Sunday, August 5, 2012
As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier by Gerry Fostaty
The strange and haunting story of the tragedy at the summer cadet camp in Valcartier, Quebec continues to plague the families whose men and boys were involved, 38 years after the events there took place. Imagine the indolence of deep Canadian summer in 1974, when 13- to 15-year-old boys gather at cadet camp to learn to discipline, obedience, and the manly arts. On a routine rainy day, while the boys are learning the dangers of unexploded ordnance by viewing dummy ammunition in a barrack, a live grenade detonated, killing or injuring 60.
A mistake, a carelessness compounded again and again over a period of days, led the live grenade to be placed in a box of dummies. The instructor was not responsible for the disaster and indeed was himself injured in the explosion. A series of unfulfilled transfers from a live demonstration led a box of live ammunition and a box of dummies to be placed side-by-side in the back of the same truck.
The lives of hundreds of people were directly or indirectly altered by events that day, and one cannot help but look with scalded eye at the army handling of the moment and the aftermath. The leadership of armies the world over are slowly becoming aware that their ranks are people, too, who can be as great or as lax as the organization that feeds them. But they can also be injured deeply in psychological ways that do not appear to be wounds. While the Canadian Army is not perceptibly different from any other national service, they did their staff, cadets, and their families a disservice that summer of 1974 by ignoring if not suppressing news of that event. They can do better.
The Army leadership could start by making Fostaty’s recounting of the story required reading. It would be an excellent teaching tool for Army staff and a kernel for discussion. The errors of that day, whether of action, of inaction, or of judgment, do not need to be compounded now by ignoring attempts to come to terms with the event’s effects. Fostaty reconstructs events of that fateful summer in narrative form, using the army’s own investigation results and recounts in dispassionate tones recurrent nightmares over a period of nearly forty years. He was a good soldier then--good enough to teach cadets--and he is a good soldier now. He raises valid points that the Army organization might heed.
Errors of this magnitude can be only tragedies if they are ignored or repeated, but if they improve performance or change poor management, they can also be stepping stones to betterment. It is time now to look hard at events that summer, to celebrate the lives of staff and cadets killed or injured on duty in peacetime, and to move forward as better soldiers, in a better organization.
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