Burkett is a gravelly-voiced Texan prone to expressions like “well, bullshit” and “hell’s bells,” and he attracts drama the way a magnet pulls in iron shavings. He is a talker: call him for a quote and you may hear about how his big mouth nearly got him clobbered with a rifle during Officer Candidate School, or the time his daughter’s friend was stabbed to death and her dog died in the same week. As Stolen Valor makes clear, Vietnam’s legacy is personal for Burkett. The son of an Air Force officer, he served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. But upon his return, he discovered how deeply the antiwar movement’s animosity toward warriors had seeped into the national consciousness. A waitress declined to serve him because he was a soldier; a drunk harangued him as a baby killer throughout the length of an airplane flight; and a graduate business professor refused to let veterans even mention their military service, forcing former combat leaders and logistical experts to illustrate their case studies with their exploits as Boy Scouts or tales of selling lemonade.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Burkett sought to raise money for a Vietnam War memorial in Texas, that he found his calling as a vanquisher of myths about the war and its veterans. He was dumbfounded at the hostility he faced, even from veterans of earlier conflicts. When his organization distributed postage-paid envelopes at VFW halls, hundreds were returned empty or stuffed with hate mail from people who had internalized the canards about Vietnam vets: “Fucking scum, crybabies, World War II vets are real men, you are drug-using wimps,” someone had scribbled on one envelope. “Why don’t you bums go to work and quit playing GI Joe?” wrote another.
These images didn’t fit the successful Vietnam veterans Burkett knew. In fact, as Burkett and Whitley assert, drawing on statistics from the Department of Labor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vietnam veterans have lower unemployment and suicide rates than the general population. And as for the notion they were a bunch of drug-addled maniacs who spent their tours of duty burning villages, Vietnam service personnel had lower desertion and court-martial rates than combatants in previous wars. (The explanation, says Burkett, is that the press in World War II censored news of abuse and atrocities by Allied troops.)
Burkett began fact-checking stories about Vietnam veterans. In 1988, a Dallas police officer named John Glenn Chase found himself scuffling with Carl Dudley Williams, a mentally ill street person who snatched the cop’s gun and shot him dead as bystanders chanted, “Kill him, kill him!” Other officers cornered Williams and gunned him down in a parking lot. The Dallas Times Herald reported the suspect was a Vietnam veteran, and a columnist quoted himself as telling a friend of the gunman, “Hell of a thing. Do you think Vietnam did that to him?” Crazy homeless vet kills cop: it fit the script that so infuriates Burkett.
Doubting the reports, Burkett used the Freedom of Information Act to request Williams’s military record through the National Archives and found he had entered the Navy on August 30, 1974—seventeen months after all combat troops had left Vietnam. Records indicated that he had never set foot in the country. But when Burkett contacted the paper’s publisher, the Times Herald refused to publish a correction.
The story of Joe Yandle, a Massachusetts junkie and convicted murderer, illustrates the extent to which even national media can be duped. Yandle and a buddy, Eddie Fielding, were conducting a string of robberies in 1972 when Fielding shot to death the owner of a liquor store. Yandle was the getaway driver. But over the prior two weeks, Burkett and Whitley state, Yandle, too, had pointed his gun at the heads of robbery victims.
On the other hand, Yandle was a veteran, traumatized, he said, by service in the Marines in Vietnam. In the legendary battle of Khe Sanh, amid hand-to-hand combat, he turned to look for his buddy “Dusty,” only to see that the guy’s face had been blown off. But valiant Dusty wasn’t dead yet. He was still trying to jam another clip into his rifle. Stays with a man, surviving something like that. “Man, I was scared to death,” Yandle told The Boston Globe in 1994. “I still get shaky today thinking about it.”