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Activists Seeking to Spur Legislation With ‘Semper Fi’

Jerry Ensminger never wanted to be an activist. He wanted to serve his country as a drill sergeant for the Marine Corps and to be a good father.

But when his daughter, Janey, died from leukemia at age 9, he began to search for answers.

“I can assure you that there’s many other things I’d rather be doing than fighting with the Department of the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps,” he said. “But whether I like it or not, it’s for [Janey’s] legacy and the welfare of everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Janey Ensminger was one of the many family members of military personnel who came into contact with toxins while living at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina.

She is the namesake of the Janey Ensminger Act to Care for Camp Lejeune Families, introduced last month by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.).

And her father’s work to gain restitution for those who cooked, bathed in and drank contaminated water at the base is the subject of the documentary “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” which will be screened June 23 at the Capitol Visitor Center.

“Semper Fi” follows Ensminger’s story as he finds scientific evidence behind the contamination at Camp Lejeune and begins fighting for restitution for the victims.

It includes footage of Miller and Dingell, as well as Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), all of whom will be hosting the screening. 

Though it’s not too often that Members of Congress are involved in documentaries, Miller said the experience was, for him, just like any other interview.

“I do interviews all the time,” he said, adding that the documentary showcased less of him and more of the personal stories of Ensminger and others affected by Camp Lejeune. “I don’t think [my office and I] provided any kind of extraordinary help.”

But director Rachel Libert said working with lawmakers and the government provided her with challenges she hadn’t met in her previous documentary work.

“It required learning the ropes a little bit, learning who to talk to and how to gain access and, just frankly, staying in touch with these offices so they would keep me apprised” of legislative developments, she explained.

After four years of filming, Libert said she had learned the ins and outs of working with government, but interviewing Members of Congress always required more preparation than usual.

“They require a lot of homework and knowing what you’re talking about,” Libert said. “You have to make sure you’re going in with a very solid understanding of the subject and also an understanding of the politics behind the issue and where different people stand.”

Libert had to be prepared with background knowledge because the legislators involved with this issue all support restitution for the families housed at Camp Lejeune. Dingell said he sees the lack of action on the part of the government as a serious oversight.

“It’s a very serious problem. The military takes upon themselves enough risks, of getting shot at by al-Qaida or the Korean communists or Vietcong or people like that,” he said. “We put them on a base and tell them that they’re going to be reasonably safe and their families are going to be safe while they’re on that base.”

Hagan said she hopes her husband, a Navy veteran, sees the documentary as a new look at an issue that still isn’t well-known.

“I think that it will certainly offer a vivid description of what took place at Camp Lejeune and help many people understand” what happened there, she said.

In addition to informing other Members of Congress and their staffers, Miller said he hopes the documentary will spur support for two bills on the issue that are pending in the House and Senate.

“It will call to the attention of Members and staff … the whole history of the water and the effort to get accurate information about what really happened, and obviously to create a sense that justice requires that we compensate the people who were harmed by the water,” he said.

But Ensminger said he feels that the documentary is not just for Congressional eyes.

“It has the potential to affect anybody and everybody that watches it,” he said.

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