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Semper Fi: Always Faithful 2011

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon
Directed by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon
DVD , color, 88 min.

Jr. High - General Adult
Marine Corps, Water Contamination, Activism, Government Accountability, Environmental Studies, Health Sciences

Date Entered: 06/28/2012

ALA Notable: yes
Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

Semper fi. The motto and salutation proudly used among Marines to signify their loyalty to their country and their years in the service is used ironically as the title of this documentary. The shameful story that unfolds suggests those words represent little more than a marketing trope for the Marines.

The story centers on Camp LeJeune, the large Marine Corps Base in North Carolina where nearly a million men, women, and children lived or worked from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s and a place where the water systems were heavily contaminated with chemicals including cleaning agents, fuel, and other industrial liquids. During that period hundreds of thousands of people were drinking and bathing in the water on a daily basis. This exposure appears to have resulted in an extraordinarily high incidence of cancers and birth defects yet the Camp, the Department of Defense, and the federal government have avoided taking responsibility, concentrating first on covering up the problems and later creating a wall of bureaucracy to dissuade victims from seeking compensation.

The documentary is framed around the story of Jerry Esminger, a career marine who lost his daughter to cancer at age nine. Esminger pieced together what he believed to be the cause of his daughter’s illness and began to see a pattern with the stories of other cancer victims that pointed to Camp LeJeune. Since the mid-1990s he has worked tirelessly with a few others in working to locate anybody who lived at the base during the 30-year period the contaminated water systems were in operation and advocating for the government to provide healthcare to those who have been affected and for the Marines to make good on their motto.

It has been a David vs Goliath battle. The base has been reluctant to make a serious effort to contact past residents and the DOD has resisted providing medical coverage for the victims. Esminger and his group have also battled corporate interests, such as General Electric, that employ teams of lobbyists and lawyers to counter the claims that the chemicals present in the water, including Benzene and PCE, are human carcinogens.

The filmmakers’ capture many perspectives on the story though as one would expect predominantly from the perspective of those who have suffered. There are several moments where the viewer will gasp at the revelations such as when the Base firefighters mention frequently responding to calls about chemical fumes in buildings and that even opening fire hydrants would burp a wave of chemical vapor. Yet these men felt their career advancement opportunities depended on keeping quiet. Also interviewed is a water analyst whose report to the Marines about the contamination was allegedly ignored and most gut-wrenching are the many stories of children dying from cancers or serious birth defects.

As the documentary ends the bill named for Esminger’s daughter Janey appears to finally be getting traction in Congress. However as of this date, it still has not been signed into law.

The film is highly recommended and would be a good tool for discussions of government accountability, class discrimination, and human rights.