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U.S. military personnel who died to impress V.I.P.s

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

I have been trying to get this story out to the public for 37 years.

I’ve offered it to 60 Minutes, 20/20 and other investigative journalists. (I was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Morley Safer in 1986 and later worked with 20/20 producers on a similar show they did.) They were not interested. One—I don’t remember which—told me in the early nineties that although the story was important and valid, that his editors were not interested because it made the U.S. military look bad and the public wanted to love their military after Desert Storm because they felt guilty about the way they treated the military during and after Vietnam.

I am not interested in such concerns or logic. The V.I.P. deaths need to stop.

Fort Bragg, summer, 1969

In the summer of 1969, I was a 1st lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division. To be specific, I was the communications platoon leader of an infantry battalion.

‘One-crisis’

That summer, I made an observation. The military operates with a one-crisis management mind-set. That is, at any given moment, a general is facing a particular single crisis that could significantly affect his career one way or the other. The book Catch 22 captures this in the lifer Colonel Korn’s constant fear of getting “black eyes” and his relentless pursuit of “feathers in his cap.”

‘The V.I.P. demonstration’

During the summer of 1969, the one crisis was the training of ROTC cadets—in particular the firepower demonstration that was the culmination of the summer’s training. But no one called it the ROTC firepower demonstration. Rather, it was known by the commanding general’s perspective as the “V.I.P. demonstration.”

Bleachers

How so? The demonstration involved blasting the crap out of a hillside about a mile in front of a hill on top of which was a large set of bleachers. The bleachers were about the size of the home stands at a high school football stadium. The ROTC cadets—and more importantly—the V.I.P.s—would sit in the bleachers.

Although the demonstration was ostensibly for the training of the ROTC cadets, the V.I.P.s got the best “50-yard-line” seats. And if that doesn’t get the point across to you, how about this?

At one point, when I was in the bleachers during the summer before the demo, they were testing the sound system. The big-shot evaluators were standing in the “50-yard-line” V.I.P. seats. After some adjustments, they pronounced the public address system properly adjusted and were about to move on to other things.

A major standing down at the end of the bleachers volunteered, “We need to adjust it some more because the cadets in this area won’t be able to hear it.” The officer in charge turned toward him incredulously and said, “I don’t give a shit if the cadets can hear it!” Everyone laughed. The major was embarrassed by his naiveté. I mentally engraved my decision to resign from the military ASAP more deeply into the granite of my mind.

Daily training schedule

In every military unit then, and probably still, the commander must sign a daily training schedule. I was not the officer who signed it. The company commander did. But I used to see it posted on the company bulletin board.

It said our unit was doing all sorts of great stuff every day—the kind of stuff you joined the Army to do—or at least the kind of stuff you would expect active-duty soldiers to be doing. Small unit training. Motor vehicle maintenance. Calisthenics. Equipment and weapons maintenance.

There was just one problem, though. It was a near total lie. The only thing on it we actually did, was 6 AM calisthenics. We were paratroopers. Calisthenics are macho. Paratroopers are macho. The brass figured we really had to do that. The military, sadly, is more about show than substance.

Paratroopers doing calisthenics are highly visible. The fact that the vast majority of our jeeps and trucks were deadlined was invisible. The show must go on. The vehicles don’t have to work—unless, of course, we were sent on a military mission in which case paratroopers might have died for lack of vehicle maintenance.

All day every day

But we never did any of the other stuff. The word came down from the commanding general, we were told, that all officers and men not needed to do personnel paperwork or cook were to spend all day every day at the V.I.P. demonstration location, which was out in the woods at Fort Bragg.

That, as you might expect, was overkill. My men were taken away from me by higher ranking commanders and made to do stuff like rake the pine needles out from under the pine trees around the bleacher area. Note that this was in the woods.

Heavy mortar squad

At some point, I was put in charge of a heavy mortar squad. The squad’s V.I.P. demonstration job was to fire a certain number of mortar rounds—probably around 20 if memory serves—onto the target zone miles away in front of the bleachers. We were told when to fire with a radio countdown. Every morning and every afternoon, we did a rehearsal. We had our relatively simple role down after a day or two. But we still continued to do that, expending expensive ammunition as we went, every weekday all summer.

In addition to us, the target hill was to be attacked by artillery, tank guns, light mortars, infantry firing lots of tracer bullets, and Air Force jets dropping napalm bombs. Lots of bang bang explosives and bullets. Like a fireworks show, but on the ground instead of in the air.

Highly trained professionals

Remember that I was a communications platoon leader. Running a mortar squad was probably normally the job of a staff sergeant. In an infantry battalion, a 1st lieutenant in charge of a heavy mortar squad like I was for the V.I.P. demonstration only would more likely be the heavy weapons platoon leader. He would also normally be a graduate of the Infantry Officers Basic Course given at the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, GA. I presume they also have some sort of heavy weapons platoon leader course for infantry officers in which they would study how to operate things like heavy mortars. I had graduated from Signal Officers Basic Course at Fort Gordon, GA as well as the Radio Officer and Satellite Communications Officer courses at Fort Monmouth, NJ. “Signal” is the ancient Army word for communications which originally were done with signal flags and mirrors. I was trained to supervise soldiers who operated radios, telephones, and radio teletypes.

Where, you may wonder, were the officers who were trained to run the heavy weapons platoon? Darned if I know. They were probably supervising the soldiers operating the radios.

In the event, it was not a problem. The heavy weapons squad grunts and sergeants taught me what I needed to know in a couple of days.

V.I.P.s

How am I defining a V.I.P.? V.I.P., of course, stands for “Very Important Person.” What is a Very Important Person to a career military officer?

Anyone who is in the military and who outranks the officer in question as well as any civilian who outranks him, contributes money to military charities, or any civilian organization executive.

For the V.I.P. demonstration at the end of the summer of 1969, the V.I.P.s included, as I recall, Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland. He was the highest-ranking officer in the Army at the time. His previous job had been supreme commander of all U.S. and allied forces in Vietnam. Also, as I recall, he was to be accompanied to the firepower demonstration by some Latin American generals and some civilian dignitaries.

Pea soup

Finally, the big day arrived. When I went outside to go to work, I was astonished to see the thickest fog I have ever seen. “I’ll be damned,” I thought. “After rehearsing this all summer it’s going to be cancelled. No one in the bleachers will be able to see to the other end of the bleachers, let alone to the target hill across the valley.”

I figured I’d arrive at the mortar squad and get a radio message that the demonstration had been cancelled. To my amazement, the radio voice said the show would go on as scheduled. “Why?” I wondered. “No one will be able to see it.”

Whether there were ROTC cadets, V.I.P.s, or just a handful of big shots in charge of the rehearsal meant little to us. When the radio voice said, “Three. Two. One. Fire.” we yelled “Commence fire!” to the mortar squad and they started dropping mortar rounds into the mortar tubes as fast as they safely could. The tubes had long since been zeroed in on the hill so we knew where the rounds were landing in spite of the fact that we had no ability to see the target even in clear weather. We were just in a clearing in a woods miles from the target.

Pilots

When I got home later that day, I learned from the TV news that two Air Force pilots had died in the demonstration. They were the guys dropping the napalm. They had collided in the fog.

There was an Air Force Base called Pope AFB in North Carolina that generally handled our parachute jumps, but I seem to recall that the two pilots who died were flying there every day from Alabama or some such location to the somewhat distant west of North Carolina.

A guy who was an ROTC student at Bragg that summer said he remembers they announced at the demonstration that the Air Force bomb drop was cancelled because of the weather. No. It SHOULD have been cancelled because of the weather. It did not happen because of the weather, namely, because the weather killed the pilots. Unbelievable. Not only did they kill the pilots, but they lied about it. See my article “Is Military integrity a contradiction in terms?”

I tried to find the names of the guys who died and the date on the Internet to no avail. I would appreciate it if someone familiar with the incident or closer to the scene would provide me the details. I want to provide the following details for each V.I.P. demonstration death incident in this article:

Date of death
Names of deceased
Local unit & commander
Ostensible occasion
Names of V.I.P.s
Safety rule violated
End of August, 1969? ? ?, USAF 82nd Airborne Division and XVIII Airborne Corps ROTC firepower demonstration Army Chief of Staff General William C. Westmoreland, Latin American generals, civilians I suspect, rules pertaining to flying in fog in the vicinity of another aircraft
End of August, 1969 ? ?, USAF        

Here is an email I got from a reader:

I've confirmed the info on the Rowland, NC crash (near Ft. Bragg):

The crash occurred on Wednesday, Oct 1st, 1969, 4 pm in the afternoon.

Planes taking part in war games - firepower demonstration in connection
with Brass Strike V war games. Loaded with live ammo, officers were warned
against because of danger. Drizzling rain at time of crash.

F-4D 66-7492 from 4th TFW, Seymour-Johnson AFB, NC crashed near Rowland,
North Carolina after collision with F-105F 62-4419 of 23rd TFW, McConnell
AFB, KS Capt. John T Mize and Capt. William D Jarman Jr. of Goldsboro, NC
in F-4D were killed, Capt. Thomas O Carlson and Sgt. William F. Moore 21,
of Wichita KS also both killed.

Because the back seater in the F-105 was enlisted and very young, he was
either a maintenance troop along for a check ride, or perhaps the winner of
an incentive ride hosted by the base. I had a friend when we were based in
Germany who was an enlisted maintenance troop who got a ride in an F-16 as
being the winner of some award.

Note: The 23rd TFW was a training wing - replacement training unit,
training replacement pilots for those transitioning from one type aircraft
to another before deployment to SEA. The F-105F was used for both training
(being the only 2-seater variant of the F-105), but was also used as the
Wild Weasel mission aircraft (SAM missile launcher hunter-killer teams also
using the F-4 in conjunction, one armed with HARM missiles, the other used
as a decoy target).

Here is another email he sent me a little later:

Here are links to three other major air show crashes that you should read
on. The first involves the "introduction of a bomber-tanker demonstration
team known briefly as the Thunderhawks, the Strategic Air Command's answer
to the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics teams" -
SAC not wanting to be left out.

http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=8871
U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crashes at Fairchild Air Force Base,
killing seven airmen, on March 13, 1987.

SAC wanted to demonstrate aerial refueling during an air show, despite this
maneuver being incredibly dangerous at low level and low speed due to
turbulence.

The second incident is more important because it involves a hot-dogging USAF
pilot who was REPEATEDLY caught violating rules and regulations but was
never disciplined in any way due to his rank and eventually killed his
entire crew.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1994_Fairchild_Air_Force_Base_B-52_crash

The 1994 Fairchild Air Force Base B-52 crash occurred at Fairchild Air Force
Base, Washington, United States, on Friday, 24 June 1994, when the pilot of
a United States Air Force (USAF) Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Arthur "Bud"
Holland, flew the aircraft beyond its operational limits and lost control.
The aircraft stalled, fell to the ground and exploded, killing Holland and
the other three U.S. Air Force crew members. The crash was captured on video
and was shown repeatedly on news broadcasts throughout the world.[1]

The above incident led to the inspiration of yet another pilot who
hot-dogged in another aircraft in the exact same manner, and despite the
above incident occurring prior to this one, nothing had been learned by the
brass in dealing with these problems with renegade USAF officers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Alaska_C-17_crash

The 2010 Alaska C-17 crash occurred on Wednesday, 28 July 2010, when a
United States Air Force military transport plane crashed at Elmendorf Air
Force Base in Alaska resulting in the death of all four crew members. The
aircraft involved was a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (tail number 00-0173)
and the crash was the first fatal C-17 flight mishap. The crew were
preparing for Elmendorf's Arctic Thunder Air Show, which went ahead three
days later.

The news article from the local paper in NC:

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=ypzvKOdbExQC&dat=19691002&printsec=fro
ntpage&hl=en

Is that the end of this article? No. Just the beginning.

Here is some information a reader found that might be the incident:

Are you perhaps looking for the Rowland collision? An F-4D and an F-105 got tangled up 02-OCT-1969, four miles east of Rowland near rural road 2534 on the (Alex) Leggette farm - it's 45mi from Ft. Bragg. Both aircraft were participating in the fire power demonstration at Ft. Bragg (Brass Strike V war games).

F-4D fatalities were Capt John Theodore Mize (commanding), 30, Statesville NC and Capt. William D. Jarman Jr, 28, of Washington DC. Thud fatalities were Thomas O. Carlson (pilot), 28, of Pueblo, Colo and Sgt. William Moore (copilot), 21, of Pompano, Fl

I am surprised it was Oct 2 because the bleachers were full of ROTC students and I would have thought they would be back at college on October 2. Also, I thought pilots and co-pilots were officers on jets. This says the co-pilot of the F105 was a sergeant. The date seems off but two Air Force planes from Florida or Alabama or some such colliding with all dead matches my recollection.

More Fort Bragg V.I.P. deaths

Since 1969, I have seen additional reports of deaths at Fort Bragg. In some cases, they occurred at the end of August. The media stories in question invariably characterized the deaths as “training accidents.” And, oh, by the way, the stories said, certain out-of-town military and/or civilian big shots “just happened” to be there watching the training in question when the deaths occurred. What a coincidence! And the stories reported some sort of abnormal procedure being involved in the incidents.

Now let me make myself perfectly clear as to what I think happened.

Military training is extremely dangerous. Military brass do not want military personnel or anyone else killed in training. Partly because they are human, but more importantly because they are careerists. That is, having subordinates killed in a “training accident” under your command is a “black eye.”

But the truth is, military commanders are bureaucrats and bureaucracy tends to numb the minds of even intelligent men and women. In fact, it appears to me that U.S. military personnel are killed on almost an annual basis putting on V.I.P. demonstrations.

Because military training is extremely dangerous, many safety rules have been adopted over the years. Typically, the safety rule in question was adopted after one or more military personnel were killed by the absence of the rule.

Careerist

I used the word “careerist” above. I am concerned some readers may think that is just someone who plans to stay in the military for at least twenty years. No. That is not what it means. According to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, a “careerist” is

a person interested chiefly in achieving his own personal ambitions, to the neglect of other things

No business like show business

V.I.P. demonstrations are show business. Safety rules often interfere with the “production values” or call for cancellation or postponement of the demonstrations. When they do, either in reality or in the paranoid perceptions of the sycophantic commanders, they are quick to waive the safety rules. When they do, soldiers, sailors, air men and Marines often die. Why did they die? So that the commander could better impress the V.I.P.s and thereby perhaps improve his chances of career advancement.

That is, of course, an outrage and appalling. Am I exaggerating? Nope.

Let me define the circumstances I am writing about as precisely as I can. These incidents always have four characteristics:

  • dead U.S. military personnel and/or other deaths
  • some sort of a military show being put on
  • some V.I.P.s as defined above present and watching the show
  • violation of one or more pertinent safety rules in order to put on a better or faster show or to avoid cancellation or postponement of the show

Here are some other fatal accidents that I have heard about in the media that appear to have these characteristics:

Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell was a U.S. Army Air Corps general who was court martialed for speaking out about failure of the top defense people to take appropriate action with regard to the offensive and defensive air capabilities of the U.S. military. While reading the 2004 book A Question of Loyalty by Douglas Waller, I was only half surprised to learn that the incident that triggered Mitchell’s statement criticizing his superiors involved yet another series of V.I.P. demonstration deaths involving waiving normal safety rules to impress V.I.P.s.

One was the 1925 crash of the U.S.S. Shenandoah, a huge dirigible that used nonflammable helium for lift, not flammable hydrogen. The Navy sent it on a P.R. tour of the U.S. interior including passing over a number of state fairs while those fairs were full of crowds. There are no oceans, the Navy’s area of operations, in the interior of the country, but there are voters and V.I.P.s. There are also more violent weather conditions over land than over water.

In order to keep the Shenandoah on an ambitious schedule that was advertised to the press in news releases by the Navy, they removed safety equipment from the Shenandoah. Furthermore, when dangerous storms appeared within sight of the Shenandoah during its flight, the captain was awakened. He chose to adhere to the schedule rather than land or run away from the storms. On page 14 of the book, it says,

The admirals didn’t want to disappoint the local politicians and their constituents.

The weatherman on the Shenandoah said to Captain Lansdowne,

I think we need to turn south, sir.

The captain responded, thereby signing the death warrants of himself and 13 other crewmen,

We’ve been ordered to fly over a certain course, and I want to keep that course as long as I can.

They were already off-schedule as a result of unexpected head winds.

The crew was inexperienced because dirigibles were relatively new. Mitchell thought the Navy should have spent more time practicing and training before going on such an ambitious tour.

Because helium was expensive, the Navy discouraged the crew from venting helium (to descend) except in emergencies. In case you miss the point, that forces the Navy not to vent to prevent emergencies. The Navy also removed 10 of 18 automatic pressure-relief valves to save weight. That meant that when the dirigible got too high, those ten helium bladders had to have their excess pressure released manually. If they do not do so fast enough, the bladders burst in which case the dirigible falls too fast. If enough of them burst, the fall cannot be stopped.

When it hit the storm, the dirigible broke into four pieces. One was the gondola containing the captain and seven other crewman. It fell a mile killing all aboard. The other three pieces contained helium bladders and therefore fell more slowly. Six more crewmen died in those pieces.

Seaplanes to Hawaii

The same week, the Navy sent three planes from California to Hawaii in another highly publicized stunt to show off the Navy’s flight capabilities. So what’s the problem? Seaplanes could not fly that far back then. Why did they do it? They were in a rush to pull off the stunt. Without testing to be sure, they figured some tweaks to the engines, and favorable tail winds would enable the planes to make it to Hawaii.

One plane damaged its engine mounts flying from Seattle to San Francisco. The second had to land in the ocean five hours into the trip because of engine problems. That crew was rescued by one of the many warships stationed every 200 miles under the flight path in case of trouble. Given the slow speed of warships, that could leave the crew in the water for hours. Seaplanes are designed to land in harbors, not oceans.

The third plane ran out of gas. They did not find it until five days later. You can’t make this shit up. Your tax dollars at work paying the inept idiots that run the U.S. military to fly their own planes into the ocean and to make sure the accidents get the maximum publicity.

Battleship Iowa Turret explosion

Date of death
Names of deceased
Local unit & commander
Ostensible occasion
Names of V.I.P.s
4/19/1989 47 U.S. Navy sailors Captain Fred Moosally, Battleship Iowa Special Exercise Fleetex 3-89 ?

Safety rule waived

A Navy report said, “According to Tom Meiners,(Note 9) who was a gun captain in Turret II and was discharged from the Navy in March 1989, there were frequent overrams because there was constant pressure from the bridge to decrease the loading time and fire rounds as quickly as possible." I read a media report that said some V.I.P.s who were on the Iowa that day observing the ship firing on a target range at Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. I also recall reading that they inquired why it took so long between shots. The navy report further said, “There are few absolutely certain things in life, but the authors are convinced that, according to the evidence, the turrets on the Iowa and her sisters were safe and reliable as long as safety precautions were followed.”

‘Emergency’ submarine surfacing that killed Japanese student sailors

Date of death
Names of deceased
Local unit & commander
Ostensible occasion
Names of V.I.P.s
2/9/2001 9 Japanese sailors, including crew members, fishing instructors and fishing students Commander Scott Waddle, USS Greenville, a Los Angeles Class nuclear attack submarine Emergency surface drill for the entertainment of civilian donors and low-level executives who were on board the submarine 16 civilians—The Navy initially refused to release their names. They were accompanied on the submarine by a “senior Navy officer who is a member of the Pacific Submarine Force staff acting as the group's escort” who was perhaps the focus of the sub commander’s efforts to impress.

Safety Rule Waived

This is a quote from a CNN Web site: “The Pentagon, of course, has launched an investigation into this incident. Alec Fraser, a retired Navy captain, tells CNN that typically a very strict procedure is followed every time a submarine surfaces. The waters in front of the sub are searched by sonar and then the submarine alters course somewhat so that the propellers don't disrupt the acoustic search of the area behind the submarine.

And then at that point, if all appears clear, the sub rises to periscope depth, some 20 or 30 feet, to actually visually survey the waters to be certain they're clear. And then, and only at that point, does the submarine rise to the surface.”

Other media accounts indicate these procedures were not followed. Why? VIPs on the submarine for a joy ride were scheduled to leave the sub at 3 P.M. Who were these people who were so potentially important to the sub captain’s career that he violated safety rules and killed nine people to impress them? Contributors to the U.S.S. Missouri Memorial Association and members of a Honolulu Rotary Club. Two civilians were at the controls of the sub at the time of the collision.

A Greenville crewman said he could not finish plotting sonar blips—presumably one of which was the Japanese ship—because civilians were in the way in the crowded conning tower.

To his credit, the captain took responsibility and went to Japan to apologize to the families against the advice of his lawyer. But this Web page is not about taking responsibility. It is about the careerist, brass hat mind set that caused the captain to waive the safety rules in order to impress a superior or low-level civilians.

Three Greenville officers including Commander Waddle refused to answer questions put to them by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

Two more Fort Bragg ROTC fatal incidents

I vaguely recall reading about two other fatal incidents at Fort Bragg. Both were in late August, indicating they were end-of-summer-training ROTC demonstrations.

In one, I believe paratroopers jumping as part of the show were dragged to their deaths because the winds were too high for safe jumping, but the commanding general apparently waived the rules and went on with the show.

In another fatal incident in another apparent ROTC demonstration at Fort Bragg, I believe some safety rule regarding delivery of pallets loaded with heavy equipment by flying low and having parachutes drag them out of the back of a plane was violated. A number of soldiers were killed as a result.

Here is an email I received on 9/6/07 about the latter incident:

I happened to read your article about accidents at Ft. Bragg with great interest.  As it turns out, I was an ROTC Cadet (Seton Hall University) at the time of the C-130 LAPES accident you were referring to in July 1988.  As a matter of fact, I was in the bleachers approximately 300 meters away when the aircraft came in too fast and was not able to pull up or “level off” to release the parachutes that would extract the Sheridan tank.  All five (5) crewmen from Pope AFB were killed.  And as you mention, there were a lot of Army brass watching the demonstration.  The thing that really stood out in my mind, was that they (Army) personnel said that there was a malfunction with the parachute extraction system which caused a “weight” shift in the aircraft which the pilot was not able to correct.  Now, I’m no engineer by any means or a pilot for that matter, but from where I was sitting, the plane approached the DZ on such a steep angle (which was very impressive), I remember thinking to myself….I wonder how he is going to pull out of it.  And about 5 seconds later, they hit the ground and the plane exploded.  I don’t know if any of this helps you, but I just wanted to pass along since I was there.  Hope all is well.
 
Walt
201-712-5664

Again, I was unable to find the details of these incidents on the Internet. If any reader can help, please do. I am looking for the details shown on the other incidents in the tables above. I sent a copy of this Web page to the editor of the Fayetteville, NC Observer in December of 2006. Fayetteville, NC is the small town adjacent to Fort Bragg.

Blue Angel death

The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds regularly get their pilots killed. On 4/21/07, it was Navy Lt. Commander Kevin J. Davis at the Beaufort, SC air show.

Are those V.I.P. deaths as defined in this article?

Absolutely. Go through the list.

  • dead U.S. military personnel and/or other deaths
  • some sort of a military show being put on
  • some V.I.P.s as defined above present and watching the show
  • violation of one or more pertinent safety rules in order to put on a better or faster show or to avoid cancellation or postponement of the show

Is there a show? You bet.

Are V.I.P.s present? You bet. Large numbers of people at their shows are V.I.P.s.

Is there a waiver of a normal safety rule in order to put on a better show? Absolutely. The Navy, Marine, and Air Force pilots generally would not fly in normal or even combat operations like the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds do in shows.

Dangerous stunts S.O.P.

The only thing different about the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds deaths is that the waivers of safety rules are standard operating procedure for them, rather than ad hoc, swept-under-the-rug-after-the-deaths changes in other cases.

Does that excuse the Blue Angels and Thunderbird deaths? Nope.

Why?

What reason does the Navy give for the existence of the Blue Angels? Here is their mission statement:

The Blue Angels’ mission is to enhance Navy and Marine Corps recruiting efforts and to represent the naval service to the United States, its elected leadership and foreign nations. The Blue Angels serve as positive role models and goodwill ambassadors for the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Are the deaths of Blue Angels and Thunderbirds worth it for the recruiting and other benefits those units produce? Of course not.

First, human beings have died. These men have families: parents, siblings, and in many cases, wives and children. Secondly, the men who were lost were highly trained, top performing (in normal missions) pilots. In war, such pilots die often enough from enemy fire and aircraft malfunction. It takes a long time to replace them.

I can understand why men volunteer for dangerous combat missions. They are protecting the nation and in many cases, the Free World.

But why do they volunteer for dangerous air shows? I am not a psychologist. I think you need one to answer the question. I’ll make a stab at it.

Uniforms

Military personnel are peacocks—some more than others. Consider the uniforms. Police have uniforms because they interact with the public and it has been well established that uniforms assist officers in gaining the respect they must have from the public.

FBI agents wear minimal uniforms when they go on raids in order to avoid friendly fire. Good idea. I think the military should do the same in combat operations.

So why do the military wear uniforms all the time rather than just when they need to exert authority over civilians or to avoid friendly fire? They like to wear the uniform. I believe there is some law that gives certain former military personnel the right to wear it. I believe active duty military personnel stationed in DC are often asked to sign a temporary waiver of that right because the military does not want all its DC members in uniform because they are embarrassed about how many military personnel are actually stationed there.

Medals

The military also festoon their uniforms with medals, patches, and badges that reveal their accomplishments. Some patches are utilitarian and functional like their current unit assignment, name, country, and which service they are in. Nothing wrong with that.

But most of the stuff military people wear is show-off stuff. This has been going on for so long in so many countries that it is accepted without question. Maybe it shouldn’t be. I generally did not wear my few such awards: Ranger tab, Airborne wings, combat unit patch, West Point ring, etc. when I was in the Army.

Civilians have accomplishments, too, but they do not wear evidence of them on a daily basis on their clothing. You might see a diploma or major award on the wall of their office, but not evidence that they completed a three-week course (the length of airborne school).

Pro athletes win recognition like all-star selection, league MVP, and so forth, but they do not wear anything to show off about it. Doctors are almost all far more highly trained than even military personnel like the Blue Angels pilots, but they wear no evidence of it on their clothing. Teachers are comparable to military officers in that they are similarly educated and paid and both work for the government. But teachers wear no accouterments of accomplishment on their clothing.

No business like show business

Then there are bands and parades. What other occupation has grown men doing that? The military has an awful lot of costumes and public performances for what is supposedly a non-theatrical organization.

I do not mind such childishness when it involves harmless silliness like wearing merit badges and strutting around in step while wearing period (West Point and the Old Guard) or action figure costumes. But when men engage in extremely dangerous behavior and even die to show off, there ought to be a grown-up who says, “Knock it off.” At present, I seem to be the only one.

Risking dying while showing off reminds me of Evil Knievel and Steve Irwin, not the highly trained, responsible professionals that the military would have us believe they are.

Can the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds put on an entertaining show without risking their lives unnecessarily? Broadway, Barnum & Bailey, WWE, and Hollywood put on entertaining, action-packed shows every day without killing anyone.

Tell me about others

I am sure there have also been many other incidents in other years at other military bases or ships in the U.S. and overseas. I would appreciate hearing about them from readers.

A reporter with access to news databases like Nexis might be able to find them by searching for combinations of key words or phrases like “training accident,” “freak accident,” “general,” “admiral,” “safety,” “Congressman,” “Senator,” and “demonstration.”

Sucking up

Career military officers were the most sycophantic group of people I have ever met. The reason is quite obvious. Any officer’s superior can end that officer’s “career competitiveness” by putting a verbal raised eyebrow or slight downgrading in the officer’s efficiency report.

Furthermore, you have lots of superiors over the course of a career. In general, you get a new immediate superior about once a year either because you transferred or because one of your superiors did. To have a “competitive” career, you must make every single one of them love you, no matter the differences in their personalities, points of emphasis, likes and dislikes, or leadership style. How do you do that? Be a consummate suck up.

In some cases, superiors can assign the officer in question to duty or jobs that will damage his career or even greatly increase his risk of being killed or captured by the enemy. To have a successful career, you must avoid all such damage every day of your career. Such profound power over one’s career, combined with human nature, means that only officers willing to engage in lifelong boot licking will stay in the military.

This is humorous when it appears in popular culture like Catch 22, Beetle Bailey, McHale’s Navy, or Sergeant Bilko re-runs. But it is not a laughing matter when it results in combat losses—or the deaths of U.S. military personnel in V.I.P. demonstrations—or losing wars.

The media needs to stop overlooking the pattern and reporting on these as “freak training accidents.” The U.S. military needs to start punishing, severely, officers who waive safety rules during V.I.P. demonstrations—even if no injuries result.

A Vietnam Memorial-style wall could be built—perhaps a virtual wall at this Web site—listing all those U.S. military personnel who have died trying to help their careerist commanders impress V.I.P.s. Perhaps such a dramatization of this sordid history would jolt the military into doing the right thing for a change.

 

 


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