“This is more to us than just one story. This is these people’s entire lives. Do you have any idea what this could mean to their future?” – USMC Capt. Tyson Dunkelberger, Blue Angels spokesman.
Oh, I know what it could mean… I was in basic training the first time it was explained to me.
The military, I was told, holds it’s people to a higher standard than the general public.
As long as I wore that uniform, I was told, I would be a representative of that higher standard.
I remembered that speech last week when the News Journal caught wind that two members of the Blue Angels had been removed from duty on the team. The only explanation offered up by the Navy was that they were involved in an “inappropriate relationship.” One was a pilot, and the other was not. Uh oh…
I have since written three stories that have been an uphill battle every step of the way. I’ve battled with the Navy for more information, I’ve battled with the ethical decisions of what we should and should not publish, and I’ve battled with myself, a lifelong fan of the Blues who remembers, as a kid, watching them fly an airshow in Millington, Tenn., while perched atop my dad’s shoulders.
The Navy never released the names of the people involved with this, but it’s a small world, and we figured it out pretty quick. The No. 4 jet hadn’t flown for a couple weeks, and a couple of sources said that the other party was the sole female officer on the team.
I asked Dunkelberger about the No. 4 jet and if that was the pilot removed, and he wouldn’t give an inch.
“You can draw whatever inferences you want,” he said.
He then said that there was a “very real possibility” that if we named the No. 4 jet’s pilot, we could be fingering the wrong guy.
The implication, as I understood, was that they could have shuffled the numbers after they grounded the pilot.
He asked me to not name any names, but that wasn’t really my choice. He then made the argument that opens this article.
But this is the news industry, and appeals to emotion aren’t so effective. The real decision here was based on the ethics.
The No. 4 jet being gone was a solid connection, but as Dunkelberger said, the Navy could have pulled some trickery and changed the numbers. Should we name the No. 4 pilot in the newspaper? Should we say how old he is, what high school he graduated from, and that he is married and has kids?
There was a debate, but we did.
Should we name the female officer? Even as more information came out that suggested she was probably the one involved? In the end, we didn’t. I guess when you have the number 4 embroidered on the front of your flight suit, you put your self a little farther out there.
We did publish enough information so that anyone with an internet connection could figure out who she is in about 10 seconds. A fact that I’m not sure how I feel about. Is that just the same as naming her?
When I called Dunkelberger back for an update a couple days later, he wasn’t happy.
“Was it you I talked to the other day? After I told you not to print people’s names, you went ahead and did it anyway?” he asked.
I told him it wasn’t my choice, but I stopped short of telling him it wasn’t his choice either.
During this conversation, he somehow told me even less than the time before. We argued a little, and I let him get to me a little more than I should have. He made me feel guilty for doing my job. He made me feel like it was my fault that two Blue Angels screwed up, and now it was national news. He made me feel like my choices were what put their future in jeopardy.
Eventually, I told him that, more than he knew, I was on their side. I said goodbye. I wrote another story.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to a Blue Angels air show and nearly jumped out of my shoes when a jet snuck around behind the crowd, and came blasting overhead at full throttle. I’ll never forget craning my neck at the high shows, and being a little disappointed when they flew low shows, but always being amazed, none the less. I’ll never forget the time spent with my dad at summer air shows, and how he told me the Blue Angels were as good as it got.
And I’ll never forget the day that I realized that even angels can fall.