Vietnam Vet Attempts to Restore Soldiers' Valor

by Christopher Ruddy

© Copyright September 7, 1997
All rights reserved.

FOR THE PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW - The popular wisdom about the Vietnam War and the saga of its veterans will be shattered if one man has his way. His name is B.G. "Jug" Burkett. His soon-to-be-published book, "Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History," has been written with no less ambitious a goal than to completely revise America's perception of Vietnam veterans and the war they fought.

To all too many, the 53-year-old laments, the typical Vietnam veteran is a hair-trigger, ponytail-adorned pot smoker who, if he has a place he can call home, has a marginal job where he sulks and occasionally mumbles about an unjust war that took the lives of a disproportionate number of blacks. Call that the Hollywood image engraved in America's consciousness by such Oliver Stone films as "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July."

Burkett uses no such images. He deals strictly in hard, indisputable facts. And those facts, painstakingly unearthed in years of research, demonstrate that Vietnam vets are better employed than others of their generation, are more likely to have a college education and own a home, have lower incarceration and suicide rates, and, in a revelation that's sure to shock many, have a lower drug-addiction rate.

As for blacks, Burkett found that they suffered a rate of casualties slightly under their demographic percentage though they volunteered for combat units at three times the rate of whites. So much for the widespread perception that African-Americans were used like fodder on the front lines by white generals.

EXCUSED BY WAR

Many will be shocked for other reasons. Take, for instance, New York's Upper West Side - an ethnically diverse, politically liberal enclave in the city with probably a strong anti-Vietnam War sentiment. For a number of years, residents of this area were terrorized by a homeless man named Larry Hogue who periodically went berserk, smashing car windows, screaming obscenities and on one occasion allegedly pushing a young girl in front of an oncoming truck. His antics, and the terror he caused, made national news and were the subject of a "60 Minutes" segment.

Prosecutors attributed his behavior to a head injury he incurred in Vietnam, yet another reason for those Upper West Side residents to denounce that unholy war and to have a reason to "forgive" poor Larry Hogue. It wasn't his fault; Nixon did it to him in the war. But "Stolen Valor" will reveal that Hogue never set foot in Vietnam, having served in the Navy for a year in 1963 and 1964 - before the major troop buildup in Vietnam.

Many other articles of faith are shattered in this book. To those who wear unearned medals and trade on accounts of their Vietnam service, Burkett is surely the No. 1 bete noir. He was described by The New York Times as "a clearinghouse of information on the subject."

Daniel Morris Gisel is one of a number of men whose sorriest day was doubtless when Burkett decided to augment his stockbroker career with a crusade to ferret out those who make pretensions to Vietnam heroism. Gisel had been appearing at the University of California Santa Barbara offering emotional, choked-up speeches, some nationally aired on cable TV, about his participation in a 1965 battle in which a dozen U.S. Special Forces troops beat back huge numbers of Viet Cong. On his head was the Special Forces' distinctive green beret; his chest was adorned with a Distinguished Service Cross.

Burkett was suspicious, so he dug up a copy of Gisel's service record, which indicated no participation in any such action. He then alerted the producers of ABC's "20/20." That show then did a segment on phony vets, and a trap was sprung on Gisel. The reporter, Tom Jarriel, asked Gisel to look at a photo of men who had actually fought the battle in question. As the camera rolled, Gisel sat stunned, unable to identify his supposed buddies or to explain his own absence from the photo.

"In the military, you wear your resume on your chest," says Burkett in explaining his antipathy toward those who falsify that resume. He is proud of his own service in Vietnam, which, he's always been careful to note, was as a base camp officer. In exposing pretenders to battle valor, he guards the authenticity of combat at least as zealously as anyone who himself served in the middle of firefights.

STARTLING REVELATIONS

For almost a decade Burkett has investigated some 1,400 valor claims of Vietnam vets who have made the news. He's found three-quarters of them to be exaggerations or outright frauds. And Burkett says he will have some startling revelations when his book comes out next year. "It's getting to be a cottage industry," he says. Many such false claims have been used to explain or mitigate misbehavior or social pathology: drug use, homelessness, even murder. In "Stolen Valor," Burkett details more than 200 of the most outrageous cases of deception.

Burkett became the nation's point man on this issue while serving in his adopted home of Dallas as co-chairman - along with honorary chairman President George Bush - of the Texas Vietnam Memorial. Disappointed at the slow rate of contributions to the monument, Burkett called a press conference at the site. An uninvited contingent of "stereotypical" Vietnam vets - camouflage fatigues, scraggly beards, ponytails - showed up.

A TV reporter approached Burkett, saying she wanted comments from Vietnam vets and motioning to the colorful uninvited group. "How about talking to some of these vets?" suggested Burkett, pointing to the well-dressed, successful men who worked with him on the memorial. The reporter, obviously uninterested in interviewing such neatly attired men, said, "I don't think we need that," and moved on.

Among the stereotypically correct group were a number who sported the insignia of the Special Forces. This, Burkett's subsequent research revealed, was either a fabrication or a statistical wonder. "When you add up all the (Navy) SEALS and Green Berets on a percentage basis," notes Burkett, "you're talking about maybe one out of 300. So if I get a group of 1,000 Vietnam veterans, my expectation is for no more than three Green Berets. Look at the pictures of Vietnam veteran events and you'll have hundreds of Green Berets," he adds. "You have a statistical problem there."

TRUTH REVEALED

One of Burkett's highest-profile unmaskings concerned a best-selling book: "Conduct Unbecoming" by Randy Shilts. Shilts' book featured a "gay Vietnam love story" of Gerald Rosenbalm and Donald Winn - two men Shilts described as combat heroes.

Burkett shows that these central characters and their actions in Shilts' books were fiction, and that records demonstrate Rosenbalm and Winn never met in training as Shilts claimed. Winn, whose family has steadfastly denied was gay, could not have died during the Tet offensive in Rosenbalm's arms, as Shilts claimed, because Winn was never wounded. He died in his barracks of a heart attack and was nowhere near any action during the Tet offensive. Burkett concluded from all this that Winn's name was simply "just picked from the Vietnam Wall and a story was woven around it."

When Shilts was forced to eat crow, he had some high-profile dining companions. Prior to Burkett blowing the whistle on the sham, a CBS Special Report with Dan Rather called "The Wall Within" featured six Vietnam veterans supposedly so devastated by the war that they had taken refuge in the wilderness of Washington State.

One such vet-turned-wolfman was "Steve," a former Navy SEAL who related that he'd been shipped back to the States in a straitjacket after becoming one of the best "assassins" in Vietnam, massacring civilians, burning their villages and shamelessly blaming these war crimes on the enemy. Then, spaced out on drugs and alcohol, he had attempted to strangle his mother, whom he'd mistook for a Viet Cong. Now, unable to function in civilized society, he was sleeping in hollowed-out logs.

Terry Bradley was also on that show, confessing to the "awful stuff" that had brought on his post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He told a mesmerized Dan Rather of skinning alive up to 50 Vietnamese men, women and babies in a single hour, then stacking the butchered bodies like cordwood. An accompanying clip showed Bradley in his forest habitat howling like a trapped animal at the sky.

Burkett was less than impressed, so he began investigating. Two years of research later, he revealed "Steve" not only wasn't a SEAL but also hadn't gotten anywhere near combat action in his capacity as a firemen's apprentice. Possibly he concocted his horror stories in the Philippines, where he'd had plenty of time to meditate while sitting in a brig for repeated absent-without-leave, or AWOL, violations.

As for baying-at-the-moon wilderness dweller Terry Bradley, whom Rather acknowledged had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Burkett learned that he'd compiled 300 days of either confinement or being AWOL in his 3 1/2 years as an artilleryman. There is no record of large numbers of civilian deaths in the area where he served outside Saigon.

Burkett's research revealed that two others of Rather's six supposed forest-dwelling guests had been security guards, not "grunts" as they claimed. And a fifth guest eventually admitted that the trauma-inducing loss of a friend in a propeller accident on a carrier in the war zone actually took place in a training exercise off California.

SHAKE UP THE NATION

Burkett has been the subject of numerous articles and interviews, and even made a splash in Time magazine. In the April 1996 issue, the newsmagazine's "Notebook" section devoted much of its space to a revelation by Burkett that 25 of the 58,196 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington do not belong there - the men being quite alive. The item was wryly headlined "Among the Living." In a similar vein, Burkett calls the living 25 the Wall's "honor guard."

Burkett's book, written with noted Texas writer Glenna Whitley, bodes to shake up the nation's beliefs on more than the Vietnam War. Though centered on that conflict, it exposes myths about other wars that have long been accepted as gospel.

One example is the Pvt. Eddie Slovik myth. As a result of a much-touted television movie about him a few years back, most Americans think he was the only GI executed by this nation in World War II.

To the contrary, demonstrates Burkett, there "were almost 1,000 GIs condemned to death during World War II for atrocities against civilians and other crimes. More than 100 of them were actually executed. Most are buried in a cemetery in France. ... It's an embarrassment; it's a disgrace. It never became part of the history of World War II. But it's there, and I can prove it."

Burkett has some other deflating facts to reveal about what many call our "last good war." Men did not "line up on Dec. 8, 1941, to enlist," he notes. "That's just a figment of Hollywood's imagination. The bulk of World War II vets didn't start coming into the service until 1943 and 1944. The draft was in place, and there were millions of guys of draft age who were exempt due to defense (industry) deferments."

He contrasts that war - in which a surprisingly low 33 percent enlisted and 67 percent had to be drafted - with the Vietnam War, in which the figures were completely reversed with 67 percent volunteering. And even of the Vietnam draftees, he notes, 10 percent volunteered to be drafted.

Much more upsetting to the "good war-bad war" believers are sure to be his revelations about the behavior of some of our revered troops in that former war. The 101st Airborne Division was trapped in the famous Battle of the Bulge, he says, because "everybody on their flank quit fighting. There were 20,000 GIs AWOL in Paris the day the Battle of the Bulge started."

By contrast, he notes, "In Vietnam, we never surrendered. The concept of surrender didn't exist in Vietnam."

DESTROYING MYTHS

Burkett, the son of an Air Force colonel, is hardly likely to be accused of any lack of patriotism for such revelations. His purpose is not to belittle or demean the less-than-heroic actions of a relatively few World War II veterans. Rather, he seeks to once and for all destroy what he considers the insufferable myth of the Vietnam War being an ugly stain on our military, not in any way to be compared with those noble days of World War II.

"The men and woman who served in Vietnam were heroes, not the victims society and the media would have us believe," the mild-mannered Burkett says with some emotion. People like me who grew up in the military, and were the sons of the World War II generation, wanted to follow in the footsteps of heroes. When we were told that because we went to Vietnam we would be relegated to second-class status, that we were unworthy, I said to myself this is just false, absolutely false. I had to do something about it."

"Stolen Valor" seems destined to be a milestone in American military history, perhaps in American history itself. It is being published by Verity Press, and will be available in bookstores by the spring or 1998.