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.
Stolen Valor can be exhausting at times—the lists of phonies and their stories tend to blur together—but no reporter who reads it will ever again crank out a Veterans Day feature without making an effort to verify the subject’s claims first. And if you take the trouble to obtain service records, you may find surprises. In 2008, I wrote a story that quoted a modest old gent who still cries decades later when talking about a kamikaze attack on his aircraft carrier—but who neglected to tell me he had been decorated for his heroics in fighting the ensuing fire, saving men’s lives, and possibly the ship itself. A pastor with some model airplanes in his office turned out to have won a Distinguished Flying Cross as a fighter pilot attacking batteries deep in North Vietnamese territory under heavy fire.
These are the people who motivate Burkett and Whitley. The problem is not just that lonely old men on street corners are spinning yarns about decorations they picked up at flea markets. It is not even the fraud that false heroes perpetrate against taxpayers, voters, and crime victims. The thing is, men and women under the extreme circumstances of war showed courage and self-sacrifice, and their names are being tarred by sex offenders or homeless mental patients with a bottle of MD 20/20 in their khaki jackets, who brag of heroics that aren’t theirs or ’fess up to war crimes that no soldier ever committed. They are committing a different kind of crime: stealing the valor of heroes.