Despite the wartime trauma that had driven him to heroin, he became a model prisoner, earning an education, counseling teenagers, and volunteering at a school for disabled children under a prison work-release program. Eventually Yandle won the backing of the Vietnam Veterans of America, which initiated a nationwide write-in campaign seeking clemency, as well as supportive coverage from such media powerhouses as The Boston Globe and CBS’s 60 Minutes. Bowing to the campaign and heavy publicity, Governor William F. Weld commuted Yandle’s sentence over the objection of prosecutors and the victim’s family.
Anyone who has read this far in Stolen Valor knows what’s coming. Burkett did what nobody else (including, apparently, the prosecutors) bothered to do: FOIA the records. Yandle, he discovered, “was twenty years old when he was sent overseas [to Okinawa] in September 1968. The battle of Khe Sanh had ended by March 1968—six months before Yandle left his comfortable base in Yorktown, Virginia—so he could not have been at Hill 861 during that terrible fight.”
And it got worse. Yandle had not served a single tour in Vietnam and had never been in combat or won the Purple Hearts or Bronze Star for valor he claimed. When 60 Minutes refused to revisit the story, Burkett approached a producer he knew at ABC News’s 20/20. In short order, Yandle admitted his lies on camera, and ABC gleefully reported that he had duped 60 Minutes even as CBS scurried to backtrack. Yandle was arrested and returned to prison.
Those who lie about military exploits are not engaging in harmless boasting. Most do it for financial or other gain, Burkett insists. And even when they don’t, all who served honorably are tarred when, as Burkett recounts, CBS News airs a documentary presenting a homeless man, who was in fact a communications repairman, as a secret assassin who massacred Vietnamese civilians behind enemy lines. (CBS stood by its story even as Burkett and VA officials confronted the network with records Burkett says contradicted its sources and the statistics it used.) More recent phonies, like Jesse Macbeth, who had been kicked out of boot camp but won the support of peace groups by falsely claiming he had murdered Iraqi women and children, have played into enemy propaganda at a time when American troops are under fire. When it is easy to cheat and there are incentives to do so, many people will give dishonesty a try, whether it is a congressman seeking reelection, an executive trying to move up the ladder, or a child molester who hopes to win a jury’s sympathy by claiming that Vietnam messed up his mind.
Yet time and again, Burkett and Whitley write, the press has been willing to report dubious claims without checking the records at the source. Some of these cases are jaw-dropping in their audacity. David Goff, a superintendent of public works in Morrisville, New York, and also a devoted volunteer in area veterans groups, claimed an array of decorations he said he earned for service in Vietnam: they included a Silver Star with one oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Service Medal, which typically is given only to generals and other top brass. Goff even persuaded U.S. Representative James T. Walsh, a New York Republican, to pin these glittering decorations on his chest at a public ceremony.
According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, Goff had spent the war working as part of a CIA-supervised black op in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, where his team assassinated officials behind enemy lines. He claimed he had seen fellow soldiers die of gunshot wounds or have their throats slit by the Viet Cong. After a nervous breakdown, Goff said, he was shipped out, and the only treatment he received was from a chaplain who offered him two glasses of warm Scotch. He was debriefed by superiors using electric-shock treatments. It took years for him to overcome a legacy of alcohol abuse and become a stalwart in the local community.
Enter Burkett, who had read a wire story about Goff. After requesting the records, he discovered Goff had never been assigned to Special Forces and had spent the war as a clerk in Okinawa. But when he called an editor and a reporter at the Post-Standard, he said, he got the standard brush-off. The reporter checked with Goff, then reportedly told Burkett, as if talking to a child:
Mr. Goff has explained that. The gov9ernment has doctored these files because they are trying to cover up the activity he participated in. Everybody knows that the CIA doctors records.