It started, as many good stories do, as a question that needed an answer. Why, UC Berkeley journalism student Jason Paladino asked, had his high school friend died in 2014 a military helicopter crash? And why did it seem so many sailors and Marines had died in similar crashes?
That question led Paladino on a years-long investigation that grew into a new, feature-length documentary examining unnecessary military death and the human cost of misplaced bureaucratic priorities. The independent documentary “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” was accepted by the Mill Valley Film Festival and will premiere there on Oct. 7.
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The film examines the Marine CH-53E Super Stallion and Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon, two variants of the same helicopter that has claimed the lives of 132 people in preventable helicopter crashes since it was introduced in 1981. The helicopter is considered to be the deadliest aircraft in the U.S. military. Navy Lt. Wes Van Dorn was the pilot in the 2014 crash.
Paladino and director Zachary Stauffer, a 2008 graduate of Berkeley’s journalism school, found that the military had not paid serious attention to maintaining the crumbling fleet of workhorse helicopters.
“Where the reporting led us is a look at the decision-making processes,” Stauffer said. “Is it to peoples’ benefit to support the maintenance and the unglamorous aspects of supporting a Cold War relic, or is it to the advantage of powerful people to support new weapons instead?”
“It is not a story of one single flaw with the helicopter,” Stauffer added. “We have an old helicopter that was allowed to limp along and wither on the vine while dollars were being sent elsewhere.”
The film is produced in part by the journalism school’s Investigative Reporting Program, a teaching newsroom for UC Berkeley’s journalism students. Six J-School alumni worked on the film, along with 12 current graduate students who got real-world experience contributing to the project.
“One thing I love about this documentary is that it is sort of an example of the (reporting program’s) approach to education, because it started as a story from the student,” said John Temple, director of the Investigative Reporting Program and an associate adjunct professor at the journalism school.
“It is a professional production, but it has a teaching component all the way through it and will continue to because we will talk about it in class,” Temple said.
Stauffer, who had limited documentary experience before enrolling in the journalism school in 2006, said the chance to work as a student with the Investigative Reporting Program was irreplaceable.
“You can learn in a classroom, and you can learn by doing and you can learn by being around people have been doing it for a while,” Stauffer said. “The (Investigative Reporting Program) makes it possible for people to tap into all of that.”
The film also serves the reporting program’s mission of examining issues that might otherwise be overlooked. Stauffer said he hopes the film can eventually screen at military bases across the country.
“It is a film that can help bring the day-to-day experience of enlisted sailors and Marines into sharp relief for a largely distant public. These are people that many people don’t have to think about that often; it is a distant experience,” Stauffer said. “It is not a military film that is about hero worship. It is not an action movie; it is not a pity party about someone suffering from war trauma. It is a film about how we have failed our men and women in uniform.”
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