In Reply: In his response to our letter describing the problem of fraudulent claims of combat status, Dr. Henderson raises concern about the opposite problem. He reports that he has treated individuals at a Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center who served in covert activities and whose military records have subsequently been falsified to conceal these activities, thus cheating deserving veterans of recognition and eligibility for PTSD disability compensation. With respect, we wonder how Dr. Henderson knew that the records were falsified and that the individuals' claims of covert combat were true. In our experience, the scenario he describes is extremely unlikely.
In the course of extensive research using military personnel records that spanned the past 15 years and covered thousands of individuals (1), the first author (BGB) has never known of a military personnel record falsified by the government to conceal covert or any other activities. That is not how covert activities are handled in individual veterans' military personnel records. Even though some operations during the Vietnam War were classified, the documentation for those operations was thorough and is included in personnel records as "Top Secret." No military personnel would risk their career undertaking an operation with no supporting documents. Furthermore, virtually all such records were declassified years ago.
Information related to an individual's military training, duty assignments, and so forth is never classified. Although personnel files would not describe a specific secret mission in which military personnel participated, personal data would not be changed to hide the general character of the military duty—for example as a fighter pilot, Green Beret, or Force Recon. In addition, all personal decorations indicating participation in combat, such as the Silver Star, Combat Action Ribbon, and Purple Heart, would be listed in an individual's record. The record of a man who was a Green Beret assigned to 5th Special Forces in Vietnam would never be doctored to show he was a cook.
For example, Fred Zabitosky, a Green Beret, was awarded a Medal of Honor for a secret mission in Laos. His Special Forces training and combat decorations were clearly documented in his personnel record. The Medal of Honor citation did not mention Laos, but "Southeast Asia." Years later, after declassification, he had his record officially changed to show "Laos." At no time did his personnel records show anything false.
Many phony combat heroes depend on gullible and well-intentioned clinicians accepting their claims that military records were changed to conceal covert operations. We agree with Dr. Henderson that memories of any kind, including traumatic memories, are unreliable over time. We also agree that it would be a great help to VA clinicians to have easy access to military records documenting whether or not veterans were exposed to traumatic experiences. Certainly, the VA could make it easier for clinicians to conduct better background checks via computerized database searches. Fortunately, reasonably accurate and reliable historical information is available about most veterans' military experiences, including combat activities (covert or otherwise), through the National Military Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri 63132-5100.
Mr. Burkett is a Vietnam veteran, military researcher, and coauthor of Stolen Valor.He lives in Plano, Texas. Dr. Frueh is associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.