Debunking the tales of frauds who claim to be Vietnam veterans is a great tribute to those who actually served.
By Lieutenant Colonel Richard W. Roberson, U.S. Army (ret.)
B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley have performed a great service not only to Vietnam veterans but also to the American general public. Their 692-page book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History (Verity Press, Dallas, Texas, 1998, $31.95) details the gullibility of the news media, academics, politicians and even the Veterans Administration in swallowing and publicizing the outrageous tales of frauds and criminals claiming to be Vietnam veterans.
The book also tells the story of the many Vietnam veterans who, like the majority of those who served, returned to the United States to be productive members of society. One would hope that the media reads this book and takes its lessons to heart.
“Jug” Burkett served in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade from June 1968 to May 1969. Following his discharge, he went to graduate school and got on with his life. In 1986, he became involved in establishing the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial and began to encounter curious sorts of Vietnam vets. Some appeared as derelicts dressed in tatters of military garb; some were noted in accounts of Vietnam vets as criminals; others presented themselves as highly decorated heroes and ex-POWs. Much of this did not ring true to Burkett, so he started checking military records. Thus began what some might term a crusade.
Burkett found that the tales of “vets” and “heroes” who claimed to be SEALs, LRRPs, Special Forces or Marine Recon types were generally accepted–few people checked or confirmed their claims. The frauds spun tales of secret missions for the military or the CIA involving murder, assassination and various atrocities. Some also claimed to have been captives of the VC or NVA who had escaped after accomplishing amazing feats. There wasn’t an infantryman, truck driver, combat engineer, door gunner or artilleryman in the lot. When queried about their stories, they produced medals (readily available at flea markets or by mail order) or copies of records with errors obvious to anyone knowledgeable. There were also tales of lost records or a cover-up by the military bureaucracy because of secrecy requirements.
Burkett describes instances in which frauds lectured to students about their hellish war experiences or had politicians publicly present them long-delayed awards for valor. Others had worn unearned awards while serving on active duty or in the reserves, used their self-proclaimed status as Vietnam vets to advance their careers or tried to claim that punishment for their criminal acts should be mitigated because they had been war heroes or suffered combat trauma.
One would think that exposure of these frauds would have generated outrage by those fooled, especially the media. But that has rarely happened. Rather, the typical reaction seems to have been to ignore it and it will go away.
In addition to fraudulent Vietnam vets, Burkett addresses posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and medical conditions attributed to exposure to Agent Orange. He notes the multitude of such claims and points out that the Veterans Administration has usually responded not by checking records of military service but by accepting personal statements and what are purported to be military records. The approved therapy for dealing with PTSD advises against challenging claims of the person needing help. The goal of many of these claimants was simple and straightforward–a disability pension and tax-free money. Burkett describes how this game is played and notes how those who challenge the game are ostracized.
Burkett explodes some of the popular myths about the Vietnam War, such as extraordinary rates of suicide and homelessness among Vietnam veterans, and the disparate casualty rates among minority servicemen. He also takes on the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), whose roots lie in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and notes that the VVA, unlike the Veterans of Foreign Wars, does not verify Vietnam service through records in the National Archives. Burkett writes about bogus Vietnam vets who are active in the VVA.
This is a solid, well-written, thoroughly documented book. It includes listings of those who received the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross for Vietnam service. There is also a table of U.S. Military POWs who returned alive.
Jug Burkett and Glenna Whitley are owed a great debt of gratitude by legitimate Vietnam veterans, and those of other wars as well. If you are a Vietnam veteran, I urge you to read this book. You owe it to yourself and to those who served with you.