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Fudging military service an inexcusable offense

Lots of people embellish.

Benchwarmers promote themselves to the starting lineup. Childhood circumstances become more hardscrabble, youthful adventures more daring and glamorous.

Most times it's harmless. People accept the pervasiveness and give embellishers a pass, even if the chronic ones come off as a bit foolish.

But there are limits. The big one is military service.

To falsely claim combat experience is to seize the valor without tasting the fear, seeing the gore or living through the flashbacks. It's cheating — like taking the answers from the person who has done the work, only much, much worse.

Yet people do it, even those who should know the perils.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, reportedly a straight shooter in most respects, crossed the line in statements that suggested he served in Vietnam. In reality, Blumenthal received five deferments and then joined the Marine Corps Reserve and served stateside.

His failure to state the facts accurately on several occasions and correct the record when others got it wrong has become an issue in the Democrat's bid to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

And he's not the first.

Tim Johnson was fired as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999 for telling his players stories about combat in Vietnam. He'd never been there.

Actor Brian Dennehy falsely claimed a five-year tour of duty in the Southeast Asian conflict.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis falsified his own history by claiming to have served in Vietnam.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa claimed to have flown combat patrols in Vietnam. Actually, he transported damaged aircraft from Japan to the Philippines.

All wars give rise to pretenders.

Writer William Marvel discovered in the 1990s that the dozen men recognized as the last surviving Confederate Civil War vets were all phonies. They'd been making up war stories for years.

More recently, after an uproar over lies and exaggerations told about service in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to falsely claim to have been decorated for wartime service.

But it's the Vietnam War that has prompted some of the most egregious falsehoods.

Part of that is timing. Many of the young men of the '60s and early '70s are now in the public arena. Avoiding the draft may have seemed expedient or even principled at the time, but less so in hindsight.

That's the mood of the nation. Vietnam was a questionable and unpopular war. But the nature of Americans is to respect those who serve the country.

"We've been accepted," said Alan Gibson, who served two years in Vietnam as part of a 20-year Army career. "Quite frankly, a lot of veterans have accepted themselves."

Gibson paid a price for his service. His wife left him while he was in Vietnam. He received her "Dear John" letter on Christmas Day 1969. He experienced post-traumatic stress when he returned. He suspects that exposure to Agent Orange was the cause of his diabetes and the reason he had to have his legs amputated 10 years ago.

Now an energetic 70-year-old, Gibson has spent the better part of his life listening to stories of Vietnam vets. He was an outreach specialist for disabled veterans, served a number of positions with the Vietnam Veterans of America and its Missouri chapter, and is on the board of Welcome Home Inc., a home for homeless veterans in Columbia, Mo.

In Gibson's experience, lies and exaggerations about wartime service are rampant.

"Even the ones who were in Vietnam, some of them try to embellish their records," he said.

It's getting harder to be a pretender, though, with everyone's public pronouncements recorded on video and more accurate information accessible on the Internet.

Lies and embellishments get exposed. When they're peeled away, we are left with the genuine articles — those who served, paid a price and deserve to be recognized for it.