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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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.