Saturday, May 05, 2012

Stolen valor in Utah

My home state, Utah, has had a couple of recent incidents of what is called "stolen valor," where people claim military honors that are undeserved. The latest is with a man named Dave Groves,* 67, who claims to have been a POW in Vietnam. He said he was with an airborne unit, captured and held captive by the North Vietnamese for six months after his unit was ambushed. He said he escaped and hid in the jungle for two weeks before being rescued by a Marine patrol. Groves was part of a dinner on April 13 held for ex-POW's, which got a lot of local media attention.

The Salt Lake Tribune did a search through the Freedom of Information Act and got Groves' service record, which showed he was not in Vietnam during his time of service. He spent his two years in the Army in the United States. Groves denies the newspaper's findings. He says it's a mistake, but if we believe the official record then he's been outed as another liar who is trying to puff himself up as a hero.

Do guys like that think they won't get caught? If so, they haven't heard the story of Douglas Stringfellow, who was a one-term Congressman from Utah,1952-54, who was also busted for stolen valor.

From the Utah Historical Quarterly Fall 1967 by Janet Burton Seegmiller:
. . . Douglas R. Stringfellow . . .had won the First District seat in 1952 largely through his stirring tales of heroism during World War II. Stringfellow had become paralyzed while serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps in France, but he began embellishing his war story as he retold it to Scout groups and young people's gatherings until he had invented his participation in a dangerous Office of Strategic Services (OSS) mission behind enemy lines, an officer's commission, and several faith-promoting incidents in which his life was saved. Not only did Stringfellow share his story at dozens of meetings but the stories were also repeated by Mormon Church leaders and written into church lessons for young people, and he was honored by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the top ten young men in America. His election to Congress in 1952 showed the strength of his popularity, but during the 1954 campaign his fabrication unraveled, and under pressure from the leadership of the LDS church and the state Republican Party, he confessed and withdrew from the campaign.

. . . In reviewing Stringfellow's career, political scientist Frank Jonas wrote, "If anyone had dared to attack Stringfellow either on his war story or his veteran status, the anger of the electorate would have turned on the accuser and not on the accused..." The congressman had evoked considerable sympathy not only in Utah but also wherever he spoke across the nation.

Recognizing the situation, the Democratic Party had been gathering evidence of Stringfellow's hoax for many months; members of labor unions and veterans' organizations and a few newspapermen were also heavily involved. The party and [Stringfellow's political opponent Walter] Granger did not want to take the initiative to expose the congressman but were willing to assist others. Granger wrote to a Gunnison [Utah] party member on September 13, 1954, ‘We have definite proof that Stringfellow's heroic story is a fabrication of his own mind and he did not do the things he has taken credit for--I am giving you this information in order that you may be able to meet some of the arguments in his favor that you may run into.’”
After being exposed Stringfellow went into broadcasting (using pseudonyms), a job he'd held for a couple of years after the war. He died young in 1966 at age 44.

Jason Chaffetz, who is one of Stringfellow's successors as a Utah Congressman, is hot under the collar over what he sees as himself being made to look a fool by publicly pinning medals on an 86-year-old former U.S. Air Force colonel, Myron "Mike" Brown, who presented him with papers saying he deserved three prestigious medals from his service sixty years ago.** Sometime after the ceremony, held in front of the media, The Salt Lake Tribune found out the documents were fraudulent. Chaffetz called congressional hearings on stolen valor, and is angry because when it comes to medals the military is sloppy in its record-keeping.

The military isn't too concerned, at one point saying that these cases surface rarely, and to put together a database of all its award winners would be a big chore, and costly. Chaffetz, who was one of the first Tea Party candidates to get a congressional seat, normally squeezes a government nickel. He touts his fiscal conservatism, but is apparently not worried about running up costs when it comes to this issue.

Both Groves and Brown deny their stories are false. They claim they are right and the records are wrong, but most everyone (including me) believes both of them have been caught in bullshit lies that are now being exposed.

However, despite our righteous anger, do we really need yet another law? If guys lying to make themselves look important get arrested then you'll put more than half the men in the world in jail. If a man does it to gain medals or acclaim he doesn't deserve it shakes out, mainly because he has a better-than-even chance of being caught. I believe that what happened to Douglas Stringfellow is happening right now to these two men who appear to have lied about their war records. Maybe they have told these stories for so long and so often they believe their own tall tales. They chose their military service to exaggerate and fabricate their personal history because of Jason Chaffetz's complaint: it's hard to check up on this sort of thing. (Not hard enough that they weren't exposed, but maybe they thought they'd never be found out because of the clusterfuck that is military record-keeping.)

I've known people who went beyond simple lies to extravagant lies. Like Groves and Brown those other liars got called out for lying. But both Groves and Brown must be pretty good at it to have gotten away with it for so long with family, friends and coworkers. If I knew them, and had believed their stories, then found out their records proved them liars I'd wonder what other lies they'd told. But it doesn't mean they need to go to jail, especially if they didn't do it for financial gain. Since humans are by nature liars, and we lie all the time for one reason or another, from little fibs to big whoppers, I'm reluctant to make lying for the purposes of self-aggrandizement a crime.

I also believe the humiliation they and their families are going through over these revelations of lying are a very real punishment, just like they were for Douglas Stringfellow almost sixty years ago.

* Article on Groves

**Article on Brown


Kirk said...

Don't forget Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, who also lied about having served in Vietnam.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Vietnam veterens were often protrayed by the media, in both news and fiction, as depressed, occasionally crazy, often homeless, and despised by the general public who blamed them for the war. It was said that they never got to march in a homecoming parade, and that people called them babykillers.

Thirty years later, and Vietnam vets are apparently envied so much, people fake having served. How times change.

Postino said...

Kirk, thanks for reminding me of Ellis, whom I'd forgotten, but my specific theme was guys in my local area who are making false claims for honors and awards.

I remember that soldiers had a bad rap, including me, who came back expecting some sort of pat on the back and found it hard to get a job. It was also cool for young men to find a way out of serving. Draft dodging was something to brag about. A lot of men who didn't go or who avoided the draft are now quiet about it.