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.
A VA spokesman told me the department accepts documentation provided by veterans, but it has been participating in an audit to verify the accuracy of its data, particularly in the area of former prisoners of war. “If any data errors or lack of proper documentation are found, the appropriate corrective actions will be taken,” the VA said in a statement. In any case, Burkett’s focus on rooting out bogus PTSD claims led Paul McHugh, a Johns Hopkins professor of psychiatry, to list Stolen Valor as one of the five best books on “the factions and follies of psychiatry” in The Wall Street Journal last year.
How, then, should a journalist handle the military claims of a source? On deadline, it is difficult to obtain records, which means I am careful about quoting any claims about heroics, participation in atrocities, or top decorations in quick-turnaround stories. Even if you have time, there is no single destination for all military records. The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis is a good place to start: it has documents from the Spanish-American War through about the year 2000, and staff members can point you in the right direction if they don’t have what you need. Last year, I dealt with Navy officials in Millington, Tennessee, for several stories, and once you have established contacts there, they respond fairly promptly by e-mail. In either case, you need a date of birth and at least a partial Social Security number or full military-service number. Also, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society maintains an archive of recipients of that decoration.
There are also individuals who, like Burkett, are seeking to expose the scoundrels and can be invaluable resources. Chuck and Mary Schantag, who run the POW Network in Skidmore, Missouri, helped me find a federal Web listing of World War II POWs, where I verified the former POW status of a source I was quoting in a story on deadline. And Doug Sterner of the Home of Heroes in Pueblo, Colorado, confirmed the same source’s Silver Star. In fact, Sterner has compiled a listing of 140,000 recipients of decorations, and he has been pushing for the Pentagon to create a national database of the top medal recipients, which would aid reporters in smoking out wannabes.