Monday, October 18, 2010

False Heroes

This post comes on the heels of my recent post Spitting out the Truth prompted by a comment made to that article by fellow blogger, Secret Agent Woman who remarked regarding a veteran she knew who had lied about his war experience - her comment suggested this entry. Thanks, Secret Agent Woman.
Eighty year old Portland resident Lafayette Keaton was a local hero. A veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam, Keaton was honored by local veterans groups and often invited to speak of his experiences to civic organizations and local schools. Friendly and unassuming, this quiet man would show up in his dress uniform sporting the Silver Star he had earned for his acts of heroism during the Korean War.

But Keaton spoke mostly of his harrowing and vivid accounts of his three deployments to Vietnam. Recalling his experiences in the Army Rangers he admitted that he still awakens with nightmares. But his proudest accomplishment, as he tells it, was of his participation of the liberation of the Japanese prison camp in Los Banos, The Philippines, during WWII.

However it turns out that the only real war Keaton has been fighting all these years has been with the truth – Keaton joined the military 1952, too late for WWII. He served only two months in Korea in an administrative position and well after the cession of combat. He has never set foot in Vietnam. Keaton is a fraud. [1]

One evening my wife Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining with an acquaintance, Dr. Loren Pankratz. Loren is Consultation Psychologist and Clinical Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. Previously he has worked at the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center; he has a special interest in deception in medical patients.

Loren has been hired as a consultant, as an expert witness by attorneys in cases where patients were suing their psychologists or psychiatrists for malpractice in “repressed memory” cases. These are incidents of people who have falsely been led into believing they were suffering repressed and blocked memories of horrific, sometimes even ritual, abuse. In the vast majority of these cases, the repressed memories have turned out to be false; the results instead of impressionable patients and their clinicians all too eager to encourage these fictitious beliefs.

Loren’s book, Patients Who Deceive, was drawn from his experiences treating patients who “acted out” illness. [3] Later, during his tenure at the Veterans Administration, floods of new patients returning from Vietnam were being assessed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of these vets complained of night terrors, depression, drug addiction and physical ailments. When interviewed clinicians often heard patients describe horrible atrocities allegedly witnessed by these returning vets. The belief grew that these men were part of a growing epidemic of PTSD. Pankratz was particularly troubled that that treatment for PTSD was often unsuccessful for a particular segment of these patients.

Loren and others began treating PTSD vets at the VA hospital. However, unlike most of his peers, he took one additional step of requesting copies of their military service records. What he found surprised him – many of these supposed war-traumatized vets had never served in Vietnam or in any war zone. A few, it even turned out, had never been in the active military.

Our culture is rife with fiction about Vietnam vets. Movies such as Rambo, and Born on the Forth of July, for example, promote the idea that our war in Vietnam disgraced and dishonored not only our country but the men and women who served there. Almost anyone will admit seeing the supposedly “homeless vet” on the street corner holding a sign on which is scrawled “Vet will work for food”. Having myself worked in state human services, I knew for a fact that many of the homeless "vets" on my caseload had never served in the armed forces. Anyone could claim to be a vet for the simple price of a used cammo jacket from the military surplus store.

In his book, "Stolen Valor", by Dallas stockbroker and Vietnam vet B.G. Burkett, he recounts similar such stories. [5] Burkett was interested in raising money for a veterans memorial in Texas. But he was stymied by the negative image of Vietnam vets presented in the media; a hodgepodge of shaggy bearded and long haired misfits, whackos and losers who did not fit his memory of the elite and polished units with whom he served. Armed with the Freedom of Information Act, Burkett confirmed his suspicions; that many of these so called vets either never served or were never in a theater of combat.

What are we to make of this deception? The news media would suggest that significant numbers of our service personnel returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan with significant and permanent mental disabilities. But Loren Pankratz and some others don’t believe the problem is as wide spread as suggested. True, readjustment to civilian life can be difficult particularly in tough economic times at home. Military deployment is indeed hugely disruptive to families and finances. There is no doubt that the traumas of serving in combat can generate life altering changes.

But Pankratz reveals that most returning vets want the same things we all want; a home, loving and supporting family, meaningful work and a happy life and secure future. Most find ways to reconcile their experiences, some of them traumatic indeed, yet eventually reintegrate successfully back into civilian life. Yes, there are indeed substantiated cases of PTSD. However Loren says that the vast majority of cases, these veterans do get better over time.

Yet there will always be the patients who deceive; their symptoms belie a deeper extent of their illness, and in some, their strong need to be ill.
Pankratz: My favorite example is from the National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study (NVVRS), research that consumed four years and $9 million (Kulka et al. 1988). Six women in the study claimed that their stress was caused by being a prisoner of war. Not one of the many researchers involved in the study apparently realized that no American military woman ever became a POW in Vietnam. [4]
~ ~ ~
“War hero impostor falls to the facts”, KATU TV news web site, March 14, 2010
"Fake Heroes", Today's Officer magazine, Fall 2005
“Patients Who Deceive”, Loren Pankratz, 1998
"More Hazards: Hypnosis, Airplanes, and Strongly Held Beliefs", Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, June 2003
"Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History", B.G. Burkett, 1998


Gorilla Bananas said...

Far more American soldiers took part in WW2 than in Vietnam, so it would be interesting to compare the number of reported PTSD cases in each. Cases where patients believe their own false memories remind me of alien abduction stories.

Orhan Kahn said...

VERY interesting post. I really want to read that book, Patients Who Decieve.

Alpha Za said...

really interesting post, I wonder if other countries have done studies on the PTSD impact on their soldier as to ascertain if it's a common post war ailment or what.

It also calls into the question, the armies of yore. Bad asses they must have been.

even though I'm sure Alexander would disagree.

DJan said...

I think it's possible that more veterans are looking for a way to get some disability payments and are exploiting a broken system. It's only the government they are ripping off, after all.

And I do think PTSD is real and I hope I never experience it. I'll have to read that book about Patients Who Deceive.

PeterDeMan said...

Interesting post, Robert. Coincidental too. Last night we watched a 60 minutes piece about a gather of veterans, from Vietnam to our other insane wars in the Middle East. It was titled "Homeless Veterans: Trying To Find Help and Hope." You can read about it here:

Most such stories are always compelling and several people were profiled (how they decided who is always a question in my mind). One of my minds. One of my other minds feels it would take a cold heart not to have compassion for the plights of many of the people, but compassion is all I can offer. One of my other minds is more cynical.

First, there was one homeless vet who feigned being a drug addict in hope of being taken into a program that provided housing. Can't really blame him there. But, me thinks we're also looking at a very small cross-section of life and at some people who would be in these dire straights regardless of military service. Such people will always exist and have throughout the history of mankind; and, there will always be those who "game the system." Damn, now another of my minds is rumbling thru things and I may well make a post in future days regarding that, but in a more oblique way.

Here I go again, always rambling. Bye.

The Mother said...


I'm very familiar with the 'repressed memory' phenomenon. I had no idea that it was so widespread in society.

Although I could have gotten a hint by the many times hubby and I recall a single event very, very differently.

But I always chalked that up to his faulty memory.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas WWI is was called "shell shock", WWII it was "battle fatigue", the condition is quite real and serious. The case is that most people get better. But underlying this are patients who have other psychological "needs" and find them through illness. Sorting out genuine pathologies from the feigned is the trick.

Orhan The book is pretty expensive, $44 and of a clinical nature; it might be in a university library. You can check.

Alpha I cannot imagine how one would come away from being a soldier in an ancient ware where you hack people open like meat with a sword. The first really graphic depictions of battle were American Civil War photos; horrible atrocities, and these were not in color.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan I have met my share of people who think that "the government" is so flush, what would it matter if they scam a few bucks. Yes, there are people receiving benefits who I don't think should be, but no system is perfect. One has to step back a bit and determine if a greater good is being served.

Peter I saw that story was going to be on but was called away and didn't have the opportunity to watch it. My nephew is 31, he dropped out of high school and is homeless. He is trying to get into the Army as this is his ONLY hope of having some kind of life/income. I know that many in the service are there because there is nothing else for them "out there". Sadly I have known of people who engaged in criminal activity so they would be jailed... at least there they have warmth, food, medical care and friends. These are complex issues with no easy solutions.

Dr. Mom A recent NPR story interviewed a scientist who did research on memories. Apparently each time we recount a memory, we change it slightly. The more we tell it, the more it changes. I know that I fill in the "missing" parts of things I recollect. Unless you write it down...

Kay Dennison said...

Why doesn't any of this surprise me? I guess I am becoming jaded from all the lies I hear every day from politicians.

I wonder how many of the current batch claim to be VietNam War Vets really saw duty in VietNam. My ex doesn't claim that because he was only in VietNam 48 hours on a mission. He says that doesn't make him a war veteran -- only that he served during the VietNam War.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

This makes me wonder whether a "volunteer" military will make a difference in this phenomenon. If you have chosen to be there, would that decrease your chances of PTSD, or would it increase due to things not being quite what you had anticipated?

There are many people for whom the "three hots and a cot" provided in jail are the best option for them. Very sad, but true. I am sure that could go for a hospital as well.

I may just be seeing it more in my line of work, but it seems that there is so much mental illness, and much of it untreated, that it is a wonder that more people do not end up on the streets.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay I can see the attraction, our men and women in uniform today are our "heroes", they receive adulation and respect, who wouldn't want that directed to you? Not surprising that some would want to achieve it by sneaking in through the back door.

BackRow I would think that would have a lot to do with it; the Vietnam vets many were drafted, reluctant soldiers having no choice. Our volunteer military implies a conscious choice to enter into this dangerous profession. It certainly makes it difficult to gripe about the results if it was your choice to join?

With regard to mental illness... this is a tough thing for the military, how do you distinguish mental issues that are the result of military service versus issues which may have been present prior to enlistment?

GutsyWriter said...

Very interesting post and it makes me feel better about the service men and women fighting right now. I do recall seeing something on TV about a year ago, where they interviewed several young guys back from Iraq, who seemed to be suffering from PTSD, and having a terrible time re-adapting to civilian life.

kara said...

i often talk about my experiences back in 'nam. but then follow it up with about 7 other quotes from The Big Lebowski in a sort of medley.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Could it be that self-deception is one of our greater afflictions? Or are there a lot more con games being run than I imagined? I honestly never thought of people lying so blatantly about their war records. There was a long-ago James Thurber short story about "the greatest man in the world" whose exploits were real but his personality so rancid that he could not be allowed to present himself as a hero. Several years ago a young relative was recruited, was coached and some information even falsified so that she would be eligible to join the Army but changed her mind, knowing it would ask more of her than she was capable of.

I, too, seem to be rambling today. Yes, a most interesting post.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy One has to be careful about painting PTSD with a broad brush. Yes, harrowing and life changing experiences happen to people, war service is extremely disruptive to families, the economy is in shambles and many do not have a job to come back to. But is it PTSD in every case?

Kara See I think the character of Walter Sobchak is entirely based on one of these "vets" who either never served or was never in "nam".

Marylinn Being involved in Skepticism as a pursuit, I am all too aware of our ability to deceive ourselves, and we do it quite unconsciously. It is neither natural nor without effort that we assess our world through the color of our emotions and personality. It takes effort. Often we present ourselves to others the way we "wish" we were, not as we really are.

Rain said...

Very interesting post and another example of the frauds to which we are subjected in our world and always have been by the nature of human beings both to lie and to believe without checking. (I wrote about something similar today as in fraud for the higher good...

Madame DeFarge said...

There was someone over in the UK who pretended that he'd been in umpteen wars etc and won umpteen medals. Just to impress his much younger girlfriend. Way too sad and incredibly disrespectful to genuine soldiers.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Your comment reminds me of Ronald Reagan who, in some speaking engagement, extolled on his experiences during WWII... except was never deployed overseas, he was just a pencil-pusher.

Madame Oh, well trying to impress young women is quite another matter entirely. *smiles*

secret agent woman said...

What is particularly aggravation to me about these who embellish their stories or make them up out of whole cloth, is that they take away from the very real problem of PTSD symptoms in those who actually did experience horrific traumas.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Indeed, this puts an extra burden on clinicians to have to determine if you are dealing with delusion or reality. Of course there is a whole other set of problems in treating the patient who "wants" to be ill.

Nance said...

Superbly good blogging!

I treated plenty of vets with combat experience, although only one whom I suspect may have been better diagnosed as Munchausen's by Manufactured Military Memory. Of them all, he was the only one who embraced the cammo jacket image you describe.

What will the wars of the Middle East produce?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance What actually got this exchange with Pankratz going was the two of them talking about cases of "Munchausen by Proxy" that Nancy had encountered in her career as a child protective services worker. Tough cases to diagnose and tougher to prosecute in court. I was mainly taking in the conversation between the two of them.

Yes, I am very concerned about the physical and psychological ramifications of vets returning from the Middle East, particularly due to multiple deployments, the likes of which our Vietnam vets were not subject to. These wars are going to cost us dearly on many levels and for long after the shooting stops... if ever.

Katie said...

I dated one of Lafayette Keatons sons in the 1970's. At the time Keaton was a parole officer. He was taking bribes to falsify parole reports. One of his sons (named Val) was posing as a highschool student even though he was in his twenties. He was taking the identity of one of Lafayettes parole clients. It was a sham to have sex with highschool girls and get a free college education. I didn't know what the thing was all about at the time because it was a big family secret, but I figured it out over time. The whole family had moral deficiency IMO.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Katie The news coverage of Keaton talked about the fraud he was involved in as a parole officer. Thank you for sharing your first-hand experiences with this odd bamily.