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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[1] 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 the facts.

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 Administration.

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 American.

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 severely disabled.

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?"

[1]: Stolen Valor by B.G. Burkett, Verity Press, P.O. Box 50366, Dallas TX 75250.
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