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.”
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.