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"I became a detective of sorts," he says. "Whenever I saw someone in the media described as a Vietnam veteran, I sent off for his or her military record. Most often I checked those I call the 'image-makers,' the veterans used by reporters to illustrate stories on homelessness, post-traumatic shock disorder, Agent Orange illnesses, criminality and substance abuse. Often the records revealed that the veteran I investigated was bogus -- he had never been there or, if he had, he wasn't the hero he claimed to be."
Verifying military service can be time-consuming and frustrating, says Burkett, but sometimes all it takes is one Freedom of Information Act request. By 1989, he was pumping out an average of one FOIA request per day. Today that number has increased to the point that a steady stream of FOIA requests flows to several records repositories, asking not only for individual military records but for other documents, such as a ship's logs, morning reports and unit records. But most of Burkett's requests go to the National Personnel Records Center, located at 9700 Page Avenue in Overland. It's the federal repository of military records for all discharged, deceased and retired members of all branches of the armed forces.
Charlie Pellegrini, chief of management, says the center gets 5,000 to 6,000 requests for military records each day. The level of detail available falls into the category of what the military calls public information -- dates and places of service entry and separation; rank; type of discharge; awards and citations; in-service education and more.
A 1973 fire at the records center destroyed about 80 percent of all military records from 1912-60, five decades when America had more people in uniform than at any other time. Even though the records were destroyed, says Pellegrini, "in almost every occasion we can verify military service from other sources -- state agencies, the Veterans Administration [now the Department of Veterans Affairs] -- enough for the vet to qualify for Social Security benefits or what have you."
Pellegrini has high praise for Burkett: "Quite frankly, he's doing something I personally cheer on, because these people who stand up and say what heroes they are, that's taking something away from the people who really are."
Burkett says people should be skeptical about any claim of military accolades, especially from someone who crows about his heroism:
"With true war heroes, there's a certain amount of guilt that goes with being honored. You probably lost friends. You may feel extremely lucky, but you certainly don't feel boastful -- you've walked the walk, and you're modest. The other guy is a guy who's inadequate, who has to beef up his image. But we have a tendency, especially reporters, to eat that up, because you want a guy telling you colorful stories."
Some fakers have had the gall to claim America's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Mitchell Page, a Marine who received his medal for his participation in the fierce fighting on Guadalcanal in World War II, has nailed hundreds of Medal of Honor phonies over the past three decades.
The downtown Veterans Day parade, held November 9 this year, was decidedly underattended, the same as it is every year -- with the notable exception of 2001, when the event was jam-packed in the aftermath of 9/11.
"How quickly people forget," says Jim Fischer, president of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club of Southern Illinois. The club is open to any Vietnam-era service member who has a motorcycle, preferably American-built, and can present discharge papers, known as DD-214s. "But those DD-214s can be doctored, easy," says Fischer, watching his fellow biker vets, some 400 strong, roar past the reviewing stand. "One guy said he was a Navy SEAL; his papers said he did two tours in 'Nam. Come to find out he'd never left the States. We kicked his ass right out."
Fischer says that even these poseurs have value.
"These guys get together and tell war stories, and, even if it's a lie, it still uplifts everyone's spirit," says Fischer. "To say you've been in battle when you haven't or to brag about some unit that you were never a part of -- it's wrong, yeah, but it does get the public thinking about military issues like POWs or the plight of some of our vets. And whatever gets people thinking about those things, that's a good message. It instills patriotism."
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