The Blog

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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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.