On the morning of July 29, 1967, Preston Gardner, a Navy senior chief petty officer, had just finished an overnight shift aboard the USS Forrestal, an aircraft carrier operating in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.
A stray electrical signal ignited a rocket on board. It shot across the flight deck, hitting the fuel tank of a fully armed fighter jet. Seconds later, a 1,000-pound bomb fell from the plane and cracked, sending flames sweeping across the ship.
Gardner immediately positioned himself beneath the deck, spraying water to help thwart further damage. Twenty-four hours later, he was able to remove himself from his position. The flames claimed the lives of 134 sailors.
Gardner knew he would never forget the smell of burnt flesh. The odor lingered as he and surviving crew mates spent 23 days sailing back to the United States.
“It is something I’ll remember the rest of my life,” said Gardner, now 75, of Cheswick.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans alive today who can describe the horrors of the Vietnam War firsthand. Their status as war veterans is central to their identity. Yet when they fill out the 2020 census, they will be unable to designate themselves as such. The census does not collect that information.
It’s not just a point of pride for those who have served. Data generated by the census determines state and federal funding, as government services are allocated according to demographics. Without such a designation, organizations that focus on helping veterans find jobs and housing may not receive enough funding to support the people they serve.