Real heroes don’t have to exaggerate service

Published 8:55 am Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I have a thing for Marines, always have. It began a long time ago when I watched my older brother amble away in the night toward his barracks at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

I cried myself dry that evening, thinking that I might not see him again, knowing that the next morning he was off to Vietnam. Khe Sanh, his ultimate destination, might as well have been another planet. As it turns out, it was hell.

Jack came home eventually, a different boy than the one who left. Still just a teenager, he was leaner and meaner. His eyes gave nothing away. When our father and I visited Jack in the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, where he was being treated for “battle fatigue” and other afflictions, we stuck to safe subjects: college, cars and girls, his primary interests at that point.

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To this day, I’ve yet to hear any stories of war from him, nor, for that matter, from any of the men in my family, all of them veterans of various conflicts. A few scattered pictures of tough boys sporting knives and guns occasionally find their way to the top of a shoe box, but there are no videos or journals, no displays of purple hearts.

Like most veterans, with a few notable exceptions, my brother has expressed no desire to revisit that time and place, nor any need to boast of his exploits. When you’ve witnessed the horrors of war, you apparently don’t need to tell anyone.

All of these thoughts surfaced as I pondered Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general recently infamous for exaggerating his role as a Marine reservist during the Vietnam era. At various times, he has accurately said that he wore the uniform during that period; other times, he has said that he wore the uniform in Vietnam. In fact, he received several draft deferments while a student at Harvard and Cambridge, and enlisted in the Marines only when those deferments were running out.

And he did falsely and knowingly imply that he was a combat veteran. The question is why? And what should voters make of it when they go to the polls?

Blumenthal, a Democrat, is running to fill retiring Sen. Chris Dodd’s seat. His fiercest opponent has been Republican Linda McMahon, who says her campaign assisted with a New York Times investigation into Blumenthal’s false claims. As an unintended consequence, McMahon’s involvement may have provided momentum to her principal Republican rival, former Rep. Rob Simmons, who did serve in Vietnam and received two bronze stars.

On a certain level, it is gratifying that those who served in America’s most unpopular war — and who were vilified back home — now can enjoy some measure of pride in their service. But the humility common among heroes is in scant evidence these days, and selective memory has rarely been so repugnant.

Blumenthal isn’t the first to exaggerate his service, of course. “Stolen Valor” is the title of a book that chronicles phony heroes falsely claiming to have served in Vietnam.

There is, indeed, something unique about the Vietnam era that haunts a generation. All are familiar with the deep divisions that brought students to riot, leaving four dead at Kent State, and others to trek to Canada. The draft was the Maginot Line of America’s heart, and too many of the unlucky never came home.

Who knows what motivated Blumenthal to stretch his truth? Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt.

“There is nothing that binds Marines together like combat and, if you missed it, I can understand that he (Blumenthal) may have actually convinced himself he was there,” my brother wrote in an e-mail. “But those who served in combat consider Marines who did not the same brothers, regardless. We are a team and those in the rear are just as important as those on the line.”

The deception, as always, is something else. Blumenthal had every right under the law to seek deferments. He had every right to be proud of his service during the Vietnam era. But he did not have the right to build personal equity on the borrowed suffering of others.

Had he gone to Vietnam, as he apparently thinks he should have, he would have learned that, and this: Real heroes never brag, and real Marines don’t lie.

Kathleen Parker writes for the Washington Post. Her e-mail address is