The Curious Case of Sergeant Doe

I have always deeply disliked seeing anyone shown up or found out or caught in a lie or red-handed doing anything, and now, with time to think things over, I began to feel ashamed…

~ Joseph Mitchell

In 2006, while marching in a spirited parade to protest the Iraq war, I met Johnny Doe. It was his baseball cap, adorned with miniature Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, and Purple Hearts that caught my eye.  For the next half hour, as we walked the city streets, he touted a litany of war tales from his two tours in Vietnam. It was hard to get a word in edgewise.

As it happened we both belonged to the same anti-war vets group, and over the next few years, when our paths crossed, his war stories unfurled like clockwork, as did his opinions on all things political.  Johnny was knowledgeable, articulate, and though he sometimes rambled, the vets listened when he spoke; he was admired and respected. Indeed, at public gatherings, Johnny was the self-appointed spokesman for the vets group. Up to that point I did not suspect he was a fake.

In 2008 my friend Tim began interviewing Vietnam vets for an anthology on how the war had brought fuller meaning to their lives. Among those who responded was Johnny Doe. After reading his account I contacted Tim. “These stories are over the top,” I said. “They don’t feel right. You need to make sure Johnny Doe is real.”

Johnny’s story of how he got first Purple Heart was believable: I was on a listening post in the middle of the night. I heard a thud. I stuck my head out and a grenade went off. I almost lost my eye and got a few pieces of shrapnel in my cheek.  But his second PH raised a red flag: I stepped right on a guy. I didn’t even know he was there. He was camouflaged real good. He should have shot me, but he jumped up and stabbed me in the hand with a bayonet, so I retaliated with an ice pick to the head. That was the end of him. I just bandaged up my hand and we continued on.

He was vague about the first Silver Star. They’d been ambushed; he yanked people out of danger. He couldn’t recall the details.  Elsewhere, Johnny fought hand-to-hand, and stuck bayonets in peoples heads.  All told, he had 21 confirmed kills. Having called in artillery and air support numerous times, he felt badly for a thousand more deaths.

His second Silver Star was equally vague. During a fire fight grunts yelled for a medic; laid down covering fire; Johnny did what he had to do.  As he recalled, when a brigadier general pinned the medal on his chest, Johnny said he didn’t deserve it, but the general replied, “Fuck you, take it!”

During his second tour, this time as a combat medic, as Johnny patched up a wounded GI, an NVA suddenly charged out of the jungle. Johnny pulled a.45 out from the small of his back, shot the foe, finished work on the casualty, then proceed to stitch up the NVA. “Sometimes you gotta shoot ’em and then you gotta put ’em back together again. I would never have been able to live with myself after that–you know, walk up to somebody and just blow him away.”

Johnny got one of his three Purple Hearts while day dreaming in the bush. Caught off guard by an NVA who slashed his throat with a machete, he managed to peel off a lethal burst from his M16. Another medic stuck his pinkie in Johnny’s carotid artery, stanching the flow of blood.

An ice pick in the jungle, twenty-one confirmed kills, a cumbrous and loaded .45 kept in the small of the back, a general who murmurs obscenities. What might these things have in common? The four combat vets I contacted thought Johnny’s war tales were generously padded or wholly made up. After speaking with Tim, who had requested and received a DD 214 (the Army’s one-page summary of military service) from Johnny, I decided there was only one thing to do.

On a cold and rainy winter night, I met Johnny at a local cafe. We sat at a table and eyed each other carefully. Johnny looked tired. His speech was slurred, from what I could not tell.  He said he was annoyed that Tim had emailed Johnny’s pal Bruce about conflicts in the DD 214, instead of contacting him directly.  Johnny was right and I immediately apologized.  He said “Thank you,” and the tension between us softened.

We talked about war, the impact it had on each of us. After a time I said I’d found his combat stories hard to believe, but what really counted were facts. I said I’d done some digging.

Johnny said that years ago, during a messy divorce, he had lost his military papers, medals and Vietnam photographs. His brother had copies but had to yet locate them. Earlier, he told Tim he would ask his congressman to obtain copies of his records, but did not follow through. Oddly, his friend Bruce had emailed me a few weeks prior, stating that Johnny had obtained his original DD 214 from the VA, which Bruce then faxed to Tim. Apparently Johnny was unaware that Tim had sent it to me.

Johnny opened a large white envelope, reached in, and gave me that document. I handed him a copy of his DD 214 that Tim and I obtained via FOIA request from the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis.  We compared the two records. I pointed out that while the DOB and first/middle/last name matched, the last digits of the social security number were different. I pointed out the conflicting pay grades, the mismatched dates of service. Different units were indicated in the Last Duty Assignment and Major Command.

Johnny said my document referred to someone else. He said his was authentic and correct. He said three vets with his name were born on the same day and this was the cause of the mix up.  When I pointed out that the documents had different enlistment dates, Johnny Doe shrugged.  “Numbers never add up!” he said. “What do you expect?”

The 214 Johnny handed me listed a trove of medals, including: multiple Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts Medals, Arcoms, Good Conduct Medals, Vietnam campaign ribbons, the Overseas Service Ribbon, NCO Professional Development Ribbon, the Army Service Ribbon, Army Achievement Medal, M16 Qualification Badge, Combat Infantry Badge, and the Combat Medic Badge.  But the layout of the document was unlike any I had seen, and there were numerous spelling errors.

Johnny insisted he had done two tours in Vietnam, the first in 1969, the second in 1973, each time with the same division, though in different battalions, first as a rifleman, then as a medic. This coincided with his essay for Tim.

When we talked about war Johnny rattled off his MOS (Military Occupational Skill), the two line companies he’d served with, and spoke fluently of weapons, patrols, well-used trails, the art of constructing an effective ambush.  He named locales where he’d seen action: the Central highlands, Pleiku, Da Nang. And he identified the area of my tour too.

Regarding his unit, Johnny gave the year the division cased its colors, and departed from Vietnam. However, he said, one battalion stayed behind. This was the unit he joined in 1973 on his second tour as a 91B20, a combat medic. The one war tale he told that night was compelling and credible.

While Johnny spoke, I looked for telltale scars from the swooping machete wound that had cleaved his neck.  I looked for pit marks from red hot shrapnel that would have penetrated the soft skin of his cheek, or below his eye.  Had the passage of time diminished the wounds? There were no visible marks.

I asked Johnny about PTSD. Five years ago, he said, while living in Vermont, he’d submitted a VA disability claim and had not heard back.  He said over the years he had attended VA therapy groups for combat vets.

Finally, given the unresolved dates and conflicting SSNs, I asked Johnny if he would authorize me to request his complete and unredacted Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) from the National Archives. “Sure,” he said, then changed his mind.  He felt the contents were too personal. And he was annoyed by how our conversation was playing out. I dropped the subject. I said it was good talking, that I’d make a few more inquiries, then likely set it all aside. We shook hands and parted.

I liked the man. He made a favorable impression.  Was it because we had both been medics? Seen our share of combat? I wanted to believe him. But things just didn’t add up.

Soon afterward, I contacted the historian of Johnny’s division in Vietnam and learned that all its units had been pulled out by December 1970.  Johnny’s battalion couldn’t possibly have been there on his second tour.  In fact, all US combat units left Vietnam by 1973. And Johnny had misstated the battalion he had joined on his first tour. Odd for a vet who so strongly identified himself as Vietnam veteran.

A few weeks later, badgered by Tim, Johnny reluctantly authorized my request for his OMPF. For the next two months, as we waited to hear from the National Archives, Tim and I exchanged emails with Bruce, Johnny’s good friend.  Bruce expressed deepening concern over the irregularities in Johnny’s 214, but felt that forthcoming documents would resolve the matter.  In fact, he was miffed that Tim and I had cast doubt on the integrity of a highly decorated Vietnam combat vet.

But facts Bruce cited to bolster Johnny’s case were equally untrue. At a video taped political rally, Johnny stated he did four combat tours in Vietnam, not the two he had previously claimed. When I told that to Bruce, he said the military considered each six months in Vietnam a combat tour.  In fact, the Army used a one-year rotation policy in Vietnam, and the Historical Resources Branch, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Ft. McNair, said they never heard of measuring Vietnam combat tours in bi-annual increments.  Bruce also asserted that Johnny’s division left several brigades behind in 1970, but this was simply false.

Johnnie’s OMPF finally arrived. Tim was excited by what he found.  By contrast, even with the new evidence, I urged caution. There was something about Johnny, and myself, I did not yet understand.

Johnny’s Official Military Personnel File contained an Army DD 214; an NGB 22 (National Guard equivalent of DD 214); qualification records re MOS training; an assignment record of domestic and overseas duty stations; a discharge notice from the Reserves.

Re-comparing the DD 214 Johnny had given us with the 214s received, Tim again noted the mismatched social security numbers.  The effective date of pay grade matched, but the ranks conflicted; the net active service time tables did not coincide. On Johnny’s copy, the signature of the authorizing officer omitted the middle initial; the code, authority, and narrative reason for separation were all left blank. As noted above, the template looked off kilter.  Most damaging, the dates of active Army service in the official record were 1971 to 1983.

From 1984 to 1991 Johnny was in the Reserves. The only medals listed were the Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, Army Achievement Medal, and Marksman Qualification Badge (M-16). Johnny had been assigned to four US bases and did a stint in Italy. Simply put, there was no reference to Vietnam in Johnny’s Official Military Personnel File. Tim was convinced the man was a fake, and should be held accountable.

I asked a noted fake vet spotter for her opinion. She said that while Johnny claimed to be a sergeant, there were no NCO schools listed on the official copy of the active duty DD 214. This called into question the NCO Professional Development Ribbon w/3. And if Johnny was a Sergeant First Class, he would have attended three NCO schools, denoted by the numeral 2 (the ribbon counts as one school and successive numerals would represent 1 ribbon +2 schools). The National Defense Medal was puzzling too, she said. There is no such Army medal. If it was the National Defense Service Medal, it should not be listed first in the Awards section. The spotter said that either the Combat Medical Badge or the Combat Infantryman’s Badge is listed on a DD 214, but never both. She ran a trace on the social security numbers. One belonged to Johnny, the other to a woman in another state.

Johnny wrote in his essay that he once lived in Vermont. According to Wikipedia Vermont issues the Vermont National Defense Medal. I queried the Vermont National Guard. The award, they said, is proof of VT NG service. I was hopeful for Johnny but asked if  “Vermont National Guard” would appear in his records. “Yes,” they said. But I could not find reference to the Green Mountain state in the OMPF.  As well, and critically important, the National Guard stated that all awards from all enlistments, active and reserve, are included in the NG 214.

I was captivated by the story. Part of me believed the skeptics, but part of me hoped Johnny was real. With the evidence mounting against him, it did not look good. Yet in my zeal to make or break Johnny Doe, I overlooked what mattered most, and continued puzzling things out.

For example, in his essay, Johnny named an infantry squad mate, who had recently died. An Internet search brought up a recently deceased Vietnam vet by that name.  Johnny’s essay also included meticulous details regarding his duty stations, medic training, and rank. Couldn’t the data conflicts in the OMPF be explained by paperwork mix ups or clerical errors? Such things were commonplace in the Army. The misnaming of his unit could be an excusable oversight. And his qualification records did show he attended NCO school for 25 weeks. But what about the missing references to Vietnam service in the OMPF? The impossible second tour? The valor medals missing on the official documents?  I was baffled.

A month went by. Tim grew impatient. “Fake, fake, fake,” he said, and wondered why I disagreed.  Our friendship began to fray. To calm the waters, I contacted a retired veterans’ advocate, who agreed to join us for lunch. I hoped his expertise would broaden Tim’s narrowed point of view.

At a Chinese restaurant, where the music was loud and the food spicy, the advocate carefully examined the records. He concluded that Johnny’s story and the document he provided did not hold up. And yet there were enough gray areas, enough wiggle room, he said, to withhold final judgement. And besides, if Johnny was fake, the revised Stolen Valor Act did not have clout and was largely unenforced. In his opinion, the curious case of Sergeant Johnny Doe was an irritant not worth pursuing.  Nodding pensively, Tim conceded.

Six months passed; all the while, the shadow of Johnny Doe nipped at my heels. I took stock of myself: What was it about this man that held my attention?  Compelled me to root for him, but also to root him out? Was it that I too had been an infantry medic in Vietnam, earned a fistful of medals, and desired to be seen and heard? Was I angry at Johnny,  jealous of the spotlights of attention, the kudos he received?  Each of us identified with the anti-war movement, gave impassioned truthful talks about war at high schools and colleges.  But where I had stepped back, grown cynical that students could understand combat, or that protests were effective, that political struggle was worthwhile, that change was possible, Johnny Doe continued speaking, to crowds, reporters, students.  Continued to write published letters to public figures, continued to march against Deimos America. Truthfully, I admired the man, envied his talks, his commitment, his sincerity.  But was he real? the small voice in my head persisted.  Did this pudgy middle-aged insistent man get his gun or not?

BG Burkett is the author of Stolen Valor, the book that alerted America to the prevalence of military fraud throughout the country. We traded emails and spoke by phone. Burkett reviewed all documents. Impartially, he confirmed the records showed no service in Vietnam.  Not long afterward, I contacted an independent researcher at the National Archives in Maryland. He reviewed the Awards and Decorations files for Johnny Doe’s unit and years. There were no valor citations in his name.

I last saw Johnny at a rainy back yard barbecue on July 4, 2014. A half dozen Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan vets had gathered under an old and leaky tent. At first the younger men eyed Johnny and me, then discreetly opened small plastic bags, pinched out pot, filled their pipes, lit and inhaled. Sipping a beer, Johnny regaled the men with the day he confronted a burly cop at a protest march. At stake was his right to free speech. “ ‘Like hell,’ I says to him. ‘I was an E-7. You don’t push me around.’ ” I hadn’t heard this particular story, or seen the rank, but I knew the narrative arc. Another triumph by Johnny, dispatching the bad guys. The potheads sat spellbound. After a time someone inquired of Johnny’s health. “I’m better,” he said, “thanks.” But in fact he looked old, gaunt and weary.

For years, Johnny Doe has been the local voice of a vets anti-war group.  A capable speaker, he opens his talks by citing his combat tours in Vietnam, his litany of medals. When he speaks about war–what it is and what it does to combatants, and to civilians caught in cross fires–it is from the heart, and believable.  He quotes facts, names names, and knows the language we grunts spoke, its merciless slang and pitiless cadence.  When asked, he will tell you where he fought, name the province, the LZ, the number of wounded, what heroic deeds he performed that day.  Next, he will address  the rot of America’s foreign policy, its long trails of destruction, our current use of devastating air and ground power to little effect and great civilian harm.  But who is this vet who speaks so full and wisely?

Men who fabricate heroic tales and medals for valor are inherently weak, insecure and tragic figures. They crave recognition, thirst for acceptance.  In Johnny’s case the facts are clear:  He never served a day in Vietnam. Never dodged a bullet, or shed a drop of blood. Never picked up a rifle, or patched up a casualty. Never said goodbye to the ashen dead.  He is an outright fraud laying claim to things he has not done or seen in order to boost his frail ego, the better to feel that he is loved, respected, needed.

But in this fiftieth anniversary year of the American war in Vietnam, the thoughtful reader will ask: So what? Who cares about an old man and his fake medallions and dreams of glory? And that is exactly the point.  Johnny Doe’s legion of lies are the small story, the one that bitter vets, civilian cynics and public critics would happily pounce on, rip to shreds and feed to the flames of public outcry.  To shame him, to tar and feather him, would ruin Johnny’s life, and cast severe doubt on vets that allow him to speak in their name. Shaming Johnny would demoralize all who believe in him, believe that his mythical tales and chimerical medals are inextricably tied to his activist message. Calumny would descend on this writer too.

It is better to cast Johnny’s unearned ribbons and tall tales aside. What he says about US warfare, its causes and consequences, is all that matters. I do not doubt for one second his firm but peaceful call to arms. His persistent struggle to slow or stop the next round of pox Americana.  I do not doubt that more voices like his are needed. Before it’s too late, I hope you are listening.

Marc Levy was an infantry medic with Delta Company, 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry, First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. He was decorated three times and court martialed twice. His website is Medic in the Green Time.

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Marc Levy was an infantry medic with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. He won the 2016 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families Writing Prize. His books are How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories, and Dreams, Vietnam. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: silverspartan@gmail.com

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