Fake Vets Chasing Fame
By Marc Levy
"I carry my adornments on my soul.
I do not dress up like a popinjay...
With deeds for decorations, twirling -- thus --
A bristling wit, and swinging at my side
Courage, and on the stones of this old town
Making the sharp truth ring, like golden spurs!"
- Cyrano de Bergerac
In 1998 B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely published Stolen Valor, a book which highlighted certain outcomes of America's long war in Vietnam. Among its contents is a rogue's photo gallery of fake veterans seeking undue fame from that ill time. Profiled are sham SEALs, pseudo Special Forces, disconsolate fake grunts, and gasconade forged officers, each handsomely adorned with unearned combat regalia. A legion of web sites has sprung up, outing an ever growing battalion of fakers.
The case of Bruce Cotta is worthy of review. In 1968 Cotta served with the 25th Infantry Division as an infantry medic. He saw his share of combat, having won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with V, the Soldiers Medal, and two Purple Hearts. But three times over the years Cotta petitioned the Army to upgrade his Silver Star, the third highest medal, awarded for gallantry in action, to the Medal of Honor. In 2000, by dark back channels and tech tomfoolery, Cotta scammed Rep. Patrick Kennedy into honoring him with the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal, awarded for extraordinary heroism. He scammed George W. Bush, who signed into law H.R. 670, which named a USPS facility in Newport, Rhode Island, the Bruce F. Cotta Post Office Building. Alas, a web researcher could find no record of Cotta's DSC. Enter the Secret Service. Enter the Army. Exit Bruce Cotta, who got off with a hundred hours of community service and a $5,000 fine. The laws have changed. And Cotta was no Marine.
Nor was Lieutenant Commander Johnson, cited for gallantry and awarded the Silver Star in 1942 when his aircraft came under intense enemy fire over New Guinea. Throughout his career, the veteran sported the medal's tricolor lapel pin on his suit jacket. But after his death several eyewitnesses spoke up. "No way," said retired Army Staff Sgt. Bob Marshall. "No, that story was made up, put in there in my mind by the author of the book (The Mission, 1964). 'Cause we never seen [Japanese] Zero, was never attacked. Nothing." (CNN/2003) Air force after action reports and surviving crew bear him out. The few and the proud need not worry. LBJ was not one of their own. He was merely the President of the United States. The Commander in Chief who in 1965 issued the orders that sent thousands of young Marines to their fate.
The Congressional Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is the highest combat award bestowed by the American military. It is incorrectly called the Congressional Medal of Honor since the President confers it "in the name of the Congress" on an armed forces member who distinguishes himself "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." It is impossible to comprehend the supernatural deeds performed by those who have won the MOH. The award citations are temperate narratives compared to the actual events.
Reflections of a Warrior, by the late Frank D. Miller is instructive. A six tour Vietnam Green Beret, Miller lead small teams deep into enemy territory. His slim book is not terribly well written but the quick kills, vicious attacks and cunning escapes startle like machine-gun fire. And just when the reader thinks the battle tales cannot attain a higher pitch, they unfailingly rise an impossible level. A sensational MOH account is followed by reassignment home, where the unconquerable Miller was finally defeated.
Ten years ago this writer visited Charles Michael Wilson, last seen after a nasty ambush in Cambodia. We talked war, plinked bottle caps, and spent a pleasant afternoon at the Monroe County Historical Museum, built on the site of General George Custer's home. Custer, you may recall, galloped the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry across Montana's fruited plain.
Atop the entry door hangs an enormous canvas of shrieking soldiers, shot dead horses, Cheyenne and Sioux braves cracking skulls or taking scalps with tomahawks that drip bright red. A bug-eyed Custer whirls his gleaming cutlass round and round. A petite brass plate declares, 'The Battle of the Little Big Horn.' Under glass in a room filled with dusty artifacts lay the two Medals of Honor awarded to Second Lieutenant Thomas W. Custer, 'The only man ever to have attained that feat.' Later I sent the museum director a short note. He had overlooked eighteen double recipients. "That is true," he replied, "We will correct the error."
The FBI receives nearly eight hundred tips a year regarding fake vets. Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act in 2005. The new law makes it a crime to "falsely represent oneself as having been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces or any of the service medals or badges."
Ron Brown, a disabled Marine, veteran of Fallujah, had harsh words for fellow leatherneck Sgt. Tim Debusk. "I just told him that I thought what he did was despicable... I hoped he thought about the guys he disrespected who died for this country..." Debusk had attempted to forge a Purple Heart citation. Arrested on 25 May 2007 , he faces up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Former Army Corporal Richard McClanahan, 29, cuts a dashing figure in his dress uniform and jaunty beret. Never in combat, a Marine Times photograph depicts McClanahan spangled with three Silver Stars, two Purples Hearts, and the Legion of Merit. He also claimed the Medal of Honor. Under Stolen Valor, the maximum sentence for falsely holding the MOH is one year in prison.
Even grandpa's get in on the act. On 21 June 2007, the FBI charged Augustine Hernandez, 76, with posing as a Army Major General awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. In fact, the elder gent had been a lowly PFC sans valorous commendations. (Marine Times, August 2007)
Full Medal Jacket
But the granddaddy of them all, Army, Air Force, Navy, and the man the Marine's most fear, truly earned his two Medals of Honor. A short, wiry fellow, from 1899 to 1919, Major General Smedley Darlington Butler rose through the ranks and killed brilliantly for his country in the Philippines, China, Haiti , Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua . Bestowed the MOH in Mexico, then in Haiti, he went on to further fame in World War I, and a distinguished career in peace time.
Though proud of their General, the Marines, themselves made legendary at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Hue, omit all reference to Butlers greatest triumph. The Corp's official web site only states that in 1931 "he was retired upon his own application after completion of 33 years service."
On leave from 1924 to 1925 Butler was fired as Philadelphia's Director of Public Safety when he complained that Philly's corruption was worse than any battle he'd fought. After two stints in China, he commanded the Marine Barracks at Quantico, garnering much praise. But in 1931, Butler publicized rumors that Mussolini struck a child in a hit-and-run accident. The Italian government protested. President Hoover demanded the Secretary of the Navy court-martial Butler. Instead, he was reprimanded. Passed by for promotion to Corps Commander, he retired.
In 1932, Butler hit the lecture circuit, giving speeches to anti-war groups. In 1934, he told Congress that a year earlier he'd been approached by several pro-Nazi industrialists, including Prescott Bush, the current President's grandfather. The group asked Butler to lead a half million veterans in a coup to topple President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Much of his testimony was verified but no action was taken.
Butler is best known for his 1935 short book, War Is a Racket, a thunderous expose of war profiteering. Elsewhere he famously wrote: "I spent 33 years in active military service...as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and Tampico safe for American oil interests...I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys...I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street...I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies. In China I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints." (Common Sense, Vol. 4, No. 11, 1935)
"Whole fuckin' thing's about property," says an embittered First Sergeant Jack Welsh, deftly played by Sean Penn in Terrence Malick's, The Thin Red Line. These days, war stocks, big oil revenue sharing, and shady contracts are the new ownership. For their troubles, whistle blowers are ignored, interrogated, jailed. It remains to be seen what skeletons DoD Inspector General Kicklighter, the Army CID, the DOJ, and the FBI will dig up in Iraq.
"a word or two before I go. I have done the state some service, and they know't." So said the Moor by way of farewell. If the US attacks a second sovereign nation, for no purpose but to save face, extend power, increase profits, what brave Marines will dare to heed Butler's avid call to arms, and thrust the truth home?
Marc Levy was an infantry medic with Delta Co. 1/7 First Cavalry in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on the Medal of Honor, including double recipients, see http://www.cmohs.org/. The pamphlet War is a Racket is available from Veterans for Peace at tinyurl.com/2fh9hz
Reprinted with permission of the author from COUNTERPUNCH, September 17 2007 edition
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