I’ve met my own Walter Mitty, a man who claims to be a Vietnam vet, former POW, and recipient of one Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. But I suspect this man is a fraud who steals the valor of true war heroes, like my friend, former PFC Duane Vincent.
I won’t name this Mitty-esque character, who claimed to have served with the 101st Airborne, but he’s real. Financially insolvent, he lives in his car, visits the local food bank, and asks people for support because he’s battling the Veteran’s Administration for his benefits.
Apparently, his black baseball cap—embroidered with “Vietnam Veteran” in big gold letters—has served him well. One kind-hearted food bank volunteer sets aside larger portions for him and decries the poor treatment of this veteran.
How This Came to Pass
He entered my world because my mind was set on commemorating this year’s Veteran’s Day with a story about a former POW. Another food bank volunteer—someone I know well—told me about this man, and she, too, had taken pity on him.
He was quite willing to share his story about his stint as a tunnel rat, which he claimed led to his capture, subsequent imprisonment, and torture in a North Vietnamese POW camp where he nearly starved to death.
We met at a local restaurant a few weeks later. Between bites of his hamburger, he told me his heart-wrenching story. The childhood abuse. Enlistment at age 16. The death of two buddies in Vietnam. The visit to the Nixon White House. His subsequent drug abuse.
Did he really say he’d been rescued two weeks before Saigon fell … in 1973?
A real Vietnam veteran would never forget the year the South Vietnamese capital fell. Right? The iconic image of desperate people trying to board a helicopter in late April 1975 will never leave my memory.
I finished my meal, signaled the server, and took care of the check. In the parking lot, he kissed my hand and thanked me profusely for sharing his story. I shudder at the thought now. A background check and exhaustive Internet search revealed a far different man.
The Lists He’s On…
He hadn’t told me about his time in a Missouri prison for burglary. Nor had he bothered mentioning his more recent conviction … soliciting a minor, which landed him on the registry of local sex offenders.
The lists not including his name were the ones that mattered most—at least to this blog post. I couldn’t find it on a POW list or the roster of the 101st Airborne. And he certainly didn’t appear on lists naming those who earned valorous medals.
I’m confident he no more served in Vietnam than I did—especially now after learning more about the pervasiveness of stolen valor. A fraud who steals the valor of true war heroes does a great disservice to millions of vets, like retired Major Bobby Charles, whom I featured last year, and, of course, Duane.
The Real Hero
Duane arrived in South Vietnam in June 1965, one month after his 19th birthday. The native of Tacoma, Washington, then spent the next seven-and-a-half months as the crew chief on “Mardi Gras 6,” a Huey Slick in the 145thAirlift Platoon out of Nha Trang. His platoon supported “Chargin’ Charlie Beckwith’s Project Delta, the forerunner to the legendary Delta Force.
As the crew chief, Duane maintained his “ship” and served as one of two door gunners during missions to deliver supplies and insert or extract Project Delta personnel in hot zones in the Binh Dinh Province … a dangerous job in “places you shouldn’t go.”
“You thought about (the danger), but you put it out of your mind,” Duane told me from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Perhaps it was his teenage mind—a false sense of invincibility—but he never dreamed he’d be wounded, let alone killed.
He wasn’t invincible after all.
In 1965, Viet Cong guerillas controlled much of the Binh Dinh Province, a narrow coastal plain with river valleys separated by ridges and low mountains. That year, the CIA determined the area was “just about lost” to the communists, and so began Operation Masher, the largest search-and-destroy mission up until that time.
The 41-day campaign began in late January 1966. Duane’s platoon was responsible for quietly inserting Project Delta’s special forces teams into the An Lao Valley, providing air cover, and then picking them up on demand.
Things went awry from the start.
On the morning of January 29, one of the Delta reconnaissance teams reported it was under fire and needed an immediate pickup. Mardi Gras 6 took off, with Major Beckwith onboard.
Smoke, Confusion and Wounds
“Almost immediately, I heard the sharp, sub-sonic cracking of small arms and automatic weapons,” Duane wrote in an article published in Vietnam Magazine in 2003. They were taking fire from the tree line along a paddy dike.
Duane began delivering suppressive fire with his M-60 into the tree line, working from the right to the left. Beckwith, who sat next to Duane, began firing his M-16 over Duane’s right shoulder. Duane had fired about 20 or 30 rounds when he felt searing, unbearable pain in his right hand.
“I looked and saw smoke coming out of a hole on top of my hand,” Duane said. The high-caliber bullet then exited through his wrist, nicked his right thigh, before hitting Beckwith in the abdomen. “I glanced at Beckwith, and I could immediately tell that he had a gut wound and was hurt much worse than I was.”
Confusion ensued. Duane could hear the other gunner’s M-60 working. He could feel the smoke-filled helicopter shaking. He saw the enemy below. While the First Sergeant clamped down on Duane’s arm to stop the bleeding, Duane took his weapon with his left hand and started firing.
“The co-pilot said he’d looked down and saw I got one of the enemy shooters,” Duane said.
He spent a year at Madigan Army Hospital in Tacoma getting his bone-shattered hand repaired. The scars remain, a daily reminder of his service in Vietnam.
My Walter Mitty Character
Weeks have passed since meeting a fraud who steals the valor of true war heroes. Though initially upset that he tried to snooker me, I see the situation differently now.
Something happened to him. Maybe he did tell the truth when he described his father’s physical and mental abuse and feelings of never being able to measure up. He, like James Thurber’s fictional Walter Mitty, needed to imagine himself as worthy, important, and courageous. So, he created a new persona.
Or maybe he’s just a con man.
Whatever. I can only hope he comes to terms with his authentic self and stops being a fraud who steals the valor of true war heroes.