Telling Stories to Learn Lessons –Leon Valliere

Should veterans tell stories of traumatic events? Before I can fully answer that question, we need to define a few things. Traumatic events can range anywhere from being in combat situations to training exercises gone awry. In any event, these stories are captured in field reports and kept in record for our service members to learn from. As a member of the U.S. Navy, I can say without a doubt that during our initial training we were exposed to the traumatic history of the USS Forrestal disaster.

This video was used as a training tool to show us how to combat fires and save a ship that is badly damaged. The USS Forrestal was an aircraft carrier, and in 1967, while prepping for its 5th day of air strikes on Vietnam, a Zuni rocket misfired from an F-4 Phantom and impacted an armed A-4 Skyhawk. The resulting explosion dislodged and ruptured the Skyhawk’s 400 gallon fuel tank, which ignited and burned for hours on the flight deck.

The fire set off ordinance on the deck and ultimately took the lives of 134 sailors, injured another 161, destroyed 22 aircraft, and cost the Navy $72 Million in repairs.

The first time I saw the video was during my initial training. I remember vividly being led into a small amphitheater to watch a training video. Honestly, thinking back on that day now is a little surreal. I was so tired, and the room was unreasonably hot. I knew as soon as we got into this dimly-lit room that it was going to be a struggle to stay awake. That’s when the instructor started the video. There was no introduction; just sit here and watch.

The video was unreal. It showed sailors smoking cigarettes, laughing, so full of life. Seconds later the video cut to the flight deck camera. The footage showed a jet-fuel fire spreading underneath the bellies of the A-4 Skyhawks. Less than a minute after the inferno started, the first secondary explosion rocked the ship. It instantly killed six of the eight trained fire fighters on the flight deck.

The grainy footage of men battling to save the ship cleared any discomfort I had in that room. The Forrestal incident led to an overhaul of safety standards and firefighting training in the Navy. It made damage control and firefighting an integral part of becoming a sailor.

If the story of USS Forrestal was swept under the rug and not told, the Navy wouldn’t be what it is today. The lessons learned from this disaster completely changed how we as sailors operate in regards to safety standards and firefighting. The loss of life and heroic actions that day wouldn’t have galvanized our Navy had they not been shared.

Showing young, tired sailors the horrific footage in a hot dimly-lit room, in a sense, showed how disaster can strike with complacency. Although the footage captured is horrific, it also showed the sacrifice of many sailors. It showed their lack of self-preservation to save their shipmates and the ship. If the ship burned that day all 5,000 crew members on board that day would have perished. The footage was a testament to their selfless service to each other.

I personally believe that traumatic events can be shared for the purpose of training and instilling selflessness. The stories of Medal of Honor recipients come to mind, first and foremost. These brave individuals went above and beyond the call of duty to safeguard the lives of their friends. With any of these shared stories though, there’s always the media and liberal views that skew the events. In any story shared about our military, there are always a disconcerted few who spew venom on the events.

I typically see comments like “live by the sword, die by the sword” thrown around when stories talk about loss of life for our military personnel. It’s really frustrating for me to see these types of comments because of my service to my country. The individuals make these claims about us being murderers of innocents and have no grasp on the events that led up to the events.

We’re demonized and thrown together as if all we do is kick in doors and kill people.

There’s also the troublesome matter of the tell-all books that service members are writing now. Although these books/articles are interesting, I don’t see the practical use for them outside of training. I feel like these people are just trying to capitalize on their service, and it honestly angers me. There is a time and place for all things, and I don’t feel that these types of books/articles give the reverence the fallen deserve.

The fact that these people go out and have these books published to make a profit is sickening. Stories should be shared freely to those who want to listen and learn, not for monetary gain. As Andrew Jackson once said, “Every good citizen makes his country’s honor his own, and cherishes it not only as precious but as sacred. He is willing to risk his life in its defense and its conscious that he gains protection while he gives it.”

By sharing these stories, we give insight to the inner workings of our service members, but it’s also a double-edged sword. The story itself is just words, but the views of the reader can paint very different pictures on its importance.

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Editor’s Note: Leon Valliere is a veteran of the United States Navy and is now physics at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

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