Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Military fakers are a disgrace to themselves

There are many, many Americans who are serving now or who have served their country in the uniform of one of its military services.

My brother Robert was a first lieutenant in the Army back in the 1990s, for example. The Marine Harrier pilots I met a few weeks ago at the Gator Fly-In at the Gainesville Regional Airport. Of course, the many, many brave men and women who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are serving today in those countries and elsewhere in the world.

And let’s not forget the many, many, many folks who served in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and those who served in the earlier wars, and even in peacetime. It’s a roll of honor that any nation would be proud of, and I for one am grateful for their service.

Of course, there are some who feel like they should grab a little of that valor for themselves, like Jim Moats. He’s a preacher, but he expanded his regularly scheduled Sunday lies about god to claiming that he was a Navy SEAL.

It was a lie. Every last bit of it. I won’t repeat the disgrace here, but go to Google News and run his name or follow the links at the story above, and see for yourself.

True, Moats had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, but the closest he got to Vietnam was aboard a ship – in the Mediterranean.

I read somewhere that groups that investigate SEAL claims are working overtime because since the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, ex-SEALs are literally coming out of the woodwork. There have always been people who lied about or exaggerated their military service, but since 9/11 it’s been a constant flood, and at work at the paper I have always been adamant that grand claims require proof, to protect the credibility of the news business.

Lying about Vietnam service has been a trend, too. I read B.G. Burkett’s book “Stolen Valor,” and while I take issue with some of his criticisms of Democrats, I appreciated his efforts to set the record straight by pointing out that there were people out there claiming Vietnam service and trauma who either had not been injured or had not served in Vietnam, or had exaggerated their service.

Someone once pointed out that no one ever lies about having been a Navy cook. Countless people, some with valorous services, have seen fit to exaggerate their service with false claims about serving in elite units or in combat, and sometimes claiming that their service was so secret, there was no paper record of it.

I still recall an incident where Burkett’s book helped me to prevent severe embarrassment to a newspaper I worked at. It was around Veterans Day, and the paper had collected stories from a World War I veteran, World War II veteran and Korean War veteran, and was preparing for the last installment, which was an interview with a Vietnam War veteran.

The reporter assigned to the story, instead of going to the American Legion, VFW or other veterans organization, went to a homeless shelter. He found a guy who started talking about how his terrible experiences in Vietnam led him to become a drug addict, alcoholic and homeless man tormented by the terrible things he had seen. He had abandoned his wife and children, he said, and now was going to turn his life around.

I read the story, which I knew from Burkett was the “typical Vietnam veteran” story that reporters look for. I know there are Vietnam veterans who are successful and accomplished people, but it seems like every story is about someone in a torn dungaree or camouflage jacket with patches, scraggly hair, a beard and a conviction that he’s been screwed over by the Army and the VA.

In re-reading the story, I put in my mind Burkett’s admonishments about carefully reading a veterans story, and suddenly it hit me that the man had given his age in the story. The age he gave was three years older than me. I quickly brought up the Windows calculator and realized that this man could not have served in Vietnam; he was too young. I had been 12 years old when the cease-fire was announced in January 1973; at the most he would have been 15 or maybe even 16.

They wouldn’t send troops to Vietnam until they were 18, and I had read somewhere that 17-year-olds on their way to Vietnam were kept on Okinawa until they turned 18.

At first, my thought was that the reporter when typing the story had made a mistake in entering the age of the man, so I called the reporter for clarification. He called back and said that the man was actually seven years older. Then he called back again, and said that the man had come clean. He had not served in Vietnam due to his age; he had served in Korea in the late 1970s.

A meeting was quickly held, and the story was spiked. The paper took the heat for not having a story from a Vietnam veteran, but there was no time to do one.

The thing is that the news media has to be on the lookout for fakers and publicity seekers. With the Internet, most fakes are exposed very quickly; if a media outlet runs a story in good faith and it turns out to be fake, the best thing to do is to run a correction, admit fault, take the lumps and move on with a lesson learned.

Outside covering the military, we in the media deal with many people who make up stories. The best thing to do is to correct the record and – as I said above – learn from the incident.

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May 10, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

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