Semper Fidelis: Always Faithful
Posted on 02/10/2012 @ 04:44 PM
Semper Fidelis-often shortened to Semper Fi-is a Latin phrase meaning "always faithful." It's most commonly known as the motto for the United States Marine Corps. The phrase has taken on a new meaning for me as details about the poisoning of Marines and Marine Corps families who lived at Camp Lejeune, the United States' largest Marine base, have come to light. For decades, the Marine Corps dumped toxic waste in Lejeune which leached into the groundwater, affecting as many as one million Marines and their families.
While many Marines directly suffered from the effects of carcinogens like Benzene that leached into the groundwater, the hardest hit may be the children who were born around Camp Lejeune. In a study done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, kids born around Lejeune experienced a rate of birth defects and childhood cancers at five times the national rate. But no study can speak adequately to the existence of a section of the base's graveyard known as "baby heaven" where hundreds of sick and malformed babies have been buried.
For me, this story is more than an abstraction. I was born at Lejeune in the 1980s. My father joined the Marines to help pay for college, and he served for four years as an officer before returning to Harvard to get a second (and eventually a third) degree. My dad was stationed in Lejeune in 1989, and I was born on July 4th of that year--a fitting start for a Quaker peace activist. When I first read about this story in The Washington Post, it hit me right in the gut. Is this me? Could I be sick? How could this happen?
One of the most disturbing parts of this story has been the failure of the military and the federal government to address this issue. The Marines have refused to even contact the people who might have been affected by the toxic dumping saying that it would be too large an undertaking. The Federal Government and the military have betrayed the men and women who proudly pledged "Semper Fi." Being faithful must be a two way street. The government has an overwhelming responsibility to care for the people who have sacrificed for their country.
And really, this responsibility for the government to be faithful to those whom allow it to govern doesn't end with the Marine Corps. It extends to every person under its care. Communities all around the United States face similar dangers. Communities in Pennsylvania and all along the East Coast face exposure to dangerous chemicals that are the byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, a practice for the harvesting of fossil fuels that causes some of the same chemicals that were dumped in Lejeune to leech into the groundwater. Dozens of communities on the Gulf Coast were devastated by the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These are only a few examples, but represent a larger problem-the government's refusal to adequately address environmental issues fundamentally puts people at risk.
Some Marines and their families are beginning to get some justice for what has been done to them as a recent documentary and congressional investigations shed light on what happened to them. Two bills are making their way through Congress which seek to do something for Lejeune families who were affected by the poisonings. But I wonder, would anyone have found it if those affected weren't military families? What if this same rash of death had happened in a place like Compton or Anacostia--poor, mostly black neighborhoods where public sympathies don't reach? Would members of Congress clamor for action? Would award-winning documentaries be made about it?
I am blessed. I was born in 1989, two years after the poisonings stopped. But this doesn't change the message I have taken from this story. The government must be always faithful for the basic health of its citizens, or we must faithfully change it.
Citations and Resources
- Darryl Fears, “Documentary examines how toxic water at the nation’s largest Marine base damaged lives,” The Washington Post, January 21, 2012
- “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Directed: Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert
- The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten--A site dedicated to advocacy for Marines and Marine families.