This essay is part of the That’s History series, a partnership between NewsWorks and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Rick Duncan was a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. Wounded in battle, he received both a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. Then he came home and told his story, over and over again, so everyone would know the truth about the war.
But Rick Duncan never won a medal; indeed, he never served in the military at all. And his name isn’t even Rick Duncan.
It’s Richard Strandlof. You’ll be hearing that name a lot over the next few months. Strandlof was arrested two years ago for violating the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law making it illegal to falsely claim a military decoration. Now he’s challenging the constitutionality of the measure in a federal appeals court, arguing that freedom of speech includes the freedom to lie.
Is he right? I really don’t know. But here’s what I do know: Richard Strandlof’s lie speaks to a collective truth about the way we regard military veterans today: as wounded victims, scarred by the traumas of war. And we should all be troubled by that.
Consider Strandlof’s own tall tale, which reads like a Forrest Gump of recent American history. It begins at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, where Strandlof was allegedly working when hijacked planes attacked the building. Then he did supposedly three tours in Iraq, suffering a brain injury from an improvised explosive device.
That all putatively helps explain his twitchy mannerisms as well as his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which Strandlof described at great length upon his return. He also told audiences that he had turned against the war during his service. It was time time for America to come home, Strandlof proclaimed, lest more young Americans suffer like he did.
Again, not a word of this is true. But Strandlof managed to snooker thousands of people in Colorado, where he founded a veterans’ group. He even appeared on the campaign stump with several politicians, demanding better domestic services for those who have served abroad. Most of all, he emphasized the illness, torment, and disillusion of Americans who have fought the nation’s wars.
That’s a convenient thing to believe, if you happen to oppose the war in question. But it’s every bit as false as any fantasy invented by Richard Strandlof.
According to a 1980 Lou Harris poll, 91 percent of Vietnam veterans were “glad they served their country,” and 74 percent “enjoyed their time in the military.” Nor did they suffer abnormal rates of drug addiction, joblessness, divorce, or suicide. A 1988 Center for Disease Control study found that 90 percent of Vietnam vets were employed, and 90 percent of married vets were satisfied with their marriages.
Ditto for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. True, a 2008 Rand Corporation survey showed that 20 percent of the veterans reported symptoms of PTSD or depression. But the vast majority are doing just fine, thank you, raising families and entering new careers.
Let me be clear: war is indeed hell, for some veterans, and the hell can last a lifetime. Civil War vets experienced “soldier’s heart,” as it was called, which included nervous diseases and stomach problems; after World Wars One and Two, likewise, many soliders returned with “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” And the more you saw of actual combat, medical records show, the more likely you were to suffer these after-effects.
Also, Richard Strandlof is hardly the first American to inflate or invent his military service. That’s a time-honored tradition, including such luminaries as Sen. Joseph McCarthy (a.k.a. “Tailgunner Joe”) and Ronald Reagan, who falsely claimed that he had helped to liberate the Auschwitz concentration camp near the end of World War II. Most recently, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal told audiences that he had fought in Vietnam; in fact, he got five deferments in a row and then a spot in the Marine Reserve, which essentially insured that he wouldn’t see combat.
But earlier generations of Americans didn’t assume that you came home sick and broken, simply because you served in a war. That’s our own accepted truth, and you can hear it in the lies that we tell. The P.O.W. Network, an organization devoted to exposing military fakers, listed over 3,700 names on its website last year. And these imposters routinely claim wounds, of body and mind, as badges of honor.
That dishonors the brave men and women who have actually served, of course. But we do these real veterans a disservice, too, by indulging in guilty fantasies about their pain and misery. Richard Strandlof knew how we feel about vets, and he played us like a fiddle. Let’s use his own falsehoods to correct our own. Click the link for more information on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A discussion between Jonathan Zimmerman and Chris Satullo of WHYY on the latest That’s History topic airs every other Tuesday during NewsWorks Tonight at 6 p.m. on WHYY-FM. Jonathan Zimmerman is an historican with HSP, and teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author most recently of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
This article previously appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.