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.
Perhaps by now it has become clear that Burkett doesn’t give up easily when a reporter blows him off. In the case of Goff, the Texas crusader eventually interested Reader’s Digest in the story, and in 1994 Goff was found guilty of falsifying documents in order to obtain the decorations. He admitted in court that he had never served in Vietnam. And the Post-Standard did end up issuing a mea culpa in the form of a story about Goff’s conviction. “Much of the public perception of Vietnam vets … has been spun by the Dave Goffs of the world,” write Burkett and Whitley.
For reporters trying to make sense of the phenomenon of PTSD, Stolen Valor offers particular cause for concern. Since the war’s end, veterans’ activists have claimed that anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million of the 3.3 million men who served in the Vietnam theater suffer from PTSD—never mind that fewer than 15 percent of those who set foot in the country were in front-line combat units, Stolen Valor notes. A four-year, $9 million study commissioned by Congress and undertaken by North Carolina researchers concluded that 830,000 Vietnam veterans were suffering from full or partial PTSD.
Impressive numbers indeed. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 2.2 percent of Vietnam veterans had the disorder. And the North Carolina study clearly had some methodological flaws. For example, it cited six women who claimed their disorder had been caused by being prisoners of war. “Apparently,” write Burkett and Whitley, “no one involved in analyzing the survey realized that not a single American military woman was ever a prisoner in this war.”
This is not only a matter of principle, but of public finance. The VA offers life-long disability payments to those suffering from PTSD, we read, yet is willing to accept documentation from veterans without checking military records to see if the form has been altered. The result, according to Stolen Valor, is an inflated roster of PTSD victims earning $32,076 per year tax-free for 100 percent disability at taxpayer expense—and more, if there are dependents.