Two years ago, a weekly paper in suburban Chicago profiled an elderly character who had been asked to lead the village’s Fourth of July parade. John Dietz, often seen scooting around Oak Park in an electric cart, was to be honored as a hero who had been so severely wounded in Korea, Vietnam, and a subsequent car wreck, that he had “learned how to walk four times and how to speak three times,” The Wednesday Journal reported.
Dietz told of having his skull split open when his tank was hit. He recalled the camaraderie under fire, as when fellow marines built a cake out of snow to celebrate his birthday. It turned out that the solitary old man who would sit at street corners watching the world go by spoke five languages, had earned three Purple Hearts, and once played linebacker for the Michigan Wolverines, the paper reported.
You see it coming. Dietz’s story fell apart as soon as it appeared in print. Was the military really repacking the brains into the skulls of wounded infantrymen, issuing them walkers, and returning them to active duty? Were combat marines really taking time to pat snow cakes for their buddies? As I worked on a story for the Chicago Tribune about Dietz’s and others’ dubious claims to battlefield heroics, I found no record that Dietz had ever served in the Corps under that or another name he gave, and no one by either name had ever played linebacker for Michigan.
Sources kept directing me to B. G. “Jug” Burkett, a Dallas-area Vietnam veteran, retired financial adviser, and avenging angel who has made it his mission to reverse a nation’s stereotypes about the Vietnam War. Eventually, I would track down his book, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History—and discover it to be one of the most troubling indictments of shoddy journalism and cultural groupthink I have ever read.
The book, a collaboration with Texas investigative writer Glenna Whitley, undertakes a prodigious task in seeking to rescue a war and the veterans who fought it from infamy. It also exposes the complicity of some journalists in abetting an epidemic of phony claims to combat experience.
Reporters often don’t check military records, for a simple reason: there are deadline pressures when a story is being cranked out for tomorrow. But even when there is time to check such records, the errors keep finding their way into features and investigative pieces. In this way, the media have helped perpetrate myths of Vietnam vets as booze-breathed, PTSD-suffering homeless types, always a loud noise away from sticking a gun in their mouths or launching a string of armed robberies. If you find yourself interviewing a scruffy “Vietnam vet” in fatigues who tells you about the dying buddies he cradled or the civilians he massacred, well, check it out. The odds are, Burkett will tell you, your old soldier never served.
Stolen Valor gained cult status in military circles, despite being self-published in 1998. It won a Colby Award for military history, and Senator Jim Webb, a former Marine and Navy secretary, blurbed it and has praised it in articles. But the influence of Stolen Valor goes far beyond a military that believes the history of the Vietnam War and the image of its veterans have been warped in the popular mind. Burkett works as an expert consultant for prosecutors, lectures FBI agents and government-fraud investigators, and has coauthored an article on PTSD in The British Journal of Psychiatry, even though his graduate degree is an MBA. The book even inspired a 2006 law making it a federal crime to falsely claim one has earned a decoration for battlefield courage.
Journalists, meanwhile, have their own lesson to learn from Stolen Valor. The book reveals a troubling pattern: reporters take a source’s claims at face value, then dig in and refuse to correct the record when confronted with documentation to the contrary. Military records may be arcane, but they do convey meaning. There is simply no excuse for not checking the claims of, say, a mentally ill street person who says the CIA altered his service record to hide his secret wartime exploits. Yet some reporters neglect to do so. As the Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal noted in a 1999 review of the book, reporters of this stripe are “in denial,” and “that denial sometimes includes refusal to set the record straight for viewers or listeners.”