Two years ago, a weekly paper in suburban Chicago profiled an elderly character who had been asked to lead the village’s Fourth of July parade. John Dietz, often seen scooting around Oak Park in an electric cart, was to be honored as a hero who had been so severely wounded in Korea, Vietnam, and a subsequent car wreck, that he had “learned how to walk four times and how to speak three times,” The Wednesday Journal reported.

Dietz told of having his skull split open when his tank was hit. He recalled the camaraderie under fire, as when fellow marines built a cake out of snow to celebrate his birthday. It turned out that the solitary old man who would sit at street corners watching the world go by spoke five languages, had earned three Purple Hearts, and once played linebacker for the Michigan Wolverines, the paper reported.

You see it coming. Dietz’s story fell apart as soon as it appeared in print. Was the military really repacking the brains into the skulls of wounded infantrymen, issuing them walkers, and returning them to active duty? Were combat marines really taking time to pat snow cakes for their buddies? As I worked on a story for the Chicago Tribune about Dietz’s and others’ dubious claims to battlefield heroics, I found no record that Dietz had ever served in the Corps under that or another name he gave, and no one by either name had ever played linebacker for Michigan.

Sources kept directing me to B. G. “Jug” Burkett, a Dallas-area Vietnam veteran, retired financial adviser, and avenging angel who has made it his mission to reverse a nation’s stereotypes about the Vietnam War. Eventually, I would track down his book, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History—and discover it to be one of the most troubling indictments of shoddy journalism and cultural groupthink I have ever read.

The book, a collaboration with Texas investigative writer Glenna Whitley, undertakes a prodigious task in seeking to rescue a war and the veterans who fought it from infamy. It also exposes the complicity of some journalists in abetting an epidemic of phony claims to combat experience.

Reporters often don’t check military records, for a simple reason: there are deadline pressures when a story is being cranked out for tomorrow. But even when there is time to check such records, the errors keep finding their way into features and investigative pieces. In this way, the media have helped perpetrate myths of Vietnam vets as booze-breathed, PTSD-suffering homeless types, always a loud noise away from sticking a gun in their mouths or launching a string of armed robberies. If you find yourself interviewing a scruffy “Vietnam vet” in fatigues who tells you about the dying buddies he cradled or the civilians he massacred, well, check it out. The odds are, Burkett will tell you, your old soldier never served.

Stolen Valor gained cult status in military circles, despite being self-published in 1998. It won a Colby Award for military history, and Senator Jim Webb, a former Marine and Navy secretary, blurbed it and has praised it in articles. But the influence of Stolen Valor goes far beyond a military that believes the history of the Vietnam War and the image of its veterans have been warped in the popular mind. Burkett works as an expert consultant for prosecutors, lectures FBI agents and government-fraud investigators, and has coauthored an article on PTSD in The British Journal of Psychiatry, even though his graduate degree is an MBA. The book even inspired a 2006 law making it a federal crime to falsely claim one has earned a decoration for battlefield courage.

Journalists, meanwhile, have their own lesson to learn from Stolen Valor. The book reveals a troubling pattern: reporters take a source’s claims at face value, then dig in and refuse to correct the record when confronted with documentation to the contrary. Military records may be arcane, but they do convey meaning. There is simply no excuse for not checking the claims of, say, a mentally ill street person who says the CIA altered his service record to hide his secret wartime exploits. Yet some reporters neglect to do so. As the Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal noted in a 1999 review of the book, reporters of this stripe are “in denial,” and “that denial sometimes includes refusal to set the record straight for viewers or listeners.”

Burkett is a gravelly-voiced Texan prone to expressions like “well, bullshit” and “hell’s bells,” and he attracts drama the way a magnet pulls in iron shavings. He is a talker: call him for a quote and you may hear about how his big mouth nearly got him clobbered with a rifle during Officer Candidate School, or the time his daughter’s friend was stabbed to death and her dog died in the same week. As Stolen Valor makes clear, Vietnam’s legacy is personal for Burkett. The son of an Air Force officer, he served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. But upon his return, he discovered how deeply the antiwar movement’s animosity toward warriors had seeped into the national consciousness. A waitress declined to serve him because he was a soldier; a drunk harangued him as a baby killer throughout the length of an airplane flight; and a graduate business professor refused to let veterans even mention their military service, forcing former combat leaders and logistical experts to illustrate their case studies with their exploits as Boy Scouts or tales of selling lemonade.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Burkett sought to raise money for a Vietnam War memorial in Texas, that he found his calling as a vanquisher of myths about the war and its veterans. He was dumbfounded at the hostility he faced, even from veterans of earlier conflicts. When his organization distributed postage-paid envelopes at VFW halls, hundreds were returned empty or stuffed with hate mail from people who had internalized the canards about Vietnam vets: “Fucking scum, crybabies, World War II vets are real men, you are drug-using wimps,” someone had scribbled on one envelope. “Why don’t you bums go to work and quit playing GI Joe?” wrote another.

These images didn’t fit the successful Vietnam veterans Burkett knew. In fact, as Burkett and Whitley assert, drawing on statistics from the Department of Labor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vietnam veterans have lower unemployment and suicide rates than the general population. And as for the notion they were a bunch of drug-addled maniacs who spent their tours of duty burning villages, Vietnam service personnel had lower desertion and court-martial rates than combatants in previous wars. (The explanation, says Burkett, is that the press in World War II censored news of abuse and atrocities by Allied troops.)

Burkett began fact-checking stories about Vietnam veterans. In 1988, a Dallas police officer named John Glenn Chase found himself scuffling with Carl Dudley Williams, a mentally ill street person who snatched the cop’s gun and shot him dead as bystanders chanted, “Kill him, kill him!” Other officers cornered Williams and gunned him down in a parking lot. The Dallas Times Herald reported the suspect was a Vietnam veteran, and a columnist quoted himself as telling a friend of the gunman, “Hell of a thing. Do you think Vietnam did that to him?” Crazy homeless vet kills cop: it fit the script that so infuriates Burkett.

Doubting the reports, Burkett used the Freedom of Information Act to request Williams’s military record through the National Archives and found he had entered the Navy on August 30, 1974—seventeen months after all combat troops had left Vietnam. Records indicated that he had never set foot in the country. But when Burkett contacted the paper’s publisher, the Times Herald refused to publish a correction.

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.”

Oops.

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.

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.

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.

 

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Russell Working is a former staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Illinois.