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Much talk around the blogosphere on a related topic today, so it seems like a good time to re-post this entry from December 2003:
A Vietnam veteran who exposed more than 1,200 people trying to capitalize on bogus or inflated Vietnam war records has been saluted with a military honor.
B.G. "Jug" Burkett received the Army's Distinguished Civilian Service Award on Monday from former President George H.W. Bush at the Bush Library in College Station.
"He exposed a mass distortion of history that cost taxpayers billions of dollars" in undeserved veterans benefits, said John W. Nicholson, an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "He returned to the Vietnam veterans their good name."
Burkett's mission began in 1986 with his efforts to raise funds for the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Dallas. Many people refused to donate, Burkett said, because they believed they would be helping drug-abusing psychopaths with no desire to work or contribute to society.
Though I pointed out that many successful Dallas men, such as former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach, had served in Vietnam, to them, men like Staubach were the exceptions to the rule, the rare individuals who were not ruined by their war experiences. "Everybody" knew most soldiers who fought in Vietnam were reluctant draftees, poor minorities, or dumb cannon fodder not smart enough to avoid military service. When I told them that I - a financial adviser with undergraduate and graduate degrees from major universities - had voluntarily served in Vietnam, they looked at me in disbelief.
"You?" one said. "That surprises me. You seem so normal." Another corporate executive looked right past me - a man with short hair wearing a conservative suit - in his waiting room and asked his secretary, "Where's that Vietnam veteran who's here to see me?"
Burkett started his own research to find out who fought in Vietnam and to debunk some of the myths about Vietnam veterans. Through the work, he exposed more than 1,200 people, including politicians and entertainers, who lied about or exaggerated their claims of serving in the Vietnam War.
"I'm a little overwhelmed because none of what I've done exceeded just doing my duty," said Burkett, a financial adviser who served in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
Burkett said he's happy to receive the Army's award because it will help bring the right type of attention to his comrades.
"It brings the focus back to the message," he said. "And the message basically is that the people who served in Vietnam are the finest troops we ever produced."
In the years after returning home from my military service in Vietnam in 1969, I watched the negative images of Vietnam veterans in movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. I saw the stereotypes on bookshelves, in newspaper stories, on the TV news. By the Eighties, more than two decades after the fighting ended, there were reputedly hundreds of thousands of homeless Vietnam vets, most suffering from PTSD. On top of that, they suffered physical disabilities brought on by poisoning from the defoliant Agent Orange. The common refrain: More men had died by their own hand -- victims of suicide -- than had been killed during the decade of the War.
Still, the popular perception of Vietnam veterans as victims tortured by memories - drug-abusers, criminals, homeless bums or psychotic losers about to go berserk in a post office with an AK-47 - did not fit me or anybody I knew who had served in Vietnam, even those who had been horribly wounded or captured and tortured by the enemy. Certainly their lives were not always perfect, but their problems could not be attributed to their experiences in Vietnam. I brushed off the negative caricatures thinking, "That's not reality."
Only a few weeks into the fund-raising effort in 1986, the truth slapped me in the face: America accepted this pervasive stereotype, and it was constantly reinforced in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For agreeing to serve their country in Vietnam, an entire generation of veterans had been tainted with the labels of victim, loser, and moral degenerate. The men who had served in the military only 20 years earlier during World War II had received honor and respect for their efforts. Why had Vietnam been so different?
America won World War II. Vietnam was "the only war America ever lost."
In World War II, everybody pulled together. Vietnam was the class war, the war in which wet-behind-the-ears, poor, uneducated, minority men were chopped to pieces while college boys thumbed their noses at them in campus antiwar protests.
Brave American soldiers in World War II bested the evil armies of Hitler and Hirohito. In Vietnam, confused, drug addicted soldiers killed women and children.
World War II's veterans came home to stirring parades, ready to sire the baby boom and forge a supernation. Vietnam veterans trickled back in dishonor, fighting drug habits and inner demons. Or so say the stereotypes. Let's look behind the myths:
Myth: The war in Vietnam was fought by teenagers barely old enough to shave, while World War II was fought by men. A much-repeated statistic claims that the average age of the Vietnam soldier was 19, while the average age of the World War II soldier was 26.
Reality: The average age of men killed in Vietnam was 22.8 years, or almost 23 years old. While the average age of those killed was 22.8, more 20-year-olds were killed than any other age, followed by 21-year-olds, then 19-year-olds. More 52-year-olds (22) died in Vietnam than youths of 17 (12). The oldest American serviceman killed was 62. Almost 11 percent of those who died were 30 years of age or older.
Myth: The war was fought predominantly by draftees.
Reality: About one-third of Vietnam-era veterans entered the military through the draft, far lower than the 67 percent drafted in World War II. And once drafted, many men volunteered for the Marines, the Airborne, Special Forces, or other duty likely to send them to Vietnam.
Myth: It was a class war, with the poor and lower middle class those who suffered the brunt of it. The best and the brightest didn't go.
Reality: The force that fought in Vietnam was America's best educated and most egalitarian in the country's history -- and with the advent of the all-volunteer Army is likely to remain so.
In World War II, only 45 percent of the troops had a high school diploma.
Many were virtually illiterate. During the Vietnam War, almost 80 percent of those who served had high school diplomas, even though, at the time, only 65 percent of military age youths in the U.S. had a high school degree.
Throughout the Vietnam era, the median education level of the enlisted man was about 13 years. Proportionately three times as many college graduates served in Vietnam than in World War II.
A study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992 compared the socio-economics of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam to 58,000 randomly chosen contemporaries by rating their home-of-record according to per-capita income. They discovered that 30 percent of the KIAs came from the lowest third of the income range; but 26 percent of the combat deaths came from families earning in the highest third. This result was startling -- and far from the expectation that wealthier Americans were sheltered from the war.
Myth: The war took the highest toll on minorities.
Reality: About 5 percent of those who died were Hispanic and 12.5 percent were black -- making both minorities slightly under-represented in relation to their proportion of draft-age males in the national population.
Americans think they know the truth about Vietnam veterans because, over and over, they see the traumatized men who fought the War portrayed in all their pathetic anguish in the nation's most prestigious media -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the nightly network news. It never occurs to most of us to ask: Were these men really there?
Phony Vietnam veterans have fooled the nation's most prestigious investigative reporters. Like the murderer who deceived the Boston Globe and Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" fame, and wangled early release from prison because his heroin addiction was supposedly "caused" by war trauma suffered in Vietnam. Or the bogus SEAL who pulled the wool over Dan Rather's eyes and became the centerpiece of a award-winning CBS documentary on the Vietnam War. The phony Green Beret who testified before a federal judge against members of a Mafia family and duped two savvy New York organized crime writers.
Liars and wannabes have absorbed the myth and now perpetuate it, aided and abetted by the VA, veterans advocates, and the mental health care industry.
The price of this myth has been enormous -- certainly for American taxpayers, who have been bilked out of billions of dollars based on a myth -- but especially for Vietnam veterans. In the final analysis, the true tragedy is the denigration of a generation of warriors who were among the finest America ever produced.
When Burkett first arrived back in the states from the war, uniformed and lugging a duffel, the waitress at the airport restaurant ignored him, walking away.
Oh, don't mind her,'' said another who came over to take Burkett's order. ''She's got this antiwar thing. She won't serve anybody in uniform.''
No trumpets, no yellow ribbons tied around the old oak tree for Burkett. Just a cold shoulder.
It got worse. When he lucked into a standby seat on the flight home, Burkett was last to board. He was greeted by a drunk hollering out, ''Hey, folks, we've been sitting here on the runway waiting for a big goddamn war hero! ... Hey, bucko, you spent a year killing women and children,'' said the inebriate. ''Make you feel like a big man did it?''
Americans have allowed the soft-headed in the ''sophisticated'' media to convince them that Oliver Stone's drug-addled troops in Platoon and the surreal lunacy of Apocalypse Now are the real stories of Vietnam.
The crazed ''Rambo'' of First Blood, the vet who cannot stop killing, has become part of the language.
We have allowed those who were too cowardly to go to define both the Vietnam War and the Vietnam veteran.
The vets did their job. Polls show that well over 90% are proud of what they did and would do it again.
And thanks to Burkett, they have a vigorous defender.
One of his gifts to his fellow Vietnam warriors is a book called Stolen Valor : How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. In it, he details the work he did to unmask scores of phony Vietnam ''vets,'' some claiming Silver Stars and Medals of Honor when, actually, they never wore a uniform.
As a one-man ''truth squad,'' he demolished a slanted, wrong-headed Dan Rather documentary about ''post-traumatic stress disorder'' titled, The Wall Within. Checking military records, Burkett found giant holes and many lies in the stories of men Rather depicted as heroes.
Burkett's book is a tribute to truth, and Vietnam needs some truth.
Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson fired up his baseball teams with bloody tales of his days as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. War was hell. He had killed a little girl and her brother who happened into the line of fire.
The truth: He had been in the Marine Reserves. An exemption for baseball players had kept him out of combat.
The Blue Jays fired Johnson. Now he manages in the bush leagues.
U.S. Rep. Wes Cooley told reporters he'd fought in Korea as a Special Forces "demolition expert" trained in mountain climbing and escape tactics. The Oregon Republican said he'd engaged in countless secret missions.
The truth: Cooley never left the states during his military career. He hadn't even finished his training when the Korean conflict ended.
After his lies unraveled, Cooley dropped his re-election bid. He was convicted of falsifying campaign documents.
Actor Brian Dennehy, one of the stars of the Rambo movie "First Blood," said he served five years in Vietnam. He'd been hit by shrapnel. Combat, he told Playboy magazine, was "absolute f---ing chaos."
The truth: Dennehy had been a Marine, but his only overseas assignment had been as a football player on a service team in Okinawa.
After a long delay, Dennehy admitted his lies.
Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis spiced his lectures with tales of his Vietnam service. His unit had been nearby during the My Lai massacre. He served on the staff of America's top commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland.
The truth: Ellis never fought in Vietnam. During the war, he taught military history at West Point.
Ellis made a tepid apology: "Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made."
Veterans call them by all sorts of names: phonies, fakes, imposters, wannabes. Some claim they fought in wars they never served in. Others served honorably but exaggerate their exploits; they claim service in elite units, tell tales of top-secret suicide raids, wear medals they never earned.
Untold thousands of masqueraders are using make-believe war records to polish resumes, collect veterans benefits, or impress business associates, friends or romantic partners.
Almost any time Burkett reads a newspaper article about someone claiming to be a Vietnam veteran, he digs into their background and files a request for their military records.
Over the past 15 years, Burkett said, he has investigated perhaps 2,000 claims of military service; at least 1,500 of them were bogus in one way or another. Rep. Cooley was among the storytellers he helped expose.
False warriors are a phenomenon that happens after every war. Historian William Marvel has written that every one of the last dozen recognized living Confederate veterans was bogus. Marvel found that the last one, Walter Williams of Texas, would have been 5 in 1860 and 10 when the war ended. Williams didn't begin identifying himself as a Civil War veteran until 1932, when he applied for a Confederate pension.
Society is fascinated, too, with victims and heroes. For self-aggrandizers, Burkett said, Vietnam is alluring because its tortured history allows them to meld two identities. Like Rambo, they can be both heroes who fought for their country as well as victims betrayed by politicians and the public.
Some fakers are compulsive liars who convince themselves of the truth of their own stories. And while most fakers are trying to bolster fragile egos, some use their stories for grander aims: to win elections, steal money, hype their public images as entertainers or business executives, make political statements for or against U.S. military actions.
When confronted with evidence of their duplicity, Burkett said, most will stick with their stories, even presenting doctored and forged documents for support. "It's very rare that they'll cough it up."
In his book, Burkett argues that the problem goes beyond acts of individual dishonor. He says military pretenders often appear in news stories that contribute to stereotypes of Vietnam vets as violent, drug-addled, psychologically wasted and homeless.
The image is so universally accepted, he says, reporters and producers are quick to use stories that fit the stereotype, and rarely check the veracity of the source.
And what happens when someone questions the record of a veteran quoted in a news story? Most of the time, Burkett said, reporters, editors and producers refuse to admit their mistakes.
The media and the public live by stereotypes; rarely do they willingly forsake long-held beliefs. It's not an easy battle to challenge oft-repeated stories of a community hero's valor, or to correct a flawed but long-accepted historical record.
Burkett said one thing his campaign has taught him is that people want to hang onto their myths, whether it's a society certain that Vietnam veterans are woebegone cases, or a spouse who wants to blame her husband's problems on the trauma of war.
"They want to believe," he said. For some people, "there's a point where, once you cross that threshold, it doesn't matter whether it's true or not."
His decade of research at the National Archives, he writes in Stolen Valor, revealed a ''massive distortion of history'' colluded in by the entertainment industry, the Veterans Administration and the legal system. Many journalists also willingly went along.
Despite his bulldog effort, Burkett will never get it all back for the Vietnam vets.
The Oliver Stones, Sly Stallones, and Dan Rathers of this world are too powerful, even when they are dead wrong. But it's great to see what one guy can do if he puts his mind and energy to it.
Note: The above information was not written by me; it was compiled from the following sources:
Fox News: Army Honors Man Who Exposed Fake War Records
NewsMax: Welcome Home, Babykiller
NewsMax: Will the Real Vietnam Vet Stand Up?
USAToday: We let cowards define Vietnam War
The Roanoke Times: Real war veterans increasingly uncover truths of 'wannabes'
Find more info on identifying false veterans at Soldiers for the Truth
I am not a Vietnam veteran.
Original post: 2003-12-02 21:50:04