True Face of the Vietnam Vet
by Malcolm McConnell
[Reader's Digest (May 1994)]
Fed up with the stereotype of his comrades as bedraggled losers,
one man decided to expose the frauds.
On the State Fair grounds in Dallas, B.G. Burkett stood patiently
beside five red granite tablets, the start of a Texas Vietnam
Veterans Memorial. Contributions had been disappointing, and
Burkett, co-chairman for fund-raising, had called a news
conference to get publicity on that September afternoon in 1988.
Then Burkett noticed the arrival of an uninvited delegation. His
jaw tightened. They were dressed in a hodgepodge of camouflage
fatigues and blue jeans, some sporting scraggly beards and
ponytails. Several wore the insignia of combat units or the green
beret of the elite Special Forces.
A television crew approached Burkett. "We'd like to get some
comments from Vietnam veterans," the correspondent said,
indicating the group in fatigues.
"How about talking to some of these vets?" Burkett replied,
motioning to the memorial-fund volunteers. Like Burkett, a
stockbroker, they were successful men in early middle age.
The correspondent looked skeptically at the neatly dressed men in
suits. "Well," she said to her cameraman, "we've got enough tape
today anyway." They packed their gear and left.
Burkett felt a familiar frustration. The "guys in fatigues," as
he called them, fit the stereotype of the " 'Nam vet" as a social
outcast, someone people were reluctant to honor.
Burkett knew the image was false. It was time, he decided, that
the television correspondent and the many others like her learned
Shell Shock. When Lt. B. G. Burkett came home
from Vietnam in 1969, he used his GI educational benefits to
enroll in an M.B.A. program at the University of Tennessee.
Although there were hundreds of Vietnam vets on the Knoxville
campus, most hid their wartime service.
Burkett soon understood why. The conflict had divided America,
and some who opposed the war took out their anger on the soldiers
who had fought in it. To many, Vietnam vets were no better than
war criminals. Burkett recalls that on the first day of a
management seminar, his professor warned the class not to even
mention the word Vietnam in their written work or their
grades would suffer.
Burkett was not ashamed of his war record — his unit had
blocked a major Communist infiltration route into Saigon. But he
wasn't interested in refighting the war. Instead he put the
experience behind him.
After receiving his M.B.A., he moved to Dallas, got married and
lived a comfortable, productive life. As the years passed,
however, the image of Vietnam vets worsened. Increasingly, they
were being portrayed — in such films as The Deer
Hunter and Taxi Driver — as victims suffering
from a kind of shell shock called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD), or from physical disabilities brought on by exposure to
the defoliant Agent Orange.
Burkett had to deal with this image after volunteering to raise
money for the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One episode stuck
in his mind. He had just introduced himself to an executive when
the man said, "You sure don't look like a vet."
Burkett was exasperated. "You mean I'm not a drunk or a
drugged-out homeless guy in fatigues with a criminal record?"
The man defended his opinion. "Well, aren't most Vietnam
vets messed up?"
The "guys in fatigues" who showed up at memorial events only
furthered that notion. They weren't interested in honoring the
dead. Instead, they just wanted to complain about their own
suffering or gripe about their treatment by the Veterans
Eventually Burkett began to notice that these " 'Nam vets" often
got facts about the war wrong. And their combat stories were too
glib, too fill of clichés. It was not the way the vets he
knew would talk. Were some of these men lying?
After the incident at the Dallas fairgrounds, Burkett found out
that a serviceman's military record could be obtained from the
National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. He began
requesting the records of those whose war stories seemed fishy.
The first vet he checked out was Jesse Duckworth, a regular at
fund-raising activities. Wearing jungle fatigues decorated with
combat-unit patches, the loud, unkempt man often stank of
alcohol. He liked to regale reporters with lurid war stories,
sign autographs for awestruck kids — and dismiss men like
Burkett as "the suits." Duckworth claimed to be a decorated Green
Beret who was wounded in Vietnam. Burkett discovered that
Duckworth's official service records showed he had never set foot
there. His term of duty, in Germany, had been marred by repeated
periods of Absent Without Leave (AWOL). He had been broken to the
rank of private by the time of his discharge. When Burkett
revealed Duckworth's record to the Dallas news media, the bogus
"Green Beret" dropped out of sight.
Another fixture on the local vet scene was Joseph Testa, Jr.,
president of a Dallas chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America
(VVA). Testa occasionally wore the Silver Star, the Army's
third-highest decoration for valor. But Testa's official record
showed he had never won the award. In fact, Testa had never
served overseas, and nine months of his stateside tour were spent
in the stockade. When his record was made public, Testa also
disappeared from the local vet scene.
Howling in a Forest. Burkett is now exposing one
of the worst examples of 'Nam-vet stereotyping by the media: "The
Wall Within," a CBS Special Report with Dan Rather. It Featured
six veterans so traumatized by Vietnam that they had sought
refuge in the wilderness of Washington state. A version of this
critically acclaimed documentary, first broadcast in 1988, is
part of a multi-hour video history of the Vietnam War that is
being bought by schools across the country. The veterans,
described as "outcasts, broken spirits" who had come "out of
hiding" to appear, are all supposed to be suffering from PTSD.
Steve, the first "broken spirit," is portrayed as a former Navy
SEAL who had performed secret missions behind enemy lines for
almost two years before being shipped home in a straitjacket,
addicted to alcohol and drugs. Crippled by PTSD, Steve almost
strangled his mother, mistaking her for a Viet Cong. Unable to
function in society, he had fled to the forest, where he slept
inside hollow logs.
What horrible experience had so traumatized the young man? Steve
revealed that he had been forced to massacre Vietnamese civilians
and burn villages, then disguise his war crimes as the work of
the enemy. Steve admitted that he was one of the best-trained
"assassins" ever sent to Vietnam.
Dan Rather got another veteran, Terry Bradley, to reveal the
"awful stuff" that had spawned his PTSD. Bradley claimed to have
skinned alive up to 50 Vietnamese in an hour — men, women,
even babies — then stacked their mangled bodies in heaps.
Like others on the show, Terry Bradley sought refuge in the
wilderness. He was shown in the dark forest, howling at the sky
like a stricken animal.
After two years of investigation, Burkett discovered that "Steve"
was Steven Ernest Southards, whose records reveal that he was not
a Navy SEAL. Instead, he was a fireman's apprentice in rear-area
bases. Upon transfer to the Philippines, Southards had spent time
in the brig for repeatedly going AWOL.
Terry Bradley's military career was marked by misconduct. In 3
1/2 years of service as an Army artilleryman, Bradley compiled a
total of 300 days either AWOL or in confinement. There is no
record of large numbers of civilians killed near Bradley's unit,
which was stationed outside Saigon during his one-year tour of
duty. In the documentary, Rather acknowledges that Bradley had
been diagnosed as a paranoid-schizophrenic. (Bradley receives
service-connected disability compensation of $1952 a month.) Yet
Rather praised Bradley as a "truth teller."
Two of the other featured vets had been security guards, not
"grunts" exposed to heavy combat. Another claimed to have been
traumatized by the loss of a friend in Vietnam in a grisly
propeller accident on an aircraft carrier. Now he admits the
accident occurred during training off California. Despite these
discrepancies, CBS says it stands by its documentary.
David Goff, former president of a VVA chapter in Morrisville,
N.Y., near Syracuse, is another imposter that Burkett uncovered.
Goff, who claimed combat experience in Vietnam, had been treated
for PTSD and had counseled troubled vets. He had belatedly
obtained some of the military's highest awards for valor,
including the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the
Medal of Honor. Goff had even persuaded Rep. James Walsh (R.,
N.Y.) to pin on these medals during an April 1989 ceremony for
combat vets. Goff was called a "hero" by the Syracuse Herald
To Burkett, however, the story of postwar trouble with
depression, alcohol, domestic problems and PTSD struck a familiar
tone. So did Goff's claim of being a CIA assassin. Goff's
recovery from combat trauma was indeed inspiring, but there was a
problem. His service record revealed he had been a clerk in
Okinawa and had never set foot in Vietnam.
Yet when Burkett revealed Goff's deception to the Herald
American, the newspaper stood by its story, though it, too,
had by then obtained Goff's official record. Alerted to Goff's
fraud, Walsh has now called for a criminal investigation.
Losers Versus Winners. Burkett hasn't stopped at
exposing frauds. Over the past six years, he has compiled an
impressive array of evidence demonstrating that the Vietnam
veteran is simply not the "loser" of popular myth.
Suicidal? In 1990, a report in the American Journal of
Psychiatry refuted claims of a high suicide rate among
Vietnam veterans. In fact, government studies reveal they have
one of the lowest suicide rates in America — even lower
than their non-veteran peers.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Burkett learned that PTSD has
been blown far out of proportion. More than 2.5 million Americans
served in Vietnam, but only 45,000 have received any compensation
for exhibiting symptoms, and only 10,000 of those have been
Poverty and unemployment? Labor Department research reveals a
much higher employment level among Vietnam vets than the national
average. Studies also confirm that Vietnam vets have a very low
rate of criminality and incarceration.
Agent Orange poisoning? A recent major study by the National
Academy of Sciences found little evidence linking exposure to the
defoliant with increased rick of most cancers and birth defects
that people have attributed to it. And the vast majority of
Americans in Vietnam were never exposed to Agent Orange.
The evidence is overwhelming that, far from being violent time
bombs, Vietnam veterans are among the most well-adjusted groups
in America. They are more likely to have higher incomes than
those who did not go to Vietnam. They are also more likely than
their peers to own their homes, and they are just as likely to
have stable marriages.
Burkett sometimes visits the now-completed Texas Vietnam Veterans
Memorial after work. He runs his hand along the 3427 names etched
in the red granite. They're all there, from James Downing Aalund
to Guadalupe N. Zuniga, young men who will never grow old, never
find professional success, never see their children smile.
Burkett realizes that, like their fallen comrades, many of the
living Vietnam veterans are invisible. "We're all around you, but
no one seems to see us," Burkett says. "We go to work, pay our
mortgages, keep our kids in school. We're a factory foreman, a
postal worker, a doctor, an airline pilot. Isn't it time the
country recognizes the true face of the Vietnam veteran?"
: Stolen Valor
by B.G. Burkett, Verity Press, P.O. Box 50366, Dallas TX 75250.
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