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thedrifter
04-01-05, 07:04 AM
MARCH 31, 2005 <br />
Precious medals <br />
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BY DUSTY RHODES <br />
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Joe Wilkins’ record of military service should make any veteran proud. During his 1967 tour of duty in Southeast Asia, Wilkins served as an...

thedrifter
04-01-05, 07:06 AM
“I’ve seen enough records in the Department of Veterans Affairs and in the military that I recognize certain keys, like, ‘Something is wrong with this picture.’ And that’s what happened when I went...

thedrifter
04-01-05, 07:07 AM
“In my heart, when I heard him talking, I had doubts. There was something about Joe’s story when he told it that did not sit well with me,” Hahn says. “What didn’t jibe with me was, the Air Force didn’t have guys during Vietnam doing that as their mission . . . . Normally they would send in a Green Beret or SEAL team. Cambodia was known to have a lot of special forces operating over the border, so normally a special-forces team would do a cross-border-type operation.”

Hahn didn’t mention these doubts because he had complete faith in Charlson, he says, and Charlson had introduced Wilkins as a special-operations veteran.

Weeks later, Charlson put Hahn in touch with Wilkins again. Hahn, in the midst of a difficult divorce and needing cash, had asked Charlson to help him find someone who might be interested in buying his prized collection of six artistic prints, created especially for members of the Special Operations Command, commemorating their missions. One was a limited-edition print given only to Delta Force personnel involved in Operation Just Cause, in which Gen. Manuel Noriega was snatched from Panama. Another depicted Mike Durant’s Mogadishu crash site. And most were signed by Hahn’s fellow soldiers.

Charlson contacted Wilkins, who immediately agreed to buy the art. Hahn says Wilkins paid him $2,500 and promised to hang the prints in the military wing of a library.

When Charlson picked up his newspaper weeks later and found the feature claiming that Wilkins had trained Durant, he was stunned. “It floored me,” Charlson says.

A mutual friend told Charlson that he had called the SJ-R at Wilkins’ request, giving the paper a “tip” about Wilkins’ purported Black Hawk Down connection. Charlson called the story’s author, Matthew Dietrich, to complain. But Charlson says that Dietrich didn’t seem to take his call seriously, and Charlson decided not to push it. “I didn’t want it to become an issue the 160th had to deal with,” he says.

Nevertheless, that experience changed his view of Wilkins. Had he known then what he knows now — that medals Wilkins claims are not supported by official documents — Charlson says that he never would have taken Wilkins to Fort Campbell.

“There wouldn’t have been any association with him at all if I’d known that,” Charlson says.

Anyone who served honorably in Vietnam, as Joe Wilkins certainly did, merits respect. Anyone who earned a Bronze Star, as Wilkins certainly did, deserves to be admired.

But Wilkins went to great lengths to convince others that he had earned greater honors, including the Silver Star. He wore special lapel pins, applied for special license plates, and, once he obtained the plates, mounted them on the flashiest car in his personal fleet, a late-model Corvette convertible.

If he truly has all these medals — the two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, and the others — he has not taken the necessary steps to have his official record corrected. If he truly doesn’t have these medals, federal law says it is a misdemeanor for him to wear them, even the small lapel-pin versions.

Burkett, the military-records expert who has unmasked some 2,000 individuals making fraudulent claims about Vietnam War records, says that such perpetrators are seldom prosecuted, so long as they agree to stop making false claims. As the co-author, with Glenna Whitley, of Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History, Burkett received the Army’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Civilian Service Award, in 2003 for his research. Acting as an unpaid consultant, Burkett advised every step of Illinois Times’ investigation into Wilkins’ record and reviewed all documents we obtained.

To Burkett — himself a Vietnam veteran with a handful of medals, the highest of which is a Bronze Star for meritorious service — the deceit of claiming unearned medals is less a crime than it is a blasphemy.

“We Americans have all these freedoms, and they weren’t given to us by politicians,” Burkett says. “They were given to us by citizen soldiers who were willing to strap on a weapon and defend our freedoms.

“They don’t get stock options and retirement packages for going to war. The way we recognize them is with a piece of ribbon and a medal that’s worth maybe 65 cents — and to lie about it and cheat and steal the honor and bravery of another man, it’s a form of sacrilege,” Burkett says. “That’s my good Catholic upbringing talking.”

More than a dozen veterans were interviewed for this story. All shared two reactions: bewilderment at Wilkins’ apparent failure to realize that he already was a war hero, and utter disgust at the possibility that he may have claimed honors he did not deserve. Those who know him personally expressed profound sadness; those who don’t know him had trouble sympathizing with him.

Jeff Hahn — the Night Stalkers veteran who sold Wilkins his prized military art collection — regrets his unwitting role in helping Wilkins embellish his record. As a genuine special operations soldier who counts Mike Durant and other Black Hawk Down heroes among his friends, Hahn has only a few carefully-chosen words for Wilkins:

“Tell Joe I want my pictures back.”

http://www.illinoistimes.com/binary/4116-317-1/ITPAGE1Cover.jpg

Ellie