For those looking for solid evidence of the efficacy of documentaries to enact social change, I point you to Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon’s “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” which tracks the U.S. military’s horrible record of not regulating chemicals at their bases, leading to groundwater pollution and tragic health effects for the soldiers and staff who live on them. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved the Janey Ensminger Act, which will provide health care to those who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina military base depicted in the film. President Obama is likely to sign the bill into law next week.
Named for a 9-year-old girl who died of leukemia in 1985, the bill was brought about by the tireless efforts of her father, Jerry Ensminger, a career marine who raised his family at Camp Lejeune, and the central protagonist of the documentary, which was shortlisted for an Oscar earlier this year.
“This bill is confirmation of what I’ve been saying for 15 years, that we were harmed,” Ensminger told ABC News. “The Marine Corp and Department of the Navy would say, oh they didn’t do anything wrong, well they did and Congress just confirmed that they did something wrong.”
Ensminger said he will continue to seek out why the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps still refuse to release information relating to water contamination. “We were poisoned by the people we trusted the most, our own leaders, agents acting in a position of authority for the federal government,” he said. “It’s going to take somebody in Congress to hold these people accountable for the misinformation and disinformation that they’ve been putting out…over the decades.”
The success of “Semper Fi” to help inflame concern over the issue and force legislative action comes on the heels of a similar victory for Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s “The Invisible War,” which helped change rules in the U.S. military to combat sexual assault within its ranks.
In April, Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, announced that commanders will hand over investigations to an outside, higher-ranking colonel, each branch of the armed forces will have a Special Victims Unit, and prosecution will be stressed. The Wrap reported in June that the film helped offer further convincing evidence of problems in the U.S. military.
At the time, the Pentagon also issued its annual report outlining the number of sexual assaults reported within the military last year. In 2011, 3,192 assaults were reported, up 1% from the previous year. According to the Defense Department’s own estimate, just 15% of actual incidents are reported, putting the real number at some 19,000 assaults each year.