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  1. #1

    Cool Precious medals

    MARCH 31, 2005
    Precious medals


    Joe Wilkins’ record of military service should make any veteran proud. During his 1967 tour of duty in Southeast Asia, Wilkins served as an intelligence officer, collecting and evaluating counterinsurgency information, determining targets for the bomber pilots. In January and February 1967, Wilkins took flights on small planes to observe battlefield situations and help direct fighters toward important Viet Cong positions, “with complete disregard for his personal safety,” according to government records.

    For his work, the U.S. Air Force awarded Wilkins a half-dozen medals, including the Bronze Star for meritorious service. The South Vietnamese military awarded him a Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star.

    Wilkins, now 62, also claims a pair of Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat and the Silver Star, this country’s third highest award, just two notches below the Medal of Honor. He has frequently worn replicas of these medals on his lapels and boasted of his claims in newspaper articles. He has two sets of special license plates issued by the state of Illinois — one set displaying the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, indicating multiple medals, and another showing that he has the Silver Star.

    Wilkins’ storied military record laid the foundation for a distinguished civilian career in which he achieved influential positions in academia, business, and politics [see “Friends in high places,” p. 16]. At the local state university, Wilkins was granted full professorship and tenure, despite never having published in scholarly journals nor completed a doctoral degree. A resident of Pleasant Plains, Wilkins has been active in Springfield politics, playing a lead role in the recruitment and selection of Springfield’s police, fire, and utility chiefs, and serving on several advisory committees. At the state level, he has won lucrative grants and contracts and holds a paid position on one state agency’s employment board. The daily newspaper has lionized him.

    The trust placed in Wilkins by local and state decision-makers doesn’t surprise B.G. “Jug” Burkett, a recognized expert on military records.

    “When you see somebody with a Silver Star, you automatically think he’s brave, he’s an American hero, he’s ethical, he’s trustworthy — a whole string of things,” Burkett says.

    Indeed, official military records confirm that Wilkins was a good and competent intelligence officer. The records do not, however, support his claim of two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, three medals that are central to his reputation and persona. Historians, experts, and other Vietnam veterans who have examined Wilkins’ military record and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act question Wilkins’ claim to these heroic honors; several say his assertions are fraudulent.

    Through his lawyer, Wilkins declined to comment for this story.

    Illinois Times first profiled Wilkins in August 2003, soon after he restructured Springfield city government at the request of newly elected Mayor Tim Davlin [see Rhodes, “Mystery man” at]. In the course of research for that profile, a routine check of Wilkins’ military records sparked what became a yearlong investigation.

    Records from the National Personnel Records Center (the official repository for personnel records for all military employees) in St. Louis show that Charles Joseph Wilkins was on active duty Sept. 3, 1965, through March 28, 1969, and that his service in Vietnam began Nov. 7, 1966. By Dec. 11, 1967, he was back in the United States, stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb.

    When Illinois Times initially asked Wilkins to explain why the two Purple Hearts and Silver Star he claims don’t appear on his official record, he produced several documents for viewing only, allowing a reporter to read the text into a tape recorder.

    One of these documents was his DD Form 214, the form used by the Department of Defense to document a soldier’s record upon transfer or discharge. The DD-214 contains a veteran’s service record, including all awards and decorations. This document is the basis for everything from Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor benefits to fraternal-organization memberships to burial rights at military cemeteries. The service member’s signature at the bottom confirms that the information on the form is accurate and complete.

    Wilkins’ DD-214 lists these medals: NDSM; VSMw/1 BSS; RVCM; SAEMR; RVN w/SvStar-7 AF, 67; BSM, SO G-1671, 7AF, 67. This string of abbreviations exactly matches the NPRC’s list of Wilkins’ decorations: the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (issued to everyone who served in Vietnam for six months or longer), the Small Arms Expert Marksman Ribbon, the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star 7th Air Force 1967, and the Bronze Star Medal Special Order G-1671, 7th Air Force, 1967.

    In a 2003 interview, Wilkins acknowledged that he had signed his DD-214 and that he had not filed the forms necessary to correct any mistakes discovered in the DD-214, despite the fact that this document reflects neither of the two Purple Hearts he says he received. He told Illinois Times that DD-214s are filled out by clerks who are neither extraordinarily smart nor diligent and that he didn’t want to argue with these clerks about the inaccuracy — he just wanted “out.”

    As for the Silver Star, Wilkins pointed to the abbreviation “SvStar” and said, “There it is.” But the only mention of a Silver Star on his DD-214 is in the abbreviation “RVN w/SvStar-7 AF, 67,” which means “Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, 7th Air Force 1967.” The Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry — a medal issued by a foreign country — is not equivalent to a Silver Star issued by the United States.

    But the DD-214 wasn’t the only document Wilkins had to support his claim. He also presented four typed pages that appeared to be two sets of orders and transmittal letters awarding him one Purple Heart and the Silver Star. According to the orders, dated July 12, 1967, he received both awards for an incident that occurred on June 8, 1967, in Tay Ninh Province, while he was assigned to U.S. Army Advisory Team 95. The Purple Heart order mentions that he sustained two wounds to his left arm severe enough for him to be sent to the Philippines to recover at the Clark Air Base hospital.

    The documents do not specify what act of gallantry Wilkins performed; instead, they state: “The details of this engagement are classified Special Intelligence/Codeword and can be accessed through the appropriate office, this Headquarters.”

    Wilkins said this supersecret classification prevented him from allowing the documents to be photocopied by a reporter.

    As for the second Purple Heart, Wilkins produced nothing to prove that claim, saying only that he could not find the documents.

    In newspaper articles, on his résumé, and in University of Illinois at Springfield presentations, Wilkins has claimed that his service in Southeast Asia involved clandestine “special operations” missions. His official record shows that he was an intelligence officer and that, once he returned to the United States, he was assigned to the Special Projects Division at Offutt Air Force Base.

    But experts and other Special Operations veterans who have reviewed Wilkins’ records see no indication that he was given any “black ops” or special-operations assignments. Even if he had been assigned to secret missions, any medals he received would still appear on his official record.

    Military decorations, especially those of the caliber of the Silver Star, typically come with at least three documents: a numbered order simply stating that the service member has been awarded the medal in question, a citation spelling out exactly what the service member did to earn the honor, and a certificate, often suitable for framing. If the service member has been transferred before receiving the award, it may be accompanied by a letter of transmittal, forwarding the documents and the medal to the service member.

    The order may be so generic that a single page can be used to award two dozen service members the same type of medal. Each citation, on the other hand, is written specifically for the particular service member and consists of a detailed description of his or her heroic act. Experts say that such citations could possibly be classified but that, more often, the wording regarding the location of the incident is purposely kept vague.

    For example, the citation accompanying a Silver Star awarded to a soldier whose heroic act was committed during secret operations (with troops in Laos, for example, when the United States was officially not present in Laos), might have been classified. More likely, the citation would simply read “Southeast Asia” instead of “Laos.” But regardless of whether the citation was classified, the order would not be classified.

    “Every order awarding a decoration is public. There are no secret orders,” says James Howard, a veteran who works with historical military records. “There’s a very good reason for not having classified orders. The order is the bona fide, and it has to be available to everyone, including yourself. The citation very easily could be classified, but if a person has a decoration, then he has to be able to produce an order of the award.”

    Tom Lee, a retired Air Force colonel who flew scores of missions as a targeteer in Laos during the “secret war,” says that the decorations he and his fellow airmen received were not secret. Lee, who spent 26 years in the Air Force before taking a job with a Virginia-based defense contractor, maintains a database of fellow U.S. veterans who served in Laos, and says he doesn’t know Wilkins.

    “My medals that came out of Laos in the classified period — and we were in black ops — they’re on my record. They don’t say where I was, but they do say what I was doing,” Lee says. “So the probability is rather slim,” he says, that Wilkins’ medals were “secret.”

    Hal Fritz’s decorations include the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and the highest award of all, the Medal of Honor. In May 1995, after 27 years with the U.S. Army, Fritz became deputy director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, a post he held through April 2003. He now works for the Illiana Healthcare System at the VA outpatient clinic in Peoria. Both of these jobs require him to read and interpret military personnel records, and he has learned to spot inconsistencies.

    In 1994, Fritz conducted an investigation of Kane County Circuit Judge Michael O’Brien and ultimately forced the judge to resign from the bench, admitting that he was not the Medal of Honor recipient he claimed to be.

    As for Wilkins, Fritz says he met the professor and specifically remembers attending a strategic-planning seminar at UIS during which Wilkins, a speaker, was introduced as a Vietnam veteran with a distinguished military career.

    But when Fritz reviewed Wilkins’ official service records and other documents obtained by Illinois Times, he became suspicious.


  2. #2
    “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 through [Wilkins’] records,” Fritz says.

    He wonders why Wilkins would claim five medals not supported by his DD-214 — the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Air Medal, and the Air Force Commendation medal — yet never attempt to correct the document.

    “If the person won the award and was actually awarded the medals late, then the individual can go back and request an official correction to be added to the discharge papers,” Fritz says. “If the individual didn’t do that, there’s a reason, and one reason is that the medal never existed.”

    Military policies provide for orders and citations to be recorded in numerous official repositories in case the decorated soldier loses the documents or awards. But no record of Wilkins’ highest medals could be found in any official archive.

    Using the tape-recorded transcripts of the documents he provided, Illinois Times sent a FOIA request in the fall of 2003 to Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, headquarters of the Air Force Personnel Center, seeking confirmation of Special Orders S-869 and G-1049, the orders Wilkins had shown to prove his Silver Star and one Purple Heart.

    In November 2003, Randolph’s FOIA manager, Karen Murray, responded: “After a thorough review of Mr. Wilkins’ official military personnel records, we were unable to verify the award of the Silver Star or Purple Heart. In addition, Mr. Wilkins’ DD Form 214 (Armed Forces of the United States Report of Transfer or Discharge) does not reflect award of either the Silver Star or Purple Heart.”

    Murray forwarded the FOIA request to the headquarters of the Pacific Air Force, Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, “to ensure we have exhausted all possibilities of locating these records.” On Nov. 17, 2003, Hickam sent this reply: “We have conducted searches for Special Orders S-869 and G-1049 which awarded 1LT Charles J. Wilkins the Silver Star and the Purple Heart in July 1967. Searches were conducted by the Osan AB FOIA Manager, the HQ PACAF FOIA Manager and the HQ USAF Records Manager; no records were located.”

    Another FOIA request, this one to Hickam’s history section, produced a similar response: “Mr. Bill Harris, of HQ PACAF’s History Office, conducted an extensive, page-by-page research through PACAF and 7th Air Force histories and archives. No special orders or letters awarding Lieutenant Wilkins the [Silver Star] medal was located.”

    Not only could these Air Force historians find no record of these medals, but they also pointed out problems with the documents Wilkins presented. Murray, the FOIA manager at Randolph, noted that Air Force regulations dictate that award orders bear numbers starting with the letter G, not the letter S, as Wilkins’ Silver Star order does.

    Murray wrote: “In researching the Special Order Numbers you provided we find that ‘S’ series orders are not prescribed in Air Force Instruction (AFI) 33-328, Administrative Orders; concluding Special Order S-869, 12 July 67, may not be a valid order number.”

    Researchers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., the history center of the U.S. Air Force, noted that the phraseology of the Silver Star order presented by Wilkins doesn’t match the Air Force template. The official criterion for the Silver Star is “gallantry in action”; Wilkins’ order reads “valor in action.” Also, Maxwell researchers said, if these documents were secret, the pages would have been stamped with proper indicators.

    When a military service member is promoted, the event is documented with an official photograph of the service member wearing his or her uniform with all decorations arranged in a specific order — highest honor on the top inside position and any foreign medals on the lower outside position. This portrait goes into the soldier’s personnel file.

    Wilkins’ last official promotional photo (see cover), taken upon his promotion to captain, Sept. 30, 1968 — more than a year after he received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, according to his own documents — reflects the same set of medals listed on his DD-214, the highest of which is the Bronze Star for meritorious service. Like other official documents, the photograph indicates that he has no Silver Star and no Purple Heart.

    An earlier photo, taken Oct. 7, 1967, raises more questions. It shows Wilkins standing in line with at least two other airmen, shaking hands with Vietnamese Lt. Gen. Le Nguyen Khang after receiving the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Wilkins’ sleeves are rolled up past his elbows, revealing arms that appear strong and healthy. Yet the photo was taken just four months after Wilkins sustained two wounds to his left arm that required his evacuation to the Philippines, according to the documents he showed Illinois Times.

    This picture appeared in Wilkins’ hometown newspaper, the Anna Gazette-Democrat, on Oct. 27, 1967, in the “Servicemen’s News” section. And that was the only news about Joe Wilkins in the Anna Gazette-Democrat between the date he purportedly won the medals and the end of that year. There is no mention that a native son of Cobden — a tiny community just five miles north of Anna — received a Silver Star or Purple Heart.

    Although Wilkins refused to allow a reporter to photocopy his “secret” medal orders, the secretary of state’s office recently provided copies of the same documents in response to a FOIA request seeking proof of Wilkins’ eligibility for special Purple Heart and Silver Star license plates.

    The orders appear to have been signed by Air Force Capt. Donald L. McCabe. The transmittal letters appear to have been signed by Air Force Capt. Carl I. Walters. But when contacted to confirm their signatures, both Walters and McCabe said they did not sign the documents.

    Walters, a former Air Force pilot who now works as an engineer at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, says that he never signed any document pertaining to a Silver Star — or any other decoration. As a forward air controller, he spent most of his time flying. His “extra duty” assignment as “awards-and-decorations officer,” handled in his spare time, was limited to creating the first drafts of citations for various awards. He forwarded these drafts to the office of the commander where, if approved, they would be typed up and signed by either the commander himself or, more likely, his administrative officer. Walters says he could not sign orders or even the transmittal letter forwarding an order to an airman in the hospital, as Wilkins’ documents suggest.

    “The awards-and-decorations officer would never, ever send a transmittal letter to another organization saying, ‘Award something,’ ” Walters says. “It was not within my purview to sign that.”

    When he examined a digital scan of Wilkins’ documents, he said the signatures definitely were not his but appeared to be someone else’s effort to match his handwriting.

    McCabe, now a safety consultant, contacted at his home in North Carolina, says he did sign the Bronze Star order contained in Wilkins’ official file. “That’s a legitimate order. That’s my signature,” he says.

    But after reviewing what was supposed to be his signature on the Silver Star and Purple Heart orders Wilkins’ provided, McCabe was shocked: “That’s so outrageous, that’s not even a good attempt. Good grief.”

    McCabe spent his yearlong tour in Vietnam doing nothing but handling awards and decorations for Headquarters Seventh Air Force. McCabe doesn’t claim to have committed any heroic acts. “I was just an administrative officer, signing on behalf of the commander,” he says. But he read enough nominations, citations, and orders to consider himself a good judge of real awards — and he says the four “secret” pages presented by Wilkins do not conform to the format of similar awards, even awards for special-operations officers.


  3. #3
    “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.”


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