by Dick Clapp, DSc, MPH
The documentary "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" was screened at the Congressional Auditorium in the Capitol Visitors Center on a hot, humid evening in Washington, DC on June 23. Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC) welcomed the audience of Congressional staff, North Carolina Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), and approximately 150 audience members and representatives from groups such as the Blue-Green Alliance, Environmental Working Group (EWG) and interested individuals.
Congressman Miller said he is approached by many groups seeking his help to move large bureaucracies or make changes in Federal law and he usually tells them the odds against them are too high. He said his experience with the Marines and family members in the film has made him change his mind. It's a compelling story that should get a wide audience.
The film, which won two awards at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC in April, 2011, chronicled the decades-long story of drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the largest Marine Base on the East Coast. The film-makers chronicled the journey of discovery led by Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, one of whose daughters was conceived and born while the family was living in base housing at Camp Lejeune. The film details her diagnosis with leukemia and her harrowing treatment until she died at age nine. In describing this on camera for the film-makers, Jerry said
"now you understand my motivation."
Another Marine, and daughter of a Marine, Denita McCall talked about the many cases of cancer and other serious health problems she became aware of while going through her own treatment for cancer. She challenged the Department of Navy and the Marine staff to provide some truth and some hope for these people. In a poignant moment, after some heated exchanges between her and other Marines who were demanding that the Department of the Navy be more honest, Denita said
"the Marines made us. We were trained to be like this."
The Marine slogan Semper Fi and the phrase "we take care of our own" were repeated throughout the film, sometimes ironically when it seemed that the brass wasn't living up to the slogan. Marine family member Mike Partain described his diagnosis with male breast cancer at age 39, for which he had no explanation until he learned about the drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune. He explained on camera to epidemiologist Dr. Devra Davis how he was born, breast-fed and bottle-fed as an infant while his father was stationed at Camp Lejeune. Mike then started collecting information about other cases of male breast cancer in Marines and other family members who were exposed to the chemical solvents in their drinking water. In the film, Mike had compiled information on nearly sixty such cases, some of whom agreed to be photographed in a calendar produced by Art beCAUSE. This large number of cases of a rare cancer is one of the most compelling pieces of the story that may add to the scientific understanding of environmental exposures and breast cancer, in both men and women.
The film ends with the legislative process that is currently underway to compensate Camp Lejeune Marines, sailors and family members who have been diagnosed with a list of diseases. The contaminants of most concern are trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene and benzene and there is a large literature about their human health effects. The current Senate bill (S. 277) is sponsored by North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan and is called the "Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011." If this legislation makes it through the 112th Congress, it will be a fitting conclusion to the remarkable journey documented in the film.
After the film screening ended, the audience gave a standing ovation for Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain, both of whom joined in a question and answer period. Jerry said he was proud of his two North Carolina Senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan and Congressman Brad Miller and their staffs. He said that compensating Camp Lejeune veterans and their families is not a partisan issue. He also praised long-term Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) one of the supporters of the Janey Ensminger Act in the 2010 session, and urged full funding and staffing of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that is carrying out health studies. Jerry said his main goal in the work he has done is to prevent anyone else going through what he and his fellow Marines have gone through.
One of the questions from the audience was from Charlotte Brody, Director Chemicals, Public Health and Green Chemistry of the Blue-Green Alliance. She asked "how much would this compensation Act cost?" Congressman Miller responded that he couldn't really estimate the amount at this point, but it was not large in comparison to many other military budget items. He noted that the present Congress is consumed with dealing with the Federal budget, so he couldn't predict how long it would take to pass the bill. In a conversation after the question period, one EWG staff person recalled an estimate of $3 billion over a ten-year period, but this has apparently not been stated publicly. Compared to the military budget over the next ten years, this amount is equivalent to a rounding error.
The film's co-director Rachel Libert responded to a questioner who asked what her goal was in creating the documentary. She said she wanted to tell a compelling story about the Camp Lejeune issues and built it around Jerry and Mike's campaign over the past four years. She and her colleague Tony Hardmon, have succeeded admirably in meeting this goal. She also expressed her hope that it would be an inspiration to other communities around the many dozens of military toxics sites in the U.S. and help in bringing just compensation to Camp Lejeune Marines and their families. May it be so.
Dick Clapp is an epidemiologist who has forty years experience in public health practice, research and teaching. He is Professor Emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor at the U. of Mass.- Lowell School of Health and Environment. He is a former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and served as Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980-1989.