Old soldier unveils veteran liars Deception: From exaggerated deeds to complete fabrications, Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett is on a mission to unmask phony heroes.

Sun Journal

January 13, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the early days of World War II, a wily and ambitious Texas congressman concocted a sure-fire way to go far in politics: Create a heroic record of combat.

So Lyndon B. Johnson, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, got himself assigned to be a presidential observer in the South Pacific. Johnson was a passenger on a B-26 which briefly came under fire from a Japanese Zero fighter before landing safely at its base. He had been in action for 13 minutes before he headed home on the next plane.

But Johnson grossly embellished this brief wartime sojourn into the centerpiece of his successful 1948 Senate campaign. He became a war-weary veteran on a "suicide mission" who had seen 14 Zeros go down in flames. The future president boasted that comrades had nicknamed him "Raider Johnson" and that he spent time on several battlefronts.

What Johnson did was hardly unique -- or as blatantly untruthful as what many others have done. For some, such deception has && been a way to move ahead in politics, or simply to craft a macho image, or justify stress-related crime or collect veterans' benefits.

Shakespeare's Henry V declared that those safe in their beds in England "shall think themselves accursed" for not fighting with him at Agincourt. He had it wrong. Men have remained snug at home and still claimed they were in the thick of the fight.

The late U.S. Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence was buried at Arlington National Cemetery primarily because of his claimed record as a World War II merchant seaman. He enthralled a Senate committee with his tale of being wounded after his ship was torpedoed in icy Russian waters. But when the SS Horace Bushnell was hit, Lawrence was a college student who was surviving only the icy winds of Chicago. Last month, his wife had his body moved to a cemetery in San Diego.

Darrow "Duke" Tully, publisher of the Arizona Republic, claimed for 30 years that he was a decorated and wounded fighter pilot who had seen action in Korea and Vietnam. He wore the dress uniform of an Air Force lieutenant colonel to military receptions until the truth became known in 1985: Tully never served in the military.

In 1996, the Air Force named a first sergeant's award after retired Chief Master Sgt. Spencer B. Dukes, a crusty veteran who wore a chestful of medals, including the Silver Star. Dukes spent years telling groups of noncommissioned officers that he had survived the Bataan Death March in World War II and had been a prisoner of the Japanese for 42 months.

Later that year, the Air Force quietly called back the award and removed Dukes' name. The sergeant, it turned out, had received minor decorations and had never served in the Pacific.

Some exaggeration among military men is not unusual. Joseph P. Hoar, a retired Marine general, recalls that when he advised South Vietnamese Marines in the field, he would often return to Saigon to hear tall tales of combat from American staff officers who actually spent their time in air-conditioned offices.

"There was an effort to embellish a little bit what they did experience," Hoar says.

B. G. "Jug" Burkett, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who is now a Dallas stockbroker, has found hundreds of far more egregious examples. He has created a cottage industry of unmasking phony veterans or those who grossly embellish their records.

"The biggest single thing is low self-esteem," Burkett says. "They can put on their medals, and the kids look up to them or their wives explain [away] their faults."

Burkett began his endeavor in 1986, when he was helping a fellow veteran raise money for a Vietnam veterans memorial in Texas. This fund-raising campaign, Burkett says, had been hurt by the negative stereotypes of veterans. When a man was arrested, a headline often noted: "Vietnam veteran."

From his research, Burkett learned that some of these men had never served or had lied about being in combat for myriad reasons, from trying to impress women to assuaging middle-aged guilt for never having served.

"Hitting a 72 on the golf course is great," he says, "but it's not like getting shot in the Big One."

A tell-tale sign of fraud is boastfulness. "Being a hero means standing up and risking your life for your friend," he explains. "If you have that kind of character, it's not something you thump your chest about."

His efforts have derailed some big names. Last year, Burkett helped uncover the fraudulent military background of Rep. Wes Cooley, an Oregon Republican who resigned after it was revealed that his claim of service in Korea with the Army Special Forces was a lie.

Burkett has co-written, with Glenna Whitley, "Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed Of Its Heroes And Its History," to be published in the spring. A sizable portion of the book exposes those who lied about wartime roles or exaggerated them.

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