Byline: Thomas B. Pfankuch, Times-Union staff writer
Nearly 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, a controversy continues in America over who can refer to themselves as a Vietnam War veteran.
On its face, the question of who is and who is not a Vietnam War veteran seems as though it would have a clear answer. There is little disagreement that anyone stationed in Vietnam from July 3, 1965, to March 28, 1973, is an "in-country Vietnam War veteran."
But there is some disagreement between government agencies, historians and veterans themselves as to who qualifies as a Vietnam War veteran, a Vietnam War-era veteran or simply someone who served in the military.
In recent months, Jacksonville resident and Navy veteran Gary Gene Wright Jr. has found himself in this ongoing controversy. Wright was featured in a Times-Union story on Sept. 15 that detailed how his military record has been questioned by Texas author B.G. Burkett.
Burkett's book, Stolen Valor, was written to expose fake Vietnam War veterans and includes a passage about Wright. On Page 585 of the book, Burkett states, ". . . But after a search of military records, I could find no indication that [Wright] was a Vietnam veteran or indeed ever served at all in the military."
Burkett wrote the Times-Union a letter in October in which he questioned the accuracy of the newspaper's story. He has since acknowledged that official records show Wright was in the Navy, but he says Wright is not a Vietnam veteran.
Wright said he loaded bombs, rockets and missiles onto planes that flew off the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany during two tours in the Pacific Ocean in 1974.
SERVED OFF VIETNAM
Navy records show Wright served in the Navy and was an ordinanceman in attack squadron VA-155 on the Oriskany in 1974. Navy public affairs officer Mike McLellan said that information is listed in Wright's official military service record, housed at the National Archives in St. Louis, and records maintained by the Navy that show VA-155 was stationed off the coast of Vietnam during the time Wright served with that squadron.
Based on the information from McLellan, Wright was incorrectly presented as a Vietnam veteran in the Times-Union's story on Sept. 15.
McLellan now says Wright does not qualify as either a Vietnam War veteran or even as a Vietnam War-era veteran because he enlisted in the Navy in April 1973, about three weeks after the Navy considers the war to have ended on March 28, 1973. That date marked the removal of the last ground troops from Vietnam and the official end of U.S. involvement there.
McLellan said those guidelines would not qualify Wright for medals given to Vietnam War veterans.
In his letter, Burkett said he considered "absolute fact" that "Wright never served on the Oriskany during the Vietnam War and that he is not a Vietnam veteran." He refused to answer any further questions for this story but previously told the Times-Union he considers the March 28, 1973, date as the cut-off for determining who is and who is not a Vietnam War veteran.
But on the question of whether someone is a Vietnam War veteran or Vietnam War-era veteran, there is disagreement among military and veterans officials as well as among veterans themselves. Wright said he never claimed to be an "in-country Vietnam vet" but does consider himself a Vietnam War-era veteran.
Documents and records used by official government agencies show how defining service during that era can be confusing.
In particular, the time periods for awarding medals and honors for service in Vietnam are different than the time periods for provision of health and education benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
For example, the Department of Defense awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, the award given for direct service during the Vietnam War, only to veterans who met the following criteria: They had to serve in Vietnam or contiguous waters or airspace between July 4, 1965, and March 28, 1973. …