In 1968 Jug Burkett served his country in Vietnam. Today he battles
the stereotype of Vietnam vets as
AT EVENTS SPONSORED BY THE VIETNAM Veterans Memorial Fund of Texas,
they invariably would be
there--the bums, often smelling of alcohol, wearing medal-adorned jungle fatigues, some boasting about their
military exploits as Green Berets or complaining about mistreatment by the Veterans Administration. Inevitably,
when television reporters needed quotes for the event, they would head for the ragtag crowd, the "real"
Vietnam veterans, not the men seated on the dais in their pin-striped suits and ties, men like B. G. "Jug" Burkett.
These people were the bane of Burkett's existence. A Vietnam veteran
who had made a successful career as a
financial adviser, he was particularly irritated because for years he had continually run up against the tenacious
image of the whacked-out Vietnam vet. He had become aware of the problem when he reentered civilian life
toward the end of the war, but he had not realized how persistent and pernicious it was until 1986, when he
agreed to help raise money to erect a war memorial.
Before he began to make his rounds, Burkett thought that raising the
necessary $1.5 million would be no big
deal. But whenever he approached a prominent businessman, a foundation director, a corporate executive, he
got the same response. Despite Burkett's impeccable demeanor and credentials, the potential donor would shift
uncomfortably in his chair. Donate money to a Texas memorial to Vietnam veterans? Those guys were scary.
They could go berserk at any time, exploding in a hail of automatic-weapon fire.
Patiently, Burkett would explain that most Vietnam vets were like himself:
educated, successful, and proud of
their service in the military, not poor, pathetic losers. The potential donors would look at him skeptically. What
about the media reports? The high rate of suicide and divorce, the alcohol and drug addiction, the post-traumatic
They would mention stories about men like Jesse Duckworth, who was popular
with the Dallas media, appearing
disheveled and unshaven in photographs. A famous UPI photograph of Duckworth saluting a pair of combat
boots in front of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1987 had appeared in hundreds of newspapers.
Duckworth boasted of his days as a Green Beret, of his multiple military medals, including the Purple Heart and
Silver Star. To Burkett, something didn't ring true. He knew that veterans from elite units, like the Green Berets,
were the cream of the crop, often college graduates, and they had too much pride to be seen in public unkempt
and slovenly, wearing old combat fatigues. And the war stories Duckworth and his cronies told were so wild that
Burkett could hardly believe them.
Frustrated and increasingly suspicious, Burkett impulsively sent off
a request under the Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) for the legally releasable portion of Duckworth's military record. What he discovered confirmed his gut
instinct: Duckworth was not a Green Beret and had never been in Vietnam. In fact, he had served overseas only
in Germany, where he'd been reported absent without leave (AWOL) and broken to the rank of private. Burkett
quietly leaked the records to a TV reporter, and after the resulting expose, Duckworth dropped from sight.
A similar thing happened in 1988. A homeless man and former mental patient
named Carl Williams shot and
killed a police officer in downtown Dallas, and according to the story that ran in the Dallas Times Herald, the
vagrant was a Vietnam vet. A few days later, the paper published a column that described the man as a "deeply
troubled Vietnam veteran"; the writer asked one of Williams' friends, "Do you think Vietnam did that to him?"
Burkett checked the man's service record and discovered that he had joined the Navy only months before
combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, not long enough to have served in the war. Burkett fired off letters to the
Dallas Times Herald, but a correction was never printed.
Burkett began a routine. Whenever he saw a suspicious story about a
Vietnam vet, he filed an FOIA request. If
the claims were untrue, he would call up the reporter and make the records available. His offer was not always
greeted with enthusiasm.
In 1989 the Dallas Morning News ran a glowing story about John Woods,
the executive director of the Dallas
Vietnam Veterans Resource and Service Center, a counseling and advocacy group that had been started by the
Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), a nationwide lobbying organization. The story reported that Woods had
had surgery four times to remove tumors related to Agent Orange exposure and that he had testified before
Congress about Agent Orange and other Vietnam veterans' affairs. To complicate matters, Howard Swindle, an
assistant managing editor of the News, was a Vietnam vet and a strong supporter of veterans' issues. He was a
member of the service center's board of directors and had written a sympathetic novel about an ex-soldier
haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In reality, Burkett discovered after sending an FOIA request for Woods's
records, Woods had spent a year in the
Coast Guard; Honolulu was the closest he had gotten to Vietnam. After repeated drug abuse while assigned to
the Coast Guard cutter Mellon, Woods was declared unsuitable for military service and discharged. After his
return to Texas, he had spent time in prison for drug and firearms violations. (Now president of the Dallas VVA,
Woods points out that the group is open to anyone who served during the Vietnam era, not just those who were
actually sent to Vietnam. He also believes that his tumors were caused by chemical exposure while he was in
the service. He does not deny having a prison record but maintains that the VVA was aware of it when he joined
When a reporter from the News was interviewing Burkett about the memorial,
Burkett complained, "You reporters
glorify these guys and never check them out." He showed the reporter Woods's records. Despite the
embarrassment, the Dallas Morning News ran a story on the front page, and Swindle resigned from the service
What had started as simple curiosity was turning into an obsession.
Over time, Burkett accumulated not only
complete or partial records on more than 1,400 people but also reams of statistical data on Vietnam vets as a
group. At first, all he wanted to do was get the memorial built, but gradually he came to realize that his records
were a paper trail that had the potential to debunk a pervasive social phenomenon: the Myth of the Vietnam Vet.
Burkett believes the myth was born in the prevailing anti-war sentiment of the American media and perpetuated
by the gullibility, lack of military knowledge, and "professional arrogance" of America's journalists.
For years Burkett worked quietly behind the scenes, exposing frauds
all over the country. But now he has turned
up the heat a notch. Now he is targeting the big boys, like TV anchor Dan Rather; writer and vet Ron Kovic, who
wrote Born on the Fourth of July; and the late Randy Shilts, the author of Conduct Unbecoming, a book about
gays in the military. Jug Burkett wants to do nothing less than rewrite history.
The extent of Burkett's obsession becomes apparent to anyone who visits
him in Dallas. The small study off the
back of his house is lined with hundreds of books about the Vietnam War. After his tour of duty, Burkett had read
almost nothing about the war. It was in the past, and he was living in the present. But researching phonies got him
interested again. In the late eighties he added up his bookstore receipts. In one year he had spent $3,500 on
books about Vietnam.
The eldest child of a career Air Force colonel who served during World
War II, Burkett grew up among men
whom he calls "the warriors." He lived all over the world, graduating from high school in Shreveport, which
explains the gravelly Southern accent. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics from Vanderbilt University
in 1966, Burkett enlisted in the Army. Accepted for officer candidate school, he was assigned to Fort Hood. The
Vietnam War was going strong, and Burkett--convinced it was the seminal event of his generation, as World
War II had been for the one before-wanted to be in the middle of it. Instead, he found himself stuck as a computer
project officer at the base. He began a campaign to be sent to Vietnam, and his somewhat perverse
persistence became a local joke.
Finally, in May 1968, following the Tet offensive, Burkett was assigned
to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in
Vietnam as the platoon leader of a "ready reaction force." That job, however, didn't require him to patrol but
simply to defend a base camp. Specifically, he was a materiel readiness expediter, which meant he was in
charge of getting critical supplies to the right place at the right time.
"I had a great job in Vietnam," Burkett says. Though only a first lieutenant,
he had a jeep and a driver. He
scoured the country looking for supplies. In the eleven months he was in Vietnam, his base camp was hit only ten
times. "I saw combat more as an observer than as a participant," Burkett says, estimating that only 20 percent of
the 2.7 million soldiers who served in Vietnam ever saw heavy combat. In May 1969 Burkett's tour of duty ended.
He received a Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal and a Bronze Star for meritorious service,
something he does not bring up unless asked.
Upon his arrival back in the States, he and other soldiers were bused
from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to the
Philadelphia airport, where Burkett got his first taste of the anti-war movement. A waitress, seeing his uniform,
refused to serve him. On the plane to Nashville to visit relatives, a drunk began harassing him. "What a hero!" the
man shouted. "How many people have you killed today?" Burkett learned not to talk about the war. "You knew
that if you were at a cocktail party and you said you were a Vietnam vet, it would just create a problem," he says.
After getting a graduate degree in business from the University of Tennessee,
Burkett moved to Dallas, where he
sold computers for a year, then went to work as a financial adviser. Over the years, Burkett watched as
television portrayed Vietnam veterans as dysfunctional misfits and as movies like Apocalypse Now painted
them as monsters. He was bewildered. He personally knew no one who had been so mentally disturbed by
Vietnam that he could not function.
"It wasn't a traumatic experience for anybody I knew," Burkett says.
"It wasn't a happy experience, certainly. I
knew some guys who were desperately wounded, some who were POWs. But they got it together and moved
It wasn't until he began trying to raise funds for the memorial that
the full extent of the myth sank in. That summer,
Paul Russell, a Vanderbilt classmate and former Army captain who had served two tours in Vietnam, called him.
By that time, Burkett's career as a financial adviser was flourishing. He had built up an impressive personal
portfolio and in 1984 had paid cash for a red Porsche.
Russell, the president of Milton B. Levy and Son Mechanical Contractors
in Dallas, was one of the people
leading the effort to create a state memorial to the 3,427 servicemen from Texas who had died or were missing
in Vietnam, to be erected in Dallas' Fair Park. The effort was stalled for lack of money. Burkett agreed to take
charge of the fundraising, thinking it would be completed in six to nine months. It would take him three years.
Early on, there were some successes. The Meadows Foundation, for instance,
had given $250,000 for a
matching grant. But overall, Burkett discovered once he was on board that in the competition for the charity
dollar, Vietnam vets were not a sympathetic sell. Still, he didn't give up, writing one grant proposal after another
and never taking no for an answer. To target his efforts more precisely, he began researching the files of the
National Archives to verify the names of the dead and missing servicemen from Texas. He wanted to break down
the list into hometown, religious affiliation, race. Who would care about the Texas casualties? Obviously, those
who had lost someone.
At the National Archives, Burkett found something he hadn't known existed:
a mainframe computer tape listing all
the American casualties in the Vietman War. He submitted an FOIA request, paying $150 out of his own pocket
for the tape. Archives personnel told him no one had ever asked for the data before.
The breadth of the information was astonishing. He could plug in the
name of a Texan killed in action and
discover not only how and where he died but also his military occupation and personal data such as birth date,
marital status, hometown, and religion. He later obtained copies of two other computer tapes. One listed all
prisoners of war, even if they were held by the enemy for only one day. The other listed all the changes and
updates made to the other two tapes as information became available.
The tapes were powerful tools. Burkett could show the Southern Baptists,
for example, how many Baptists had
died in the war. He contacted veterans' organizations in numerous small towns. But it seemed as if little worked.
One mailing of 110,000 solicitations generated a respectable response of 1,100, but only 103 envelopes
contained donations. The rest were hate letters and Christian pamphlets.
The memorial was turning into the hardest thing Burkett had ever done.
His boss was beginning to worry about
the amount of time he was spending on the fundraising, and to add to his worries, the stock market crash of 1987
took a big bite out of his net worth. But Burkett refused to quit. It bothered the hell out of him that he couldn't
dislodge the bad image. Statistically, a certain percentage of Vietnam veterans-like everyone else-would be
expected to commit suicide or have mental disorders or social problems. To Burkett, the question was simple:
Were they suffering disproportionately because of Vietnam?
He called the Department of Labor and got someone there to do a statistical
analysis of Vietnam veterans. The
analysis revealed that they were as successful as-and in some ways more successful than-their peers who had
not gone to Vietnam. In fact, in every year since 1974, Vietnam veterans had a lower unemployment rate than
the national average. That made sense, Burkett says, because they are more highly educated. They received
dishonorable discharges at a lower rate than those servicemen who didn't go to Vietnam, and on average left
the service at a higher rank. The same thing turned out to be true of other stereotypes. Burkett found that the
rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction are not higher for vets.
Armed with these data, Burkett began presenting demographic studies
to potential donors, and he finally started
making headway. His statistical information enabled him to target Texans who were most likely to contribute.
Radio personality Terry Dorsey, a Vietnam veteran, did a radioathon and raised $110,000. Slowly, almost
imperceptibly, the tide began to turn.
But the effort suffered whenever a supposed Vietnam vet made news. In
1986 a postal worker named Patrick
Henry Sherrill went on a rampage and killed fourteen people in Edmond, Oklahoma. Sherrill had told people he
had served in Vietnam, and early news broadcasts played the story as "Vietnam vet goes berserk." Within
hours, the Navy released records showing that Sherrill was not a Vietnam veteran, but the correction was
In 1989 Burkett and the other fundraisers finally succeeded. They had
accumulated $2.5 million, enough money
to build the memorial at Fair Park and endow a maintenance fund. The granite tablets were dedicated on
Veterans Day that year in a ceremony attended by President George Bush. Burkett's job was done. But his
obsession had only begun.
As like-minded people around the country heard of Burkett through the
grapevine, they began calling him to ask
what he knew about a Vietnam veteran in the news or to volunteer details about a phony for his file. He became
a sort of information clearinghouse for Vietnam. Burkett had a pile of data that was growing, and he began to
wonder if the information wasn't more important, in a way, than the memorial.
"I felt like I was on a singular path, a path nobody had gone down before,"
he says. Though people began to
listen, Burkett realized that attacking the issue reporter by reporter, incident by incident, would never accomplish
his goal. The legend was too pervasive, too deeply embedded in the national psyche. What was needed was a
book that would lay out all the statistical evidence about Vietnam veterans and debunk the popular myth.
Publishing the book became Burkett's quest for the Holy Grail. He teamed up with Dallas writer Jim Henderson,
and they sent out proposals to numerous publishing houses, but no one would touch it.
Last year Burkett met writer Malcolm McConnell, who had been given his
name by a source in the military.
McConnell was researching a book on soldiers missing in action for Simon and Schuster and had been looking
for information about a former prisoner of war whom he suspected was faking his story. Within an hour, Burkett
confirmed McConnell's suspicions and faxed the man's record to him. "I was impressed," says McConnell, who
covered the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War as a roving editor for Reader's Digest and has written military
McConnell flew to Dallas to review Burkett's files, and while he was
there, Burkett showed him a tape of a 1988
CBS documentary with Dan Rather called The Wall Within. Heralded as "the rebirth of the documentary," the
one-hour show focused on Vietnam vets from Washington State who had come forward after years of distress to
seek counseling for PTSD at the local veterans' center. One, identified only as "Steve," claimed that at age
sixteen he had been a Navy SEAL ordered to take part in gruesome clandestine operations against civilians,
operations that were disguised as the work of the Viet Cong for propaganda purposes. Describing himself as an
"eighteen-cent-an-hour assassin," Steve said he had been required to slaughter women and children as part of
the secret Phoenix program.
"It was kill VC, and I was good at what I did," Steve says on camera.
"This was not something you made up? This is not a hallucination?" Rather asks.
"Oh, no," Steve insists.
The documentary goes on to report that at the age of nineteen, Steve,
who was addicted to drugs and alcohol,
was returned to the United States in a straitjacket and was so mentally unbalanced by his experiences that he
tried to strangle his mother after mistaking her for "VC." Unable to function in society, he had fled to the forest to
live. There were other vets featured in the documentary besides Steve, all taken at face value.
The CBS show outraged Burkett. In the first place, he knew there were
no sixteen-year-old Navy SEALs. A
person must be at least seventeen to enlist in the military. Even if Steve had lied about his age and signed up at
sixteen, it would have taken two years of training to become a SEAL; only an infinitesimal percentage of the
soldiers who fought in Vietnam were in this ultraelite unit.
"I couldn't believe they were presenting this stuff as factual information,"
Burkett says. "These guys might be
screwed up, but they would have been screwed up if they had worked for the Cincinnati Transit System." When
Burkett first saw the show, he vowed to get the military records of every man featured on it. It took him two years.
In 1993, when Burkett showed the records to McConnell, the writer was astonished. Apparently, CBS had picked
the most outrageous stories it could find and had not relied on what either man considered responsible sources
to check them.
McConnell was glad to write the story--or at least one small part of
it--that Burkett had been unable to get
published as a book. In an article that ran in the May 1994 issue of Reader's Digest, McConnell wrote that
"Steve"--the sixteen-year-old Navy SEAL and assassin extraordinaire-had served under the name Steve
Southards. He had not been a SEAL but an equipment repairman stationed at a base in Vietnam far from
combat. After being transferred to the Philippines, Southards had gone AWOL repeatedly, spending the majority
of his time in the brig.
Other stories presented in the documentary also contained fabrications
and gross exaggerations. And CBS
seemed to play fast and loose with statistics, citing no sources. For example, Rather said that fourteen years
after the end of the war, PTSD still affected a third of those who had served in Vietnam, or about one million
veterans. But in 1988, one month before the program aired, a study on PTSD by the Centers for Disease Control
calculated that only 15 percent of Vietnam veterans had ever experienced PTSD, and that only 2 percent had
active symptoms in the month before the study. Rather's contention that up to 100,000 Vietnam veterans had
committed suicide also was deemed absurd by one critical article.
Despite all the inconsistencies, CBS told Reader's Digest it stood by
its documentary. What infuriates Burkett
most is that The Wall Within is included in a five-tape video history of the war that sells for $148.98. McConnell
agrees with Burkett. "For a travesty like The Wall Within to be designated as history and presented to schools is
an outrage," he says.
But even though Burkett is still frustrated, he feels he has made some
headway, at least with the military. This
spring, at the urging of General William Westmoreland, Burkett turned a case of fraud over to William D. Clark,
the acting assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. Clark calls Burkett's research
"astonishing" and says it may reveal systemic problems throughout the military's record keeping.
"Burkett has done a huge amount of work," Clark says. "Getting documents
out of government agencies is
difficult at best. He's patient, persistent, and very thorough." Clark declined to give details about the fraud case
but confirmed that an investigation is ongoing.
Is America ready to hear Burkett's message? And are American journalists
and writers willing to admit that they
have helped promote false images? Burkett has attacked some extremely sacred cows. For one, he has
charged that author Randy Shilts relied on inaccurate information in his book Conduct Unbecoming, about
homosexuals in the military. (Before his death from AIDS, Shilts defended his work.) "Shilts is an icon," Burkett
says. The same could be said of Ron Kovic, the author of Born on the Fourth of July, the book that was made into
a powerful anti-war movie directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise. Both the book and the movie
portray Kovic, who was paralyzed in combat, as a starry-eyed, innocent kid who was tricked by his government
into serving in an immoral war. If that is so, Burkett says, why did Kovic write a letter to the commandant of the
Marine Corps requesting to be sent back to Vietnam after his first tour of duty was over?
"He had been killing people for a year," Burkett says. "I feel sympathy
for Kovic. But they were soldiers. That's
part of the contract. They've turned themselves into victims."
Burkett is no longer surprised by how powerfully entrenched the image
of the emotionally devastated Vietnam
veteran is in the American subconscious, but he often wonders why. Do we as Americans feel so guilty about
the war, so angry at our own government, that we need to see its soldiers as victims? Or do we feel angry that we
lost-and America hates losers? Do we see those who didn't serve in the war as the morally righteous, the best
and the brightest, and by default the ones who did go as morally reprehensible dupes? And if America somehow
needs this image of the Vietnam vet, distorted as it is, will Burkett ever succeed in his mission to change it?
Even now, Burkett isn't sure why he continues. His friend Paul Russell
suggests that it may have something to do
with closure, with survivor's guilt, but Burkett doesn't think so. He doesn't feel guilty, he says; he feels that he was
doing what was required of him as a soldier, and he thinks the United States accomplished its military objectives
in Vietnam. To him, the issue is much simpler: right versus wrong, truth versus lies. "When you distort your own
history, you set the groundwork for major disaster in the future," he says.
Burkett just knows he cannot quit. "If not me, who?" he asks. "If not now, when?"
PHOTO (COLOR): Burkett knew Vietnam would be the seminal event of his era.
By Glenna Whitley
Glenna Whitley is a freelance writer living in Dallas.
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Source: Texas Monthly, Aug94, Vol. 22 Issue 8, p28, 7p, 1c.
Item Number: 9408095233