Burkett -- a Dallas investment counselor who is careful to note that his own Army service in Vietnam was mostly in the rear area -- has doggedly outed frauds and poseurs claiming false war glory all over the country. He details these cases, involving the famous and the obscure, in a book called Stolen Valor.
Burkett tracked Rolofson down in Madison County, Illinois, just over the river from St. Louis.
Rolofson met Barbara Harris at church. As Burkett writes in his book, divorced mother Harris and her two young sons were soon enthralled by Rolofson's detailed stories about his experiences as a Green Beret in Vietnam. So when Rolofson offered to take her boys on an overnight trip with a church group to Six Flags, Harris consented. After all, he was a war hero. He could be trusted.
But after the trip, Rolofson was accused of having sex with one of Harris' sons, ten years old, in a Collinsville, Illinois, hotel room and charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault, according to a Post-Dispatch account. Character witnesses from the church lined up to defend Rolofson. By this time, Harris not only suspected Rolofson's war-hero status, she worried that it would help him in a trial. Her worry was compounded when prosecutors in the case told her that no attempt had been made to get Rolofson's military records.
Harris had heard of Burkett. She called him for help.
During Rolofson's September 1995 trial, prosecutor Teresa D. Brown, with the aid of Burkett's research into military archives, presented the defendant's real military record. Rolofson was not a Green Beret; he had not even been in Vietnam. He had served in a rifle platoon in Korea. "When the truth came out," says Burkett, "the jury knew who to believe. He was convicted and got eighteen months. Of all the deceivers I've exposed, Rolofson made me the angriest. He could have been using those stories of heroism in Vietnam to impress young boys for years."
Although Rolofson denied the assault, a jury convicted him on the sex charge.
Nothing incenses Burkett more than some joker fabricating service records or claiming military awards for personal gain. Burkett, 54, is a self-appointed watchdog of truth when it comes to hard-to-disprove claims of military heroism. And this watchdog has teeth: Over the last sixteen years, he has exposed hundreds of frauds and bullshit artists -- some of them drifters, some respected business figures and some celebrities, such as actor Brian Dennehy.
In a 1989 interview, Dennehy told the New York Times he'd sustained a concussion and shrapnel wounds during combat. Four years later, in a Playboy interview, he said he served as a Marine in Vietnam for five years and was wounded in combat. Burkett researched Dennehy's military record and found he'd been discharged from the Marines in 1963. His record made no mention of the Vietnam Service Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal or any of the other medals typically awarded to Vietnam vets.
Dennehy served his country, says Burkett, as a Marine football player in Okinawa.
There was a time when Vietnam vets were vilified as alienated burnouts incapable of functioning in American society, which attracted biker types who wanted to add it to their outlaw personas. But as time passed, the war lost much of its negative stigma -- and other phonies found the war's newfound respectability irresistible. Many people began telling false war tales to puff themselves up and give themselves identities bigger than their true humdrum lives.
Burkett doesn't have an exclusive franchise on this work.
In 1997, Darryl Young -- a former Navy SEAL from Florence, Montana, who tracks down pretenders -- confronted the president of the St. Louis chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, Daniel Meyer, about his claim of service in the SEALs, an elite corps of highly trained warriors similar to the Army's Green Berets. Meyer, who also owns the Ashau Valley bar, a favorite hangout of bikers and vets, resigned his VVA post after the call from Young, who heard of Meyer's claim in an Internet chat room for Vietnam vets. In reality, Meyer had been a sailor, serving as a pipe fitter on an aircraft carrier, according to Young's research.
Young heads up a national SEAL-alumni organization that roots out pretenders. The group has exposed a former navy commander, political candidates and various prominent businessmen.
Burkett's mission began in 1986, while he was serving on a committee of the Texas Vietnam Memorial. He says he began to question reports of drug-addicted, homeless Vietnam vets committing crimes and living on welfare because of combat-related trauma. Burkett is a decorated Vietnam vet whose unit, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, lost 800 men during the course of the war. He was bothered by the stereotype of the dysfunctional Vietnam vet and found that it didn't square with the soldiers he'd known during his enlistment and the successful veterans he met after coming home.
"I became a detective of sorts," he says. "Whenever I saw someone in the media described as a Vietnam veteran, I sent off for his or her military record. Most often I checked those I call the 'image-makers,' the veterans used by reporters to illustrate stories on homelessness, post-traumatic shock disorder, Agent Orange illnesses, criminality and substance abuse. Often the records revealed that the veteran I investigated was bogus -- he had never been there or, if he had, he wasn't the hero he claimed to be."
Verifying military service can be time-consuming and frustrating, says Burkett, but sometimes all it takes is one Freedom of Information Act request. By 1989, he was pumping out an average of one FOIA request per day. Today that number has increased to the point that a steady stream of FOIA requests flows to several records repositories, asking not only for individual military records but for other documents, such as a ship's logs, morning reports and unit records. But most of Burkett's requests go to the National Personnel Records Center, located at 9700 Page Avenue in Overland. It's the federal repository of military records for all discharged, deceased and retired members of all branches of the armed forces.
Charlie Pellegrini, chief of management, says the center gets 5,000 to 6,000 requests for military records each day. The level of detail available falls into the category of what the military calls public information -- dates and places of service entry and separation; rank; type of discharge; awards and citations; in-service education and more.
A 1973 fire at the records center destroyed about 80 percent of all military records from 1912-60, five decades when America had more people in uniform than at any other time. Even though the records were destroyed, says Pellegrini, "in almost every occasion we can verify military service from other sources -- state agencies, the Veterans Administration [now the Department of Veterans Affairs] -- enough for the vet to qualify for Social Security benefits or what have you."
Pellegrini has high praise for Burkett: "Quite frankly, he's doing something I personally cheer on, because these people who stand up and say what heroes they are, that's taking something away from the people who really are."
Burkett says people should be skeptical about any claim of military accolades, especially from someone who crows about his heroism:
"With true war heroes, there's a certain amount of guilt that goes with being honored. You probably lost friends. You may feel extremely lucky, but you certainly don't feel boastful -- you've walked the walk, and you're modest. The other guy is a guy who's inadequate, who has to beef up his image. But we have a tendency, especially reporters, to eat that up, because you want a guy telling you colorful stories."
Some fakers have had the gall to claim America's highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Mitchell Page, a Marine who received his medal for his participation in the fierce fighting on Guadalcanal in World War II, has nailed hundreds of Medal of Honor phonies over the past three decades.
The downtown Veterans Day parade, held November 9 this year, was decidedly underattended, the same as it is every year -- with the notable exception of 2001, when the event was jam-packed in the aftermath of 9/11.
"How quickly people forget," says Jim Fischer, president of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club of Southern Illinois. The club is open to any Vietnam-era service member who has a motorcycle, preferably American-built, and can present discharge papers, known as DD-214s. "But those DD-214s can be doctored, easy," says Fischer, watching his fellow biker vets, some 400 strong, roar past the reviewing stand. "One guy said he was a Navy SEAL; his papers said he did two tours in 'Nam. Come to find out he'd never left the States. We kicked his ass right out."
Fischer says that even these poseurs have value.
"These guys get together and tell war stories, and, even if it's a lie, it still uplifts everyone's spirit," says Fischer. "To say you've been in battle when you haven't or to brag about some unit that you were never a part of -- it's wrong, yeah, but it does get the public thinking about military issues like POWs or the plight of some of our vets. And whatever gets people thinking about those things, that's a good message. It instills patriotism."