How do you tell real war heroes from frauds? Listen for the silence

February 24, 2015

What is it about some successful men that they feel a need to be war heroes, too?

There is a long tradition of prominent men exaggerating their military service for no good reason. And there is an equally long tradition of journalists and veterans’ groups exposing them to public ridicule.

But it keeps on happening.

Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, apologized this week after a TV news crew caught him telling a homeless man that he had served in special forces. McDonald graduated from West Point and Ranger school and served in the 82nd Airborne, but he wasn’t in special forces.

And then there are the TV stars who embellish their experiences as war correspondents.

This is a big deal because good journalism is about accuracy and the search for truth. Making up things destroys credibility, and without credibility, a journalist has nothing.

Brian Williams. AP Photo

Brian Williams. AP Photo

NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended earlier this month after he apologized for repeatedly telling how a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War was hit by enemy fire. Actually, it was another helicopter in Williams’ group that was hit.

Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling” that key detail. NBC executives have reacted appropriately by suspending their top-rated anchor for six months. Many journalists think he should never return to that job.

Even more interesting is the case of Bill O’Reilly, the bombastic Fox News talk show host and commentator.

Mother Jones magazine last week called out O’Reilly for repeatedly stretching the truth about his experiences as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

In his 2001 book “The No Spin Zone,” and on his show, O’Reilly has claimed to have “survived a combat situation” and reported from “active war zones.” In reality, O’Reilly and other non-British journalists were kept hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the Falkland Islands during Great Britain’s 74-day war with Argentina.

What O’Reilly was referring to was a demonstration he covered in Buenos Aires that turned violent. He claims to have seen Argentine troops shoot and kill civilians. And on his show in 2013, he told a guest, “My photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete.”

Bill O'Reilly. AP Photo

Bill O’Reilly. AP Photo

O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues have refuted his claims. They don’t recall any of their photographers being injured, and they note that there were no reports of civilian deaths that day.

Rather than apologize, O’Reilly has doubled-down on his claims and hurled insults at his critics and former colleagues. He called David Corn, the Mother Jones bureau chief in Washington who co-authored the story, “a liar”, “a despicable guttersnipe” and “a left-wing assassin.”

O’Reilly told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him about the controversy this week that if he didn’t like the story, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”

What O’Reilly has not done is offer any evidence to support his claims or refute the Mother Jones story. But rather than suspend him, Fox News executives so far have given O’Reilly their full support.

O’Reilly and Fox News may not be concerned about their journalistic credibility, since they don’t really have any beyond their loyal base of conservative viewers.

But they may be underestimating the military combat veterans in their audience who will be offended by O’Reilly’s manufactured heroism.

That’s because combat veterans and war correspondents who have performed bravely under fire don’t go around bragging about it. Even when asked, many would rather not discuss it.

I have seen this many, many times. But the one I will always remember involved the most famous hero of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee.

I interviewed York’s widow, Gracie, four months before she died in 1984. She told me her husband never wanted to talk about the deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“He never would, not even to me or the kids,” she said. “I guess he didn’t want to think about how bad it was in the war.”


Veterans’ sacrifice often continues after wars end

May 28, 2011

The men and women we honor on Memorial Day weekend are not all lost on the battlefield.

Veterans who survive combat too often have been denied care for their damaged bodies and minds. In every war, including the American Revolution, caring for wounded veterans has been a cost this nation’s leaders have been reluctant to pay.

That is the story told in a new book by Lexington authors Robert J. Topmiller and T. Kerby Neill, Binding Their Wounds, America’s Assault on Its Veterans (Paradigm Publishers, $22.95).

Topmiller served as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Marines at Khe Sanh, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. He wrote about his horrific experience in a previous book, Red Clay on My Boots. Topmiller earned a doctorate in history from the University of Kentucky and taught at Eastern Kentucky University.

Binding Their Wounds grew out of Topmiller’s combat experience, his study of the Vietnam War and veterans’ issues, his many trips to Vietnam to help orphans with birth defects likely caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. military, and his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

But friends think this was a book too painful for Topmiller to finish. In August 2008, he left home with the manuscript, checked into a motel and killed himself. Neill asked Topmiller’s widow and publisher for permission to finish the book.

“I had lunch with Bob about 10 days before he died, and he was talking about the book,” Neill said. “I’m a clinical psychologist and I had no inkling at our lunch that he was in the kind of distress he was in.”

Neill and Topmiller, who was 59 when he died, became friends through their work as peace activists and a shared passion for veterans’ issues. Neill, a Navy veteran and retired psychologist, had worked several years in the Veterans Administration.

Neill finished this book with help from many people, including Peter Berres, a Vietnam veteran and scholar who wrote a chapter about Agent Orange. George Herring, a University of Kentucky historian and leading expert on the Vietnam War, wrote the forward.

After telling Topmiller’s compelling story, this well-written book chronicles the history of broken promises to and mistreatment of America’s veterans. In every war, veterans have had to lobby, protest and even fight to get promised compensation and care from politicians who wanted to save money or “move on.” Minority and women veterans fared even worse than white men.

The book explores the government’s attempts to deny care to veterans exposed to radiation, Agent Orange and other chemical hazards. And it details how the Bush administration was unprepared to care for so many injured soldiers in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today’s combat veterans return home with physical wounds that would have killed previous generations on the battlefield. But perhaps the biggest challenges now, as always, are the unseen wounds.

This psychological damage has gone by different names throughout history: “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, “battle fatigue” in World War II and Korea. Now referred to as “post-traumatic stress,” these injuries have been a huge issue for Vietnam veterans and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week grilled VA officials about rampant suicide, which has surpassed combat as the leading cause of death among active military personnel. Veterans now account for about 20 percent of the nation’s 30,000 suicides each year.

Neill said significant progress has been made in care for veterans in recent years, from electronic medical records and post-traumatic stress treatment to training and pay for family caregivers. But he said more must be done, despite projections that veterans’ care will push the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan past $3 trillion.

Toward the end of his life, Topmiller seemed more distressed by what was then happening in Iraq than what had happened in Vietnam. “He had hoped we had learned the lesson of wars of choice,” Neill said.

As with any medical issue, the cheapest and most effective treatment is prevention.

That is why Neill focused the book’s last chapter on how to prevent future wars.

War has become too easy, Neill said. Powerful economic interests encourage military adventurism, and an all-volunteer military distances most affluent Americans from the tragic consequences.

“The size of our military and what we invest in it is perhaps one of the reasons we use it so carelessly,” he said.

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Lexington program to improve Marine recruit fitness

May 31, 2010

What is a more pervasive threat to national security than al-Qaida? Military leaders say it is the double cheeseburger and large fries, and the sedentary lifestyle of many American young people.

In a recent report called “Too Fat to Fight,” the non-partisan group Mission: Readiness, made up of senior retired military officers, said 27 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old aren’t fit enough to serve in the military. The number of inductees who flunk their physicals has jumped nearly 70 percent since 1995.

“Obesity rates threaten the overall health of America and the future strength of our military,” Gens. John Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a recent commentary in the Washington Post.

Lexington fitness trainer Steve Mansfield is helping the Marine Corps fight back.

Mansfield, who owns Legion Training Center off Reynolds Road, has begun teaching Marine recruiters across the region a no-frills fitness program that they can use to help get recruits in shape. Many recruits have about six months between when they enlist and when they report for duty.

Since April, two classes of Marine recruiters have graduated from Mansfield’s Legion Warrior PT program. It is an intense three days of classroom instruction and workouts with dozens of strength and endurance exercises that use body weight for resistance.

Mansfield hopes that if the recruiters find the program useful, the Marines will hire him to expand it nationally. So far, the results are promising, said Sgt. John Jackson, public affairs officer for the 4th Marine Corps District, based in Louisville.

“They were very positive about it,” Jackson said of recruiters who have completed the program. “It was very demanding.”

It certainly was. I spent a couple of hours watching Mansfield and his instructors put more than a dozen fit Marine recruiters through a workout that included every variation of push-up, sit-up, jumping jack, squat and kicking exercise you can imagine — and then some.

“They’re going to be able to take kids they couldn’t take before,” Mansfield said as he walked around the gym critiquing the recruiters’ workouts. “They’ll get more kids in good enough shape to serve and, if they’re in shape, get them better able to excel at basic training.”

Mansfield, 52, never served in the military. Until the Bath County native opened his gym nearly three years ago, he said, he worked in business and technology. In his spare time, though, his passion was martial arts, rock climbing, mountaineering and other endurance sports. “I finally decided to make my hobby my career,” he said.

Unlike many sport-specific exercise programs, Mansfield’s workouts are geared toward creating overall, high-endurance fitness. Legion Warrior PT is a combination of military and law enforcement exercise techniques, plus those used in extreme sports.

The idea is to teach recruiters a variety of exercises to help every kind of recruit — and to keep workouts interesting. The exercises require little or no special equipment. Mansfield teaches similar workouts to civilian clients at his gym.

“There’s no new exercise under the sun,” he said. “It’s finding the exercises that work for you and doing them with the intensity needed to get fit. You can’t do the same thing every day, or it will get stale, and then you won’t do it.”

The program also includes four hours of nutrition instruction. “For recruits, nutrition is half the battle,” Mansfield said.

“It will definitely help the people we recruit get in shape for boot camp,” said Sgt. David Harvey, a Marine recruiter based in Cincinnati.

Many high school athletes enlist in the Marines, but even they often don’t have the stamina and endurance needed to succeed. “We also get a lot of smart (video) gamers who can’t do a pull-up,” said Sgt. Robert Pugh, a recruiter in Bowling Green.

“It’s one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done,” Staff Sgt. Brandon Rosser, a Louisville-based recruiter, said as he caught his breath during a break. He says the program will help him help Marine recruits. “I never knew there were so many versions of push-ups.”