To paraphrase the well-known philosopher Yogi Berra, “It is deja vu all over again” in falsifying military service. While this malignancy has existed from the very origins of war, it was prevalent toward the end of the Vietnam conflict and has reached pandemic proportions during the military involvement in the Middle East.
There is, however, a marked difference in the “creation” of truth in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and the “invention” of combat experiences by today’s fakers. The post-Vietnam era, for the most part, can be described as a period in which the United States military was portrayed, with the tacit or overt support in much of the media, as a collection of war criminals who committed assassinations and brutal atrocities with the approval of their superiors.
To be fair, the shameful massacre at My Lai did occur and remains a stain on our honor; nevertheless, there was no cover up as those involved were tried and convicted. Unfortunately, My Lai evolved as the yardstick by which our involvement there was measured by those with an ax to grind and little regard for truth.
Among the most publicized of these perversions of integrity were the 1971 “Winter Soldier Investigation,” convened in Detroit by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Dan Rather’s 1991 “The Wall Within.” The former was a four-day rally in which veteran after veteran attested to committing or viewing grisly atrocities, while the latter was a CBS special detailing the barbaric actions and resultant trauma of six Vietnam veterans.
Subsequently exposed by investigation of military records, the commonality of both was a pattern of fabrication in that most of the subjects had never seen combat, half had never set foot in Vietnam, and many had never served in the armed forces. Typical of the “anti-war veterans” was the veterans group’s executive secretary and one of the Winter Soldier organizers who claimed to be a USAF captain and combat-wounded pilot. In reality, he was a loadmaster instructor whose records indicate he never left McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash.
Current impostors are an entirely different breed. Ranging from Vietnam-era veterans and wannabes to War on Terror pretenders, they are a collection of individuals who have engaged in deceptions such as falsifying rank, branch of service, military occupational specialty and medals and creating an ersatz service where none exists — all in order to appear a hero or to gain veteran’s benefits.
Most of them are abject failures in their subterfuge, especially among bona fide combat veterans who possess an innate talent for recognizing phonies. Those who have served can easily detect inconsistencies in an impostor’s familiarity with tactics, organizations, weapons and service components. An example of a red flag is the oft-claimed Navy SEAL, Special Forces or Marine Recon as the specialty of the deceiver. In reality, there are far more cooks, clerks and straight-leg soldiers than there are Rambos.
While the impersonation of a soldier, sailor, airman or marine and the unauthorized wearing of uniforms and medals may appear relatively unimportant, it is an insult to those who have served honorably and earned that recognition. Pseudo-heroes and wannabe veterans are thieves — usurpers of that which has been earned, often at great cost in life and limb by members placed in harm’s way.
Impersonations and unauthorized wearing of medals are criminal offenses, and those who commit these offenses are being prosecuted. One of the pioneers in finding and weeding out the fakers is B. G. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran whose book “Stolen Valor” is recommended reading. Additionally, members of Congress are rallying support for the Military Roll of Honor Act, which aims to establish a Department of Defense database of people awarded medals for valor in action.
While the honor and integrity of those so viciously besmirched by opponents of the Vietnam War remains an unforgivable blemish on their courageous sacrifices, the pendulum has reversed itself. Today’s national defenders enjoy their performance-earned respect, while the frauds are recognized as life’s losers.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.