The scene at Jacksonville City Cemetery is among the more poignant moments in the documentary “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” about the men, women and children affected over three decades by contaminated water at the nation’s largest Marine base. The film made the short list of 15 documentary features being considered for an Oscar; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will cut the list to five Tuesday.
“Semper Fi” follows Partain and Jerome “Jerry” Ensminger, the men credited with uncovering records showing that the amount of leaked fuel that led to water contamination was many times greater than the Marine Corps acknowledged.
A congressional hearing in 2007 revealed that the camp ignored a directive from the Navy to inspect its water systems for possible contamination and to develop a protocol for the safe disposal of hazardous compounds.
The Marine Corps at Lejeune routinely dumped fluids containing harmful chemicals, which leached into groundwater and eventually contaminated a well. For decades, buried tanks also leaked fuel, allowing the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen, into the ground nearby.
But Camp Lejeune failed to study the health risks of its water after toxic compounds were discovered in the early 1980s, and did not notify Marines and their families. Up to a million people who rotated in and out of the base from the late 1950s to the late 1980s relied on the water to drink and bathe.
The Marine Corps has said it wasn’t aware of the contaminants until the mid-1980s and that contacting the 750,000 to 1 million military personnel and civilians who lived at Camp Lejeune during those decades is too large an undertaking.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry sent a survey last year to about 300,000 people who lived or worked at the Marine base before 1986. The agency expects to release the findings in early 2014.
“We care about every person who has ever lived or worked at Camp Lejeune,” Capt. Kendra Hardesty, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said last year when the surveys were being sent out. “We are concerned about these individuals and are working hard with the scientific and medical communities to try to find them answers.”
Death of daughter
Ensminger, a square-jawed ex-Marine master sergeant, is still haunted by the death of his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, from cancer in 1985. Partain, who was born at the base in 1968, is one of more than 70 men who lived there and now suffer from rare male breast cancer.
During four years of filming that ended last year, the two men heard mention of a cemetery near Camp Lejeune where hundreds of sick and malformed babies were interred.