|Sunday, November 16, 2003
Real war veterans increasingly uncover truths of 'wannabes'
|Actor Brian Dennehy is among those who have either exaggerated their experiences or lied outright about serving.
By Mike Hudson
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.
Vets and journalists who have delved into the world of military impostors say untold thousands of masqueraders are using make-believe war records to polish resumes, collect veterans benefits, or impress business associates, friends or romantic partners.
"The sheer number is just mind-boggling," said Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," a bestselling book about a U.S. Army Ranger engagement in Somalia. "And it's frankly put me in a position of doubting anybody who tells me a war story."
B.G. "Jug" Burkett, a Vietnam vet who is now a stockbroker in Dallas, feels the same way. Almost any time he 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.
Burkett, co-author of "Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History," is in many ways the godfather of a growing network of debunkers of false military claims. One retired SEAL commander told The New York Times that he and others connected with the elite Navy unit had exposed more than 7,000 SEAL impostors.
Waving the flag
It can take time, but it's almost always possible to prove or disprove whether someone served in the military, where they served, whether they saw combat, and whether they earned medals.
The military keeps records on almost everything. On a typical day in Vietnam, Burkett noted, there were always more clerks with typewriters than riflemen in the field. "Everything is done in triplicate," he said.
People should be skeptical, he said, about those who wear heroism on their sleeves, tell wild tales of wartime mayhem or claim to have led clandestine missions that the government won't acknowledge.
In his book, Burkett notes the story of a man named John Murray who claimed to be an ex-prisoner of war and retired lieutenant colonel. During a POW-MIA Day ceremony in New York, Murray stepped forward with a tiny framed American flag. He said he had made it in his POW camp by shredding his clothing and dyeing the cloth with berries and his own blood. Each day he raised the flag on a bamboo stick so he and his fellow prisoners could honor it.
He got permission to hold a ceremony on National Park Service grounds and persuaded retired Gen. William Westmorland to attend.
That night, Murray, driving drunk and on antidepressants, smashed his car into a utility pole. Police efforts to ascertain his true identity - he claimed three different birthdays and had two Social Security numbers - unraveled his patchwork of lies. Murray had never been in the military. He later pleaded guilty to lying to obtain a government permit.
Murray explained his deception by saying, "I only wanted to help."
Victims and heroes
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 honors warriors. Movies and television are obsessed with war. Many Americans equate honor and masculinity with military service. Men - and women - with low self-images sometimes try to build up themselves by claiming service and even heroism, say those who have investigated the problem. Cooks and clerks and others who served in noncombat slots feel guilt that they had it easy compared with comrades who risked and sometimes gave their lives in battle.
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.
Bowden, the "Black Hawk Down" author, found this to be true when he did his own investigation of the media's handling of this problem: Many journalists simply didn't care about finding out the truth. "It was just an outrage," Bowden said. "It was frankly somewhat disillusioning to me."
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."