in this case the Department of Defense—“Semper Fi” exposes itself much in the same way as an investigator would disentangle a crime. MSgt. Ensminger seeks justice for the subsequent cover-up, and as the heart-wrenching and infuriating betrayal of countless service members and their families (many of whom have also lost children or are also sick themselves) unfolds, viewers witness a second discovery: the appalling environmental record of the military, not just the Marine Corps. It begs the question: What’s being done about the environmental conditions at other bases across the country?
“There are over 130 bases on the EPA national priority list,” Libert says. “This issue doesn’t just affect Camp Lejeune. Camp Lejeune is just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s about so much more than activism. As Jerry said to me, ‘I’m not an activist, I’m a father who watched his child go through hell, and I’m a marine.’ What I’m stressing to folks is, this is an educational film that goes beyond politics.”
Justly an appropriate and sobering story of disloyalty, coping with disillusionment, transformation and deceit toward not just the Marines and their families at Camp Lejeune, but of service members nationwide, “Semper Fi” aims to shed more light on a situation not understood in its complexity. It is at its heart an important environmental story told from a unique perspective through a very personal lens. Most importantly, the film is a war cry for action, change and challenges to the Department of Defense’s idea of what it truly means to be always faithful.
“We really are extremely excited to be screening in Wilmington and in Jacksonville,” Libert says. “We feel like we’re bringing the film home, and I’m eager to see how people respond. This is an issue that affects all our lives and everyone should be in the conversation.”
“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” will screen Saturday, November 12th at 4 p.m. at Cucalorus, as well as on November 9th at Cape Fear River Watch’s headquarters, 617 Surry Street, downtown Wilmington. MSgt. Ensminger will be present at the Cucalorus screening with the directors for an extended discussion. Also, on Sunday, November 13th at 3 p.m. at the Northside High School Auditorium, 365 Commons Drive South, it will show in Jacksonville for free.