This is a story of friendship, love and loss. I watched a 76 minute film a couple of nights ago called “Semper Fi, Always Faithful”. It is based on real people over 1 million of them who lived in a housing addition on Camp Lejeune and were exposed and poisoned by the toxic water in the wells. Water that they drank from, bathed in and cooked with for years.
What makes this story so personal is Denita. You have heard me speak of my late friend many times, and she was contaminated by the water and it took her life on 7/8/2009. This documentary was filmed in the years shortly before her death.
I met Denita when I arrived fresh out of bootcamp in 1984, she was vivacious, funny and beautiful. We met at Parris Island, she was my roommate. We lived in WRTC (Women’s Recruit Training Command), there were 3 to a barracks room, Denita, Ingrid and me. We became fast friends and we had a lot of fun. Denita always was up for fun and sometimes mischief. We got into some innocent trouble and shared many a laugh. She was my very best friend.
During our time together, she met a fellow Marine and fell hard. While the union didn’t last out of it came Nick her oldest son. In the beginning of her pregnancy we lived in a seedy little trailer park, and then we moved to a house a few months before Nick arrived. I watched her be sick through the entire pregnancy, but she fought on. She so wanted that baby. Nick arrived over Labor Day and he was a beautiful baby. She was whole.
Life moved on and she and I both exited the USMC and followed our own paths, they were similar, she had two boys, and later her beloved Miranda. I had two girls. We lost track and reconnected over the years. After the last gap, I began googling, searching for her.
It was at this time, articles started popping up with her name linked to toxic water at Camp Lejeune. My gut reaction was nausea. I felt sick. Not my friend, this article must be wrong, but it wasn’t. I began writing, everyday, until one day she responded. Slowly, she told me her story. She got sick with a parathyroid cancer that began with losing her voice ( she was a beautiful singer), it was in remission for 10 years and then it came back, it was followed by lung cancer, brain cancer and finally a tumor in her heart, that she knew would be the last one.
All the while she was fighting the USMC and the government, she was also fighting cancer. She amazed me with her strength and determination and her caring for the other 1 million Marines in her now elite group. The Few the Proud the Forgotten.
So when the movie was released, I couldn’t watch it. It was too raw. I knew Denita’s story, her fight, her defeat. But the other day I decided it was time. I rented in on Amazon Prime for $2.99.
My experience was not what I expected, I don’t know if enjoyed is the correct expression, but I did enjoy it. The documentary results in a victory for the group, a beginning and it gave me the privilege of seeing my friend, hearing her voice one more time.
As I sat in my living room, I heard her voice before I saw her face. But I knew the voice, it’s soft, sweetsound. Distinctively familiar and soothing all at once. She appeared on the screen reading a letter to the interviewer, stoic yet devastated by the facts contained in that letter, words like aggressive and cancer. Words no one wants to hear. Her beautiful face marred by the disease. She told me once over a pear and prosciutto pizza that while she was undergoing treatment she felt like the disease was exiting out of her nose and spreading across her face, leaving this dark mask as a reminder. As the film continues the mask is visible and we watch her deteriorate on screen. The film was capturing her fight in technicolor.
As I watched my friend and I saw her familiar face and heard her words as her body spoke of her disdain and disappointment in her beloved USMC. I watched my friend take on the USMC in a battle of right and wrong. When I saw her on screen perfectly put together and walking into a courtroom with determination and purpose I was in awe. I was reminded of the fight that took place from a California King Bed, that doubled as her desk on the days she wasn’t feeling up to the world. Her computer was always open and she was always researching documents, seeking information that would help prove the USMC had known for years and done nothing. She was a driving force for afflicted Marines, it showed in her face and her actions.
There is nothing more sobering than watching someone die in real time and only seeing a snippet of their story. When the documentary makers captured the announcement of her passing during the hearings, it took me back to exactly where I was when I got the call, in South Carolina ironically where our friendship began.
I recommend that you watch this documentary, to see the real people who started this fight, Janey & Jerry Ensminger, Mike Partain and Denita Ortega McCall. True warriors fighting for justice.
I was never more proud of her than watching this documentary, because she made a difference.
I hope you take the time to watch.
Until Next Time,
Hi, I stubbled across your article after seeing the movie. Denita was a special friend and college with me from 82 to 85. We were in the same class at camp Lejeune and then both stationed at Parris Island. I will never forget her smile as we danced at the 4 winds. And we were born on the same day 3/28/64. Spending lunch times with her was so fun..we would go for a walk or run. I will never forget her smile. Mark
Hi Mark! I am so sorry that I just saw this. I am glad that we shared Denita, she was a very special part of my life. an unforgettable one. I was also at Parris Island with her. We were roommates. She was a force. I miss her every day. But weirdly enough, I can visit with her through the movie whenever I want and I do. Thanks for reaching out and I apologetic for the delay in response.