WASHINGTON — Thirty minutes into a new documentary film about one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, a male breast cancer survivor describes the faith that exists among veterans of Camp Lejeune that justice will be done.
"We're in every town across America," Mike Partain says in the film. "We're in every town, in every city and every state. And every one of us has a congressman and a senator."
"Semper Fi: Always Faithful" illustrates the overwhelming odds in fighting the Defense Department, Congress and powerful special interests over the historic water contamination at the North Carolina Marine base. The two men at the film's center, Partain and veteran Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, remain skeptical of the powerful operators inside the Beltway.
But not so cynical that they don't see some hope.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"You can help," Ensminger, of White Lake, N.C., tells one group of veterans in the film. "Write a letter to your member of Congress."
The film will be shown Thursday night on Capitol Hill as lawmakers host a screening in hopes of swaying their peers to pass legislation to help victims of the contamination.
Bills filed in the House of Representatives and Senate would provide health care to any Camp Lejeune veteran or family member with illnesses related to the contamination. A vote on the Senate bill is expected in the Veterans Affairs Committee next week.
Filmmakers Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon met Ensminger in 2007, and trailed him to a hearing on Capitol Hill. That would become the opening sequence of the 70-minute film.
Throughout, they followed Ensminger as a central character who is relentless in his journey to force the Marine Corps to atone for the death of his daughter.
"We knew we had a powerful voice," Hardmon said.
The story took four years and became one of how everyday Americans can fight the forces in Washington that were, advocates believe, covering up one of the nation's worst cases of environmental contamination.
"We weren't dumping toxic chemicals into the ground," a Marine official says in one news clip in the film.
Yet it's estimated that as many as a million people were exposed to toxic chemicals in the base's water from 1957 to 1987. Thousands of records, many uncovered by Ensminger and Partain, show how the military was warned of the danger years before it shuttered poisoned wells.
Libert said this week that she wanted a broad story about the regulation of toxic chemicals and the Defense Department's role as the nation's largest polluter.
The news that Ensminger's young daughter, Janey, dies of childhood leukemia in 1985 comes in the film's first moments. Ensminger then sets up the central query of the movie:
"My reaction was to question it. Why?" Ensminger says in the film. "And that nagging question of why stayed with me through her illness, through her death and for 14 and a half years. That's something that doesn't just go away."
What happens next is his quest, eventually joined by male breast cancer survivor Mike Partain of Tallahassee, Fla., to find answers. The journey takes them to conference rooms, hearing rooms, boardrooms and living rooms on Capitol Hill, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in homes from Idaho to Texas.
Their goal was to force the Marines to notify every veteran who was on base during the time of the contamination. Later, they would seek out health care for the sick. And they would unearth documents with explosive information that the water was laced with a known carcinogen, benzene, from a million gallons of spilled fuel.
"The main thing is, don't let this issue die," Ensminger says in the film.
Among the film's most emotional scenes comes in a meeting in Jacksonville, N.C., outside Camp Lejeune, with the National Academy of Sciences. There, graying veterans and former base civilian workers — moms and dads — stand before a microphone to catalog cancer after cancer, recalling dead spouses and dead children.
A woman opens a small box and pulls out a tiny blue romper — still stained with vomit — that belonged to her baby.
"This is the suit he was wearing the day he died in my arms," she says.
The film ends with an emotional news conference in February 2010, and the introduction of the Janey Ensminger Act, a bill named after the 9-year-old child.
Libert said she chose that ending to show some progress in Ensminger's ongoing battle.
But much more has happened since.
And just this week, federal scientists will begin a national survey comparing the health of veterans of Camp Lejeune to those of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Scientists hope the results will offer a comparison so they can understand the impacts of the water contamination.
The letters are being sent by order of Congress — a direct result of Ensminger's fight.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington