On March 26, 1982, I was living in Silver Spring, MD and working for the Federal Government. The day before, I noticed while reading the Washington Post on my daily subway commute that on the following day there was going to be a groundbreaking ceremony at the site selected for the Vietnam Wall. I took the day off from work and took the subway to the site and watched while Senators Robb and Warner together with Jan Scruggs the person who had the idea for the Wall and maybe ten other lesser dignitaries posed for photographers holding gold shovels. After a prayer and a short speech, the dignitaries stepped on the shovels and threw shovels full of dirt a few feet away and shortly the ceremony was over. There were maybe fifty of us there at the sparsely attended event. Vietnam was still a very unpopular topic of discussion in the country so there was very little interest in this historic event much like the war and the soldiers who fought it.
On November 13, 1982, Al Torsiello my platoon mate in Vietnam joined me and thousands of other Vietnam veterans for the dedication of the Wall in Washington D.C. After years of controversy, including disagreements about the design of the Wall and the black stone, we finally got to see the names of our comrades who had died in Vietnam etched into the black wall. It was a very emotional experience for me and Al and for almost everybody who attended. For Al and myself, it was personal looking at the names because we knew these guys very well. For some, we were there when they died. Others, we saw them die. The Vietnam Wall finally gave those who served in Vietnam some respect.
In 1987, guys started hanging around the Vietnam Wall dressed in Army fatigues and boots wearing hats like we wore out in the boonies. They set up tables and sold nick nacks and veteran memorabilia. The tide had seemingly started changing and attitudes towards Vietnam and the soldiers who fought there had improved. Visitors to the Wall would stop at these tables and make purchases assuming these guys dressed in fatigues were Vietnam veterans.
Instead of being portrayed as “drug crazed Vietnam vets” as we had been portrayed in many TV shows and some films in the 70’s, the country seemed to have turned the corner on the Vietnam war and began holding Vietnam veterans in higher regard. People who served in Vietnam came out of the closet as it was finally ok to admit you were involved in that war.
An interesting phenomena developed beginning in approximately 1987 when people began to include Vietnam service on their resumes and politicians were proud to tell the voters they had served in Vietnam. It was becoming popular to be a Vietnam veteran, so much so, that people who had been veterans but never served overseas began to chaim Vietnam service. Still others who were involved in veteran organizations and veteran groups falsified documents and claimed Vietnam service. Some claimed to have been Prisoners of War and others claimed to have been disabled because of their alleged Vietnam service only to be discovered they were not veterans at all.
Vietnam veteran B. G. Burkett spent ten years researching the National Archives examining records beginning in 1986 and together with investigative reporter Ms. Glenna Whitley wrote the book “Stolen Valor”. This book exposes countless people who either falsified their military histories to include heroic combat duty or didn’t serve in the military at all. The authors named numerous people who had pulled the wool over the eyes of major TV reporters, judges, constituents and fellow veterans. Some very well known actors and politicians were exposed as having lied about having served in Vietnam. Actor Brian Denehey and politician Richard Bluementhal we’re guilty of stolen valor as were countless others. I highly recommend this book.
In approximately 1989, I completed a CD of original songs about POW/MIAs (Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia) and I drove to Neillsville, WI to the Vietnam Veteran Memorial (The Highground) with 300 cassettes that I was going to donate to the Memorial Gift store. I met with the CEO/Executive Director Dennis Tierney who seemed to me to be a very well respected, hard working and gracious person. I played the songs and he said he loved them. I handed Mr. Tierney a Gift of Deed for the three hundred cassettes and I shook his hand and left for Oshkosh. Later, I received a letter of appreciation from Mr. Tierney.
I was saddened when I read the book Stolen Valor to learn that Dennis Tierney was working at a pickle factory in the Chicago area at the same time he claimed Vietnam service. Also a review of divorce records showed him in Detroit at the same time he claimed he had been in Vietnam. An exhaustive review could not prove Mr. Tierney ever served in the military much less was ever wounded as he claimed. He is deceased and unable to defend himself, but the authors of the book Stolen Valor included his story on pages 189-190.
There are countless stories about people who either exaggerated their military service or concocted stories out of thin air about their heroic Vietnam service. Reporters started snooping around the Vietnam Wall and together with activists from Veteran groups rooted out many of the imposters selling their wares on the grounds. The people who had represented themselves as veterans weren’t veterans at all.
I’m not a psychologist but I was curious why people would do these kinds of things. I learned from an Internet search that once Vietnam service became more accepted in the mainstream and more popular, needy people looking for respect and admiration started posing as military veterans often wearing dress uniforms and ribbons at veteran events. Their lives were so empty that they had to create a different persona so they could feel good about themselves.
When I reflect back on my months in the jungle in Vietnam and all of the adversity we went through, and then to be ignored for so many years after the war, I wondered why anybody would have wanted to be like us. Who would want that kind of experience and treatment? Well, nobody wanted that, but many wanted the respect that we earned. And they lied their asses off to get it.
True to my blog of Viewing the War through Music, I wrote a song about these imposters called “Living a Lie” which can be heard at www.soundcloud.com/jim-purtell/living-a-lie