EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the October 11, 2004, issue of National Review.
Over the past 20 years, determined Vietnam veteran B. G. “Jug” Burkett has succeeded in challenging hundreds of phony military records–but he has not succeeded in holding the media accountable when they carelessly rely on bogus service stories to make political points. Burkett is now getting some welcome reinforcements: the corps of amateur experts whose instant analysis demolished the credibility of CBS’s purported Bush National Guard records. (B. G. Burkett is not to be confused with Bill Burkett, the man who gave the phony documents to CBS.) “The Dan Rathers of the world can no longer put up a story and have everyone nod approvingly,” he declares. “The Internet has changed the landscape.”
Burkett’s crusade to debunk pervasive myths about his fellow veterans has made him a post-Vietnam War hero. In 1986, he fired off a letter to his local TV station–and to the chairman of the board of CBS–to protest the affiliate’s egregious failure to correct the record about a mass killer’s purported Vietnam service; he received no reply. It was Burkett’s first experience with the media’s stubborn disregard for the truth when it conflicted with their preferred storyline. Over the next two decades, such blow-offs would become a routine occurrence for this dedicated one-man truth squad.
A month before Burkett’s first letter, he had agreed to help raise money for a memorial to honor the Texans who were killed or missing in action in Vietnam. One veteran warned him that it wouldn’t be easy, recounting that when he had approached one of the wealthiest men in Dallas for a donation, the response was, “Why the hell should I give any money to those bums?” Burkett himself is a successful financial adviser, and the veterans of his acquaintance are equally successful in life; but he quickly learned that the Vietnam veteran of national stereotype was a far different creature. In his 1998 book, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History, he recounts that “the public’s perception of Vietnam veterans became abundantly clear. They were losers, bums, drug addicts, drunks, derelicts–societal offal who had come back from the war plagued by nightmares and flashbacks that left them with the potential to go berserk at any moment.” They were like Patrick Henry Sherrill.
On August 20, 1986, Sherrill killed 14 employees in a post office in Edmond, Okla., before turning the gun on himself. The local news reported that Sherrill was a Vietnam veteran, and repeated that assertion even after a Navy spokesman had said it wasn’t true and Burkett had contacted the news room and told them about the Navy’s statement. Sherrill had served stateside in the Marine Corps in the mid-Sixties. Burkett concluded that the only thing most people would likely remember was that a “Vietnam vet” had killed 14 people, and noted the terrible irony that went largely unreported: Two of the seven men killed by Sherrill were real Vietnam veterans, one the grandson of Knute Rockne.
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