The Pretenders

The long arm of a Dallas stockbroker pulls the mask off local valor fakes

Of all the phony war heroes and Green Beret wannabes he's exposed over sixteen years of amateur sleuthing, the case of Louis Paul Rolofson Jr. is the one that gives B.G. "Jug" Burkett the most satisfaction.

Burkett -- a Dallas investment counselor who is careful to note that his own Army service in Vietnam was mostly in the rear area -- has doggedly outed frauds and poseurs claiming false war glory all over the country. He details these cases, involving the famous and the obscure, in a book called Stolen Valor.

Burkett tracked Rolofson down in Madison County, Illinois, just over the river from St. Louis.

"Jug" Burkett in Vietnam
"Jug" Burkett in Vietnam
Jim Fischer: “To say you’ve been in battle when you haven’t ... it’s wrong, yeah, but it does get the public thinking about military issues like POWs or the plight of some of our vets.”
Wm. Stage
Jim Fischer: “To say you’ve been in battle when you haven’t ... it’s wrong, yeah, but it does get the public thinking about military issues like POWs or the plight of some of our vets.”

Rolofson met Barbara Harris at church. As Burkett writes in his book, divorced mother Harris and her two young sons were soon enthralled by Rolofson's detailed stories about his experiences as a Green Beret in Vietnam. So when Rolofson offered to take her boys on an overnight trip with a church group to Six Flags, Harris consented. After all, he was a war hero. He could be trusted.

But after the trip, Rolofson was accused of having sex with one of Harris' sons, ten years old, in a Collinsville, Illinois, hotel room and charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault, according to a Post-Dispatch account. Character witnesses from the church lined up to defend Rolofson. By this time, Harris not only suspected Rolofson's war-hero status, she worried that it would help him in a trial. Her worry was compounded when prosecutors in the case told her that no attempt had been made to get Rolofson's military records.

Harris had heard of Burkett. She called him for help.

During Rolofson's September 1995 trial, prosecutor Teresa D. Brown, with the aid of Burkett's research into military archives, presented the defendant's real military record. Rolofson was not a Green Beret; he had not even been in Vietnam. He had served in a rifle platoon in Korea. "When the truth came out," says Burkett, "the jury knew who to believe. He was convicted and got eighteen months. Of all the deceivers I've exposed, Rolofson made me the angriest. He could have been using those stories of heroism in Vietnam to impress young boys for years."

Although Rolofson denied the assault, a jury convicted him on the sex charge.

Nothing incenses Burkett more than some joker fabricating service records or claiming military awards for personal gain. Burkett, 54, is a self-appointed watchdog of truth when it comes to hard-to-disprove claims of military heroism. And this watchdog has teeth: Over the last sixteen years, he has exposed hundreds of frauds and bullshit artists -- some of them drifters, some respected business figures and some celebrities, such as actor Brian Dennehy.

In a 1989 interview, Dennehy told the New York Times he'd sustained a concussion and shrapnel wounds during combat. Four years later, in a Playboy interview, he said he served as a Marine in Vietnam for five years and was wounded in combat. Burkett researched Dennehy's military record and found he'd been discharged from the Marines in 1963. His record made no mention of the Vietnam Service Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal or any of the other medals typically awarded to Vietnam vets.

Dennehy served his country, says Burkett, as a Marine football player in Okinawa.

There was a time when Vietnam vets were vilified as alienated burnouts incapable of functioning in American society, which attracted biker types who wanted to add it to their outlaw personas. But as time passed, the war lost much of its negative stigma -- and other phonies found the war's newfound respectability irresistible. Many people began telling false war tales to puff themselves up and give themselves identities bigger than their true humdrum lives.

Burkett doesn't have an exclusive franchise on this work.

In 1997, Darryl Young -- a former Navy SEAL from Florence, Montana, who tracks down pretenders -- confronted the president of the St. Louis chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, Daniel Meyer, about his claim of service in the SEALs, an elite corps of highly trained warriors similar to the Army's Green Berets. Meyer, who also owns the Ashau Valley bar, a favorite hangout of bikers and vets, resigned his VVA post after the call from Young, who heard of Meyer's claim in an Internet chat room for Vietnam vets. In reality, Meyer had been a sailor, serving as a pipe fitter on an aircraft carrier, according to Young's research.

Young heads up a national SEAL-alumni organization that roots out pretenders. The group has exposed a former navy commander, political candidates and various prominent businessmen.

Burkett's mission began in 1986, while he was serving on a committee of the Texas Vietnam Memorial. He says he began to question reports of drug-addicted, homeless Vietnam vets committing crimes and living on welfare because of combat-related trauma. Burkett is a decorated Vietnam vet whose unit, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, lost 800 men during the course of the war. He was bothered by the stereotype of the dysfunctional Vietnam vet and found that it didn't square with the soldiers he'd known during his enlistment and the successful veterans he met after coming home.

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