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Whistling Dixie

How actors, journalists, musicians, ministers, politicians, professors, and ordinary Joes pass themselves off as America's heroes.

11:00 PM, Nov 10, 2005 • By ANNE MORSE
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WHEN WALTER WILLIAMS, America's last living Civil War veteran, died on December 19, 1959, the city of Houston gave him a funeral procession the likes of which the town had never before seen. A week of official mourning was declared, and more than 100,000 people lined the streets to salute the passing of the last link to a war that had torn America apart.

There was just one problem. Williams had never served in the Civil War. He was a fraud, as writer William Marvel discovered when he began researching a story for Blue & Gray magazine a few years ago. Although Williams had passed himself off as a Confederate soldier for 27 years, records proved he had actually been just five years old when hostilities broke out--too young even to serve as a drummer boy.

Amusingly, the man from whom Williams inherited the "Oldest Living Confederate" title, John Salling, was another phony. In fact, a dismayed Marvel wrote, "Every one of the last dozen recognized Confederates was bogus"--including all three attendees at the last United Confederate Veterans' reunion, where, one imagines, they shared made-up stories of how they whipped the Yankees at Bull Run, witnessed the burning of Atlanta, and gave Scarlet O'Hara directions to Tara.

These sham soldiers have a lot of company. Over the years thousands of men have claimed to come marching home again from the Old South, the trenches of France, the halls of Montezuma, Pork Chop Hill, and 'Nam. And now, they are marching home from Iraq, their chests covered with medals they didn't earn for gallantry they never modeled. Some of these frauds never saw military service; those that did--dissatisfied with their actual deeds--invent spectacular feats of derring-do that put Sergeant York and Audie Murphy to shame.

What drives men to pretend they answered duty's call when they were, in reality, otherwise engaged? For some fakers, it's a matter of money--the price of a drink, a handful of change, or a government check. Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett, who has over the years exposed more than 1,000 phony vets, writes in his book, Stolen Valor, that in 1932, the federal government began offering pensions to Civil War veterans. Their numbers immediately jumped. (It was the Depression, after all.)

Others lie for glory. Like the last Confederate veteran, one of the last Great War vets was also a fraud. For years, James Harris Reed entertained his nursing home pals with memories of his days as a flying ace, shooting down 13 German planes and battling the legendary Red Baron. Following his 1995 death, investigation revealed that Reed had been an 11-year-old school boy at the end of the Great War. (The Navy's only WWI ace, with five kills, was Lt.(j.g.) David Ingalls.)

"Action!"

Many frauds claim veteran status in order to boost their careers. Phonies abound in Hollywood, on Wall Street, in politics, in academia, and in journalism. For instance, silent screen star Tom Mix claimed to have charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. In reality, Mix never saw combat--unless one counts the time his wife shot him. Military records list Mix as a deserter.

Actor Brian Dennehy claimed for years that he served a five-year tour as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was wounded in action. In reality, Dennehy's only Vietnam "action" was on-screen in A Rumor of War, in which he portrayed a Marine gunnery sergeant. While Dennehy did serve in the Marines, it was not in Vietnam; his only "combat duty" was playing football in Okinawa in 1962.

Then there are the political "veterans" whose war records are even more dubious than their campaign promises. In 1984, Robert Sorensen was a Connecticut state representative running for reelection. When challenged on his opposition to opening legislative sessions with the Pledge of Allegiance, Sorensen huffily replied: "My patriotism should not be questioned by anyone because . . . when my country called me into service, I fought in Vietnam."

Except that he didn't, as his opponent quickly discovered. Even then, Sorensen brazened it out, employing an excuse that, for sheer audacity, can't be beat. "For the first time ever, the American public had before them a war in their living rooms," he explained. "Every single person in this United States fought in that war in Vietnam. We all felt the anguish that those people felt. So in a sense I was there."

Veterans who actually were in Vietnam being shot at with real bullets, might be forgiven for thinking that, in a sense, Sorensen was a horse's ass. (Sorenson withdrew from the race.)

The same year, Iowa Senator (and later presidential candidate) Tom Harkin boasted that he had flown F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance support missions in Vietnam. No, wait, it was combat sorties over Cuba, he corrected himself when challenged by Senator Berry Goldwater. Harkin finally acknowledged that he had never seen combat--that his military experience consisted of ferrying damaged aircraft for repairs from Japan to the Philippines.

Senate candidate and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke also ran on his Vietnam "war record," claiming he'd participated in rice drops behind enemy lines for the CIA. Real Vietnam veterans exposed him. Duke's only military "service," it turned out, consisted of brief membership in the ROTC at Louisiana State University, where authorities kicked him out when Duke began airing his nutty beliefs.

Academics have also been caught fabricating feats of military prowess. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis apologized (sort of) for his imaginary service in Vietnam, where he claimed to have been the commander of a platoon of combat paratroopers from the famed 101st Airborne and a member of General William Westmoreland's staff. (When Ellis returned home from his make-believe trip to Vietnam, he went on to perform imaginary civil rights work in Mississippi.)

Lying for the Lord

Even clerics sometimes succumb to the temptation to glorify themselves instead of God. In 1990, Major Gary Probst, a popular chaplain with the 1st Special Forces Group at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, claimed he'd served in Vietnam as a Green Beret and an Army Ranger. A chest full of medals, including the Special Forced Badge, the Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, backed up Probst's claims. When it was discovered that his entire résumé was a fantasy, Probst claimed he'd lied for the Lord: His phony heroics, he explained, allowed him to gain the trust of his flock--which made his fibs a good and helpful thing. His superiors disagreed. Probst was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

Probst's story is typical in one respect. Fakers never want to be the Radar O'Reillys or Corporal Klingers of their outfits. Instead, they are invariably covert operatives sent on clandestine missions behind enemy lines. Or, they're highly-decorated Navy SEALs who single-handedly accomplished impossible missions while badly wounded. But sometimes they go too far with stories so outrageous that eventual exposure is all but inevitable.

A few years ago Californian William Gehris became known as America's most decorated war hero after telling the San Bernardino Sun that he'd been awarded 54 decorations for his heroics as an Army sergeant, including the Distinguished Service Cross, six Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, a Legion of Merit, a Soldier's Medal, and the Distinguished Service Medal. Gehris claimed he'd fought with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and was among the first wave of warriors to land on Utah Beach on D-Day. Impressed by his advocacy on behalf of veterans, then-U.S. Congressman Bob Dornan appointed Gehris to a veterans' advisory committee.

Big mistake. When a suspicious B.G. Burkett obtained Gehris' military record through a Freedom of Information Act request, he discovered that Gehris had indeed served in the Army, but had received a single Bronze Star--one that "had been awarded to all Army infantrymen for meritorious service; the others were service awards given to the typical soldier in the thick of the European campaign," Burkett notes in Stolen Valor. When a reporter, armed with Burkett's evidence, exposed Gehris, the vet refused to acknowledge his lies. "There are people who don't believe 6 million Jews were killed, either," he said.

Many fakers are similarly exposed because reporters have a nasty habit of checking up on their stories. But sometimes, journalists are themselves the phonies.

Take Dan Rather. In Bias, the book about CBS by former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, the author describes telling Rather about a soon-to-be published article citing a CBS News report as a particularly onerous example of left-wing bias. To Goldberg's amazement, "Rather's voice started quivering, and he told me how in his young days, he had signed up with the Marines--not once, but twice!"

Again, Burkett comes to the rescue with the truth. Rather signed up with the Marines only once, and "never got through Marine recruit training because he couldn't do the physical activity," Burkett says. And he notes that Rather was "discharged less than four months later on May 11, 1954 for being medically unfit." And yet, Rather has been known to brag about his "career" in the Marines.

Rather has "made such a big deal out of this 'I'm a Marine' thing," Burkett says. "This is like a guy who flunks out of Harvard running around saying he graduated from Harvard. "You're not a real Marine until you get out of basic training. And Rather never did."

Even worse, the network anchor who ferociously attacked both Vice President Dan Quayle and President George W. Bush for avoiding Vietnam service himself took steps to avoid service in the Korean War. While a student at Sam Houston University in the early 1950s, Rather joined the Army Reserve, "thus avoiding the possibility of being drafted," Burkett notes. By the time Rather graduated, the Korean War was history.

"The second the Korean War was over, and he wasn't in jeopardy anymore, he dropped out of the Army Reserve," Burkett says. And that's when Rather enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Phony Vets and the Journalists Who Love Them

It's hard not to be amused when it comes to the imaginary exploits of aging "Confederates" and Great War "aces" who fought the Red Baron, but the phony tales spun by modern imposters--especially those who claim Vietnam service--are no laughing matter. These are the frauds who, every Veterans' Day, show up at parades and at the Vietnam memorial in Washington in their rag-tag fatigues and flea market medals, telling credulous reporters that Agent Orange or Post Traumatic Stress ruined their lives, and that memories of slitting children's throats keeps them awake nights. All too often, these suffering "veterans" never set foot in Vietnam--and yet, the images they offer have permanently shaped the way Americans view soldiers from this war: As slovenly, drug-addled baby-killers who loiter on America's streets when they're not committing violent crimes. Phony Vietnam vets typically tell tales of Vietnam horrors to explain and excuse their failed lives, Burkett says, and naive journalists uncritically lap them up. Much research proves that--far from being homeless, alcohol-drenched failures--most Vietnam vets are healthy, mentally stable, successful men who deserves their country's respect.

Band of Fakers

The fact that military service has once again become respectable means America is currently fielding a bumper crop of frauds claiming to have fought somewhere or other--and they have the medals to prove it.

Last May, FBI Special Agent Thomas Cottone, Jr. told the Wall Street Journal that for every actual Navy SEAL today, there are at least 300 imposters. And more than twice as many people say they've received the Medal of Honor than the 124 living recipients who actually earned it. The frauds have so infuriated real veterans and their families that dozens of websites have sprung up to identify both the true heroes and the fakes, such as AuthentiSEAL.org and HomeOfHeros.

We are now four years into the war on terror, and already, the tales of phony valor and fake atrocities, in Afghanistan and Iraq are legion. As usual, the stories are whoppers, and as usual, reporters are all-too-willing to accept them at face value.

Sgt. Andrew Isbell was seemingly among the most heroic of the returning soldiers from the war in Iraq. When he appeared at his drug-possession trial in Rockport, Texas in August of 2004, neatly clad in his Army uniform, he told jurors that he had recently earned two Bronze Stars in Iraq, plus a Purple Heart for the bullet wound in his shoulder. Jurors were sympathetic to the fact that Isbell, an infantryman, was on medical leave from his dangerous job patrolling the streets of Baghdad, and acquitted him.

Subsequent investigation proved that Isbell had seen no combat, suffered no wounds, and earned no decorations. He wasn't even a sergeant. He had instead worked in food service as a private, and had been discharged from the Army after being AWOL for two months. For his lies in court, Isbell was charged with aggravated perjury.

Sgt. Thomas Larez was another seemingly heroic vet. He'd suffered multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds when he pulled an injured soldier to safety while under fire from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite his wounds and temporary blindness caused by a concussion grenade, Larez rallied, killed seven Taliban fighters, and captured a gaggle of others. A Dallas television station celebrated Laraz's exploits, only to sheepishly run a retraction when it turned out that, while Larez was indeed a Marine, he had never set foot in Afghanistan.

A few days ago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch exposed a different kind of fake: One who's making the kind of atrocity claims that got John Kerry noticed 34 years ago.

Former Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey served with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, in Iraq for nearly a year during 2003. During that time, he claims, he and other Marines (whom he labeled "psychopathic killers") deliberately gunned down innocent Iraqi civilians, fired on peaceful protesters, and shot a 4-year-old child through the head at a checkpoint. Or was it a 6-year-old?

"How is a 6-year-old child with a bullet in his head a terrorist, because that is the youngest I killed," Massey told an audience at Cornell University. Or was it a girl? "That's war: a 6-year old girl with a bullet hole in her head at an American checkpoint," he told a Vermont audience.

Except, as Massey later acknowledged to the Post-Dispatch, he'd never actually shot any child, boy or girl. "I meant, that's what my unit did," he explained. Except that it didn't, according to Massey's fellow Marines and the journalists who covered them. Nor did they target civilians and protestors. In fact, as the Post-Dispatch documents, each one of Massey's claims is "either demonstrably false or exaggerated --according to his fellow Marines, Massey's own admissions, and the five journalists who were embedded with Massey's unit."

Nevertheless, Massey's lies have earned him the usual rewards of the anti-war Left: A book deal, invitations to speak at elite colleges, and a place of honor with Cindy Sheehan's traveling circus. Confronted by the Post-Dispatch with the complete lack of corroboration for his atrocity tales, Massey merely shrugs. "Admitting guilt is a hard thing to do," he says.

It sure is.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.

--Shakespeare, Henry V

Going through life feeling cheap and accursed cannot be pleasant--which is why, presumably, so many gentlemen go through it pretending they shot down the Red Baron, survived the Bataan Death March, or helped capture Saddam Hussein, as some fraud has probably claimed to have done while an admirer paid for his drink. Those who encounter these phony heroes will likely go home with a good story. But nothing they hear will top the true story of the man who wandered into a chapter of the American Legion in Washington state a few years ago wanting to become a member. Like many stories of military frauds, this one comes by way of champion hoax-exposer B. G. Burkett.

The applicant--who was Asian American--filled out a form indicating he was a veteran of the Vietnam War, and had been honorably discharged. He became a valued member of the chapter, eventually winning office as the chapter commander.

There was just one hitch. This man was a Vietnam veteran, all right. But he'd neglected to mention that he'd fought for North Vietnam. Once this shocking fact was revealed--despite his popularity with his fellow vets--the soldier's membership was gone with the wind.

Anne Morse is a writer living in Unity, Maryland.