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Ten hut! Richard Blumenthal and the Semper Fib syndrome

May 20, 2010 |  7:16 am

Connecticut’s Democratic attorney general is not the first person to fall in love with a man in uniform – himself. And he won’t be the last.

Richard Blumenthal admitted to misstating his military record when he referred to his service in the Vietnam War. In fact, he was in uniform during the Vietnam War era but as a Marine Corps reservist who didn’t see any action beyond the Potomac River and, by some accounts, only signed up when his number was up – a low draft lottery number – and his five draft deferments had played out.

The deep unpopularity of the Vietnam War, coupled with Bill Clinton’s and Dick Cheney’s own records on the matter, have made it more tolerable, if not acceptable, to have dodged military service.

It's hard to know whether this impostor syndrome -- which is probably as old as the Iliad -- was more pronounced during the years when the nation had a draft, and most young men were required to perform some kind of military service, or came into flower with a voluntary military, when anyone in uniform was there by choice and lauded all the more for it.

But Blumenthal’s putting his stateside service on a par with Vietnam combat steps into muddier waters, where others have gone before.

Almost 15 years ago, a decorated Navy admiral named Jeremy M. Boorda committed suicide when he learned that a news report would reveal that he had embellished his Vietnam conflict ribbon with two small Vs, combat decorations he had not earned.

Duke Tully, once the publisher of Phoenix's two biggest newspapers, used to show up at speeches and veterans' events in the uniform of an Air Force colonel, a style and rank to which he had no claim. He resigned his job and presumably mothballed the uniform just as the local DA was reportedly looking into Tully's fraudulent ''record.''

Tim Johnson, who in 1999 was managing the Toronto Blue Jays, was pink-slipped for his Vietnam War fabrications.

Winners of the Medal of Honor would hear of impostors laying claim to that most venerable of honors. One such World War II Marine spent years tracking down and exposing hundreds of Medal of Honor frauds, and a Vietnam veteran named B.G. Burkett assembled his own "Stolen Valor" files of fake claimants to Vietnam War glory.

One bona fide member of the Tuskegee Airmen once told me how weary he and his comrades had grown of hearing so many men lay claim to that distinction – enough to populate 10 such squadrons.

Some of these frauds carefully built a web of credibility, sometimes with forged documents and pawn-shop medals, sometimes just by counting on the prestige of their claims and the comradeship of arms to immunize them from scrutiny. Who, really, challenges a man, or a woman, in uniform?

What motivates someone to join these ranks of fraudsters? As a clinical psychologist told The Times in 1999, they could be "losers, pathological types, guys trying to impress women. What they all have in common is this internal need to impress themselves and a feeling of power that they can pull it off."

What’s only slightly more astonishing is when real veterans sometimes close ranks to protect the impostor, as happened about 10 years back in the case of an Ohio police chief who faked an Army career. A real Army sergeant who befriended him insisted that his pal was really a covert agent, and the military wouldn’t acknowledge "the real story." As the clinical psychologist explained, that old undercover story "gives them complete deniability."

The converse, tearing down the bona fide combat veteran, is so rare as to be historic: the vicious and cynical "Swift Boat" campaign during the 2004 presidential campaign to discredit Sen. John Kerry’s very real Vietnam service and injury.

As long as this country honors its military men and women, as it should, those who haven’t earned the acclaim will be desperate to lay claim to it – and even in the age of Google and Facebook, Semper Fi can be Semper Fib.

-- Patt Morrison

 

 

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