RALEIGH, N.C. — Jerry Ensminger ticks off the list of cities where he's traveled with the documentary that tells the story of water contamination at the Camp Lejeune Marine base: Woodstock, San Diego, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and this weekend, an emotional homecoming in Jacksonville, N.C.
Finally, both the retired Marine master sergeant and the movie about him, "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," are coming back to where the story began in July 1983, when his middle daughter was diagnosed with leukemia.
Both he and the filmmakers expect an emotional event when the movie is shown Sunday at Northside High School in Jacksonville. It's one of two showings in North Carolina over the Veterans Day weekend.
"The people here, they've been following this for all these years and have a much better understanding of the situation," said Ensminger, whose daughter died at age 9. "Many of them were exposed to these contaminants. Many of them are having health effects or worried they may develop effects. This is a whole different ballgame here."
The movie, which has won several major film festival awards, tells the story of contaminated wells at the sprawling Camp Lejeune base just outside of Jacksonville. Fuel leaks and other sources of pollution contaminated the wells — for decades, in some cases — before tests alerted officials to the problem. Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water before the wells were closed more than 20 years ago.
It also tells the personal story of Marines, sailors, civilians and their families stationed at the base, focusing on Ensminger, who lives in White Lake, N.C. His daughter, Janey, who was conceived at Camp Lejeune, died in 1985 of a rare form of leukemia. Two other daughters — one older than Janey and another younger — live in North Carolina and will attend the Jacksonville screening with their father.
Ensminger has led the battle to find the cause of the contamination and to hold the Marine Corps accountable for it. In the movie, he says his crusade began with one question.
"After the shock of her diagnosis wore off, my reaction was to question why," he says in the film. "And that nagging question of why stayed with me through her illness, through her death ... It's something that doesn't just go away. It never does."
The movie, which was to be shown Saturday at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, N.C., won best documentary awards at the San Diego and Woodstock film festivals. At Tribeca, it won best editing for a documentary and second place in the audience award. But a showing at a high school auditorium in Jacksonville could be the most meaningful, says co-producer and co-director Rachel Libert.
"The whole audience is going to have some connection — as a resident, an employee or a service person," Libert said. "However they're connected, it really is going to hit close to home for them."
Libert and Ensminger will attend both North Carolina screenings.
Libert and Tony Hardmon, the other producer and director, were researching a different topic for a documentary when they met Ensminger's sister, who told them about the contamination at Camp Lejeune.
They began the project in 2007, wondering how much could Ensminger achieve. "If he were hitting the same wall at the end (of filming) that he was hitting at the start, it would be frustrating for us and be discouraging for audience members," Libert said. "It was really nice to see he was making headway."
The film wrapped at the end of 2010, but Libert continues to update it as the story develops. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency classified trichloroethylene — or TCE — as a known human carcinogen. It's one of several chemicals that mixed with the water at Camp Lejeune.
Libert noted the EPA designation in the latest version of film. "It felt good to make that change," she said.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc