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04.24.11

Semper Fi: Always Faithful: A Father's Searing Take on a Marine Corps Coverup

Up to a million soldiers and their families were secretly exposed to poisonous water at Camp Lejeune—including Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger and his daughter, Janey, who died at 9 of leukemia. He tells his story in a riveting documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, and talks to Lloyd Grove about fighting the Marine Corps brass through Congress, his family's devastating breakup, and his daughter's legacy.

On September 24, 1985, Janey Ensminger died of acute lymphocytic leukemia. She had been fighting the disease for nearly 2½ years, and was 9 years and two months old.

Janey’s diagnosis was as baffling as it was cruel. Her two sisters were evidently healthy, and there were no childhood cancers in the family medical histories of either her Okinawan mother, Etsuko, or her American father, Marine Corps Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger.

“We were at the Penn State University Medical Center in Hershey,” Jerry Ensminger tells me, “and I’d go down to the research area, go into the laboratory and talk to the researchers, asking questions: ‘How did this happen? Why? What do you know about it?’ And nobody could give me an answer.”

It wasn’t until 1997 that Ensminger received a shocking clue. Retired to his small North Carolina soybean, corn, and hay farm after a 24-year military career, he was cooking himself dinner when the local news came on: The federal government had just released a report concluding that for nearly three decades the tap water at Camp Lejeune, N.C.—the base where Janey was conceived in December 1975—had been contaminated by toxic chemicals associated with childhood and adult cancers.

Standing in front of his television set, Ensminger let his dinner plate slip from his hands and crash to the floor—a metaphor for his life since Janey’s death. It was an unspeakable betrayal of an elite band of patriot warriors who live and die by the cherished mottos “Semper Fi,” “We take care of our own,” and “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

“A crock of shit,” Ensminger tells me with a snort.

But didn’t he once believe it?

“I still do,” he says softly. He’s sitting across a breakfast table at Schiller’s, the trendy restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and not touching his eggs. “I’m not hungry. I’ve lost my appetite,” he explains when I urge him to eat. “I know that our motto of Semper Fidelis, our slogan of ‘We take care of our own’—this stuff is still very much alive down at the operating level. But in this situation, the misconduct and the negligence and the lying that’s taken place has taken place at the highest levels of leadership in the Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy. These are the people that hold everybody else to their high standards and our core values. And they aren’t living up to them themselves. It’s a scary thought.”

The Marine Corps “prepared me for this fight,” Ensminger tells me. “They created me. Being a drill instructor makes you forceful. They teach you to be forceful in DI school.”

As recounted in Semper Fi: Always Faithful, the riveting and often enraging documentary having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Marine Corps leadership was well aware that up to a million people—soldiers and their family members—had been exposed to potential carcinogens while living on base from the late 1950s until 1985, when authorities quietly shut down the toxic wells without explanation.

For years, the generals in charge and their civilian bosses had successfully covered up one of the worst environmental catastrophes in American history—a breach of trust that has resulted in unusually high incidences of birth defects, childhood and adult malignancies, and even male breast cancer among the Camp Lejeune community. They had almost kept it under wraps. But the brass didn’t figure on Ensminger, who has pursued them relentlessly through the corridors of power to hold them accountable for the human damage inflicted and to secure health care and reparations for the unwitting victims.

When Congress returns from Easter recess, Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat, along with the state’s two senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, will be pushing for passage of the Janey Ensminger Act, a $4 billion bill requiring the Veterans Administration to provide health care to Marines and their families who’ve gotten sick after being exposed to Camp Lejeune’s poisonous water. It wouldn't be happening without Ensminger.

“I told the commandant of the Marine Corps: You know when I’m gonna quit?” Ensminger says in the film. “Either when you do right by our people and live up to our motto, or when you pat me in the face with a shovel and blow ‘Taps’ over my dead ass.”

On screen and in person, he oozes command presence. He was born, he tells me, on the Fourth of July, and even though he’s 58, and the buzz cut has gone gray, with the once-hard body giving way to middle-age spread, he’s clearly not a man to be messed with. He’s a compelling and colorful communicator—a talent he attributes to his years as a drill instructor on Parris Island, South Carolina, where he used to bark at timorous recruits, “Did your mother have any children who lived?” and “You are a paraplegic piece of pig shit!”

The Marine Corps “prepared me for this fight,” Ensminger tells me. “They created me. Being a drill instructor makes you forceful. They teach you to be forceful in DI school. It builds your confidence and then you establish that over the years—being out in front of all those people. You don’t get stage fright.”

He enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school outside Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he was the son of a union pipe-fitter, the middle child of six. His older brother Dave had been grievously wounded in Vietnam. “I wanted revenge,” Ensminger tells me. “It was stupid. I was a kid. I wanted to go over there and kick some ass, get some payback. But I never made it.”

Instead he spent much of his Marine Corps career stateside as a truck and auto mechanic, and in Okinawa, where he met his first wife, who was working in the mess hall, and spent 11 years on and off living at Camp Lejeune. Ensminger is worried that he, his former wife, and their two surviving daughters could still be vulnerable to cancer as time goes on. “Many cancers have a latency period,” he says.

Janey, who would be 34, remains a powerful presence. “Janey was a lot like me,” he says. Switching to present tense, he adds: “She’s very forward. She asserts herself. Very alert, very aware of her surroundings. She wanted to know everything and she wanted her voice in everything.”

When the leukemia came back after 18 months of remission, her doctors said a new regimen of heavy-duty chemotherapy had a small chance of vanquishing it, but at the cost of terrible sores and ulcers in all of her mucus membranes. “And I said, ‘No, I don’t want that,’” Ensminger says. “Janey was laying over there in the bed, and she said, ‘Hey, you’re talking about me, and I want a say in this. If there’s a chance that I can live, I want to do it.’ And I looked back at the doctors and said, ‘You heard her.’ They did it, and oh my God, I still have her purse and all the stuff she had in her room. She had little examining lights—these flashlights that doctors use—and a little compact in her purse with a mirror. And she was obsessed with these sores, and she would constantly shine that thing in her mouth.”

As Ensminger talks about Janey’s illness and death, his emotions are raw—undiminished by the passage of a quarter of a century. His voice grows husky and tears stream down his cheeks.

It’s amazing, I tell him, that a girl of 9 could face these terrors with such courage and practicality.

“With any kid that has cancer and who’s been in treatment for a long time,” he says, “if you weren’t sitting there looking at that child and knowing that they were a child, you would think you were talking to an adult. They’re all that way.”

After Janey’s death, Ensminger’s marriage collapsed. “When we did get divorced, right after Janey’s death, I felt like I was going to come out of my skin. I started going to some of these grief groups. One time I told my story about Janey and about the divorce, that I felt my world was falling apart, I felt like a freak and that something was wrong with me, and when the thing was over with, as I was walking out, the moderator pulled me over to the side said, ‘Hey, Jerry, I want to show you something.’ She pulled a book out. It was statistics of couples who lose a child through a long-term catastrophic illness, where you watch them go through the hell we watched Janey go through, watch them die a little bit at a time. And it was 87 percent of the couples ended up getting divorced. I said, ‘Wow.’”

Ensminger has a 22-year-old daughter from a subsequent marriage, and he married once again in 2007, this time to a high school principal in North Carolina. Indeed, he says he’s had some interesting romantic adventures with a great many women.

Despite his red state-Marine Corps exterior, Ensminger volunteered in 2008 for Barack Obama. With all his experience with members of Congress, persuading them to carry the flag, I ask him if he’s ever thought about running for office himself.

“Are you kidding?” he answers with a laugh. “If they cracked the closet door open, the skeletons would be rolling out!”

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.