What a difference a few years makes. Throughout the 1960s, '70s and most of the '80s, Vietnam veterans were portrayed as unemployable and uneducated hicks, felons given a choice between prison and military service, war criminals, youngsters brainwashed to believe they performed a patriotic duty, or dead-end kids with no other options.
It was unwise to advertise one's veteran status, particularly in the academic atmosphere; however, with the release of Sylvester Stallone's "First Blood" and Chuck Norris' "Missing in Action" series of movies, it became trendy to acknowledge or to fabricate Vietnam service. Camouflage fatigues, jungle boots and scruffy, unkempt appearance were the new "cool."
As the years went by, the "veterans" became younger and more heroic — you seldom met one who had not been Special Forces, Marine Recon or a Navy SEAL. Were there no cooks, clerks or logistics personnel? In his 1998 book, "Stolen Valor," former Army 1st Lt. B. G. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran, exposed and documented the cowards, counterfeits and wannabes who "robbed the Vietnam generation of its heroes and history."
Not all of the fictions entailed posing as heroes by unauthorized wearing of uniforms and unearned medals, false claims of Vietnam service or fabricating combat experiences. Antiwar organizations showcased a collection of actual and phony veterans to fabricate tales of atrocities and exaggerate virtually all the myths of the "Vietnam existence." Two prime examples of these charades were the January 1971 "Winter Soldier Investigation" in Detroit by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the "60 Minutes" June 1988 documentary "The Wall Within."
That each was a sham, concocted by antiwar activists to cast the military in a poor light, is well-documented in "Stolen Valor" and other exposés. A typical impostor was Al Hubbard, executive secretary of VVAW, who claimed to have been a captain wounded by ground fire while flying a transport aircraft. In reality, he was an Air Force sergeant who had never been in Vietnam. Many had never served in the armed forces.
"The Wall Within" featured six "typical" Vietnam veterans whose war stories included command-sanctioned rapes and murders, behind-the-lines enemy assassinations and the resultant horror of having to live with combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the six, three had actually served in Vietnam, and only one had seen combat. An interesting sidelight to the "Wall": Dan Rather and CBS were provided evidence that the six were pretenders; nevertheless, the show went on.
Finally, when it appeared that we had seen the end in denigrating Vietnam veterans along with a marked reduction in counterfeit heroes, out of the woodwork appears David Blumenthal, Connecticut attorney general and Democratic Party primary candidate for Sen. Chris Dodd's open seat. He claims to have served as a Marine in Vietnam and to have experienced the less-than-civil reception of that conflict's returnees. The record reflects otherwise — a 1970 enlistment in the USMC Reserves and service in a Civil Affairs unit in Washington D.C.
Mr. Blumenthal has admitted that he "misspoke," that when he said he served "in" Vietnam, he meant "during" — that he was "unaware of those misplaced spoken words." The local and national party apparatus have joined in support of his candidacy; however, it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of this damage control. There is a bond of brotherhood among combat veterans — they close ranks rapidly against impostors. Few people respect one who misrepresents military service.
Perhaps Mr. Blumenthal can rationalize a difference between "misspeak" and prevaricate (lie) or the lesser-included offense (fib) in describing his service as a Marine. However, the stark experience of combat among the "mud, the blood and the tears" of war cannot be confused with planning drills and Toys for Tots drives.
Some will argue that this artful deceit is overstated — one must look to the "whole man" concept instead. In reality, it is evidence of a serious character flaw, an apparent lack of integrity in one being considered for election to the Senate. Moral relativism does not inspire trust and confidence.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.