Vietnam Vets Fought Stereotypes to Achieve Success

Article excerpt

Media myths still surround Vietnam vets 25 years later. It's time to set the record straight-again.

David Goff stood stiffly at attention, his mustache drooping over the sides of his mouth and thinning hair combed across the top of his head. The audience watched as Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) carefully pinned some of the highest decorations given by the Army for heroism in combat to the chest of Goff's dark civilian suit.

"This is my greatest privilege since I took office," Walsh said, as he presented Goff-20 years after he left Vietnamwith both a Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, as well as a dozen other medals. The decorations pinned on by the congressman that 1989 spring day made Goff one of the most highly decorated Vietnam veterans in New York.

'WALKING BILLBOARD'

Unknown to those in the audience, no citations accompanied the medals Goff received. Goff told the congressman's aides the operations in Vietnam were so secret that the citations were still classified. One of the aides scribbled down Goff's accounts of the combat actions so Walsh had something to read as he made the presentations.

Many people in the Syracuse area, especially those who knew Goff through the Vet Center, thought the recognition Goff received that day was long overdue. After the war, Goff had suffered alcoholism, flashbacks and nightmares.

His marriage nearly collapsed and he contemplated suicide. Finally, in a therapy program for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Vet Center, Goff claimed he had been involved in brutal clandestine operations in Vietnam.

With the encouragement of his therapist, Goff revealed the truth to his wife: After enlisting in 1968, he joined Special Forces and was attached to Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV)SOG (Special Operations Group), taking orders from the CIA as part of the Phoenix Program.

His team performed supposedly topsecret missions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, assassinating political enemies, carrying cyanide pills to commit suicide in case they were taken prisoner. Because his experiences were so horrendous, Goff suffered a breakdown and was warned never to talk about his covert missions.

Goff was a walking billboard for all the negative stereotypes attributed to Vietnam veterans-war criminal, suicidal, alcoholic, PTSD sufferer. On top of all that, he was apparently a hero.

But Goff was a fraud. According to his military record, he was not a Green Beret assigned to MACV-SOG. He had been a clerk on Okinawa during the war. He wasn't even a Vietnam veteran. The story Goff told his family, his therapists and the press was preposterous. Yet nobody blinked an eye because he fit the stereotype of the Vietnam vet.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, its veterans, who returned home not as heroes but pariahs, had been labeled victims and losersallegedly afflicted by inner demons manifesting themselves in high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, unemployment, homelessness and suicide.

That stereotype is often seen in Hollywood movies (see the February 1997 issue). In the recent blockbuster Independence Day, one of the main characters is a goofy, alcoholic Vietnam veteran who humiliates his children by crop dusting the wrong fields. The only way he can atone for his failed life-and save the world-is by committing a final act of fiery suicide.

FACT VS. FICTION

But the stereotypes are wrong. Let's look at the facts, starting with who actually served in Vietnam.

The image of those who fought in Vietnam is one of poorly educated, reluctant draftees-predominantly poor whites and minorities. But in reality, only onethird of Vietnam-era veterans entered the military through the draft, far lower than the 66 percent drafted in World War II.

It was the best-educated and most egalitarian military force in America's history-and with the advent of the allvolunteer military, is likely to remain so. …