Several years ago, documentary filmmakers Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon were introduced to Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine master sergeant whose 9-year old daughter, Janey, had died of leukemia.
Ensminger discovered that the water at Camp Lejeune, where he had been living when his daughter was born, had been polluted for decades, and after retiring from the military, he had devoted his life to finding the cause of his daughter's illness.
Ensminger had also been working hard to get the Corps, which was stonewalling him, to accept responsibility for her death and a rash of other deaths and illnesses that seemed to be related to the pollution.
"I'm an Army brat, and I was captivated by Jerry," says Hardmon. "He was really compelling, and the idea of this cover-up really caught my attention."
"The thing that struck us is this story exists on two levels," adds Libert. "You have that one man making a difference, which is a universal thing. And when we began, this was a real under-reported story. We felt it was an important story that no one knew about."
The result, "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," a film tracking Ensminger's activism and the military's nonresponsiveness, debuted recently at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, and is seeking distribution.
Alternately harrowing and uplifting - some of the scenes in which former Lejeune residents discuss their horribly deformed and cancer-ridden children are heartbreaking in the extreme - the film is a tribute to Ensminger's relentless pursuit of the truth. At Tribeca, the film won best editing in the documentary category and came in second place for the audience award.
The drill instructor
"Jerry is just dogged and persistent," Hardmon says. "Once he got that bone in his mouth, he refused to let go. It's something about being a former drill instructor; he has that training to not give up."
The film makes it clear why he didn't. As many as 1 million Lejeune residents may have been exposed to improperly disposed-of toxic cleaning solvents and a 1.1-million-gallon benzene leak.
Rare cancers detected
More than 60 men suffered from rare male breast cancer, the largest cancer cluster of its type ever recorded. And that was just from one site - there are 130 toxic military sites nationwide.
Why the Marines never fully acknowledged culpability is one of the film's key questions.
"I don't think there's been a satisfactory public answer from the Corps," Libert says. "The public answer is 'We didn't know,' and I'm not sure that satisfies a lot of people.
"The two most widely accepted explanations come down to money and liability, and not wanting to admit to poisoning their own people."
And, adds Hardmon, "I guess when you cover something up, you want to keep covering it up."
Signs of progress
Yet Ensminger has had a vindication of sorts. Last week, Reps. Brad Miller of North Carolina and John D. Dingell of Michigan, both Democrats, re-introduced the Janey Ensminger Act, which, if enacted, would mandate that service members who were stationed at Lejeune during the period of water contamination (roughly from 1957 to 1987) and have an illness linked to that contamination will be presumed to have a service-connected illness. If that person is disabled, he or she will get disability payments.
This proposed legislation also extends to the families of service members.
The bill was originally introduced last year, but gained little traction in the House and the Senate, where its sponsor is Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
'We are serious'
Still, says Heather Parsons, Rep. Miller's legislative director, "Since the first bill was introduced, we have made a lot of small steps, getting the studies [to determine what diseases are eligible] moving ahead. It's not a high-priority [piece of legislation]...but just having the bill out there could show the Department of the Navy we are serious."
Which is also what "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" is trying to do. "I've made a lot of sad documentaries," says Hardmon, "but in most of them the tragic incidents have happened in the past. In this, these incidents are happening currently - people are dying, not getting benefits.
"It's been frustrating to watch that happen. We're hoping this film will get some attention for them."