Exclusive to NewsMax.com: Excerpts from Stolen Valor: How The Vietnam Generation Was Robbed Of its Heroes And its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley
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When Joe Yandle and Eddie Fielding drove up to the liquor store in Boston that June evening in 1972, they were looking for quick drug money. The two men had pulled half-a-dozen stickups already that day. Yandle, frantic for his next heroin fix, sat in the car as get-away driver while Fielding went inside. Within moments, Fielding came running out and jumped in the car. Yandle took off. Behind them, proprietor Joseph Reppucci, a 65-year-old man with two teenage sons, lay dead on the floor of Mystic Liquors.
Fielding claimed Reppucci, who was working two jobs to make extra money for his family, had lunged for the weapon and the gun had gone off. Their take? Only $10. Not to be deterred, Yandle and Fielding robbed several more establishments that night.
Caught, Fielding and Yandle were convicted of murder. Though Fielding pulled the trigger, both men received the same punishment: Life in prison without possibility of parole. For years, it seemed Yandle would spend the rest of his life in custody. But that was before the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) jumped in and the "Free Joe Yandle" movement gathered momentum. Stories about Yandle's ordeal in Vietnam -- what he had endured and had been forced to do -- began to appear in the press.
Yandle claimed his time in Vietnam had been so traumatic he turned to heroin to dull the horrors of combat. Back home in the states, the drug was the only thing that could help him cope with the flashbacks. Veterans' advocates made the connection. If Yandle had been properly diagnosed at the time, his defense would have been obvious: PTSD, not recognized officially until 1980. Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen and Mike Wallace at "60 Minutes" took up Yandle's cause; Yandle's supporters began pressing the governor of Massachusetts to commute his sentence.
Yandle told reporters he grew up in a blue-collar family in Charlestown, where he played hockey as a teen. In January 1967, to escape an unhappy home life, 17-year-old Yandle enlisted in the Marine Corps. Less than a year later, Yandle was sent to Vietnam, where his first assignment was to retrieve dead bodies still caught in barbed wire.
Assigned to "Alpha Company, 1st Platoon, 9th Marines"[sic] -- called "the walking dead" for their short life expectancy -- Yandle said that just after the start of the Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968, his company was moved from Con Thien to Hill 861 North, outside the village of Khe Sanh to relieve the 26th Marines.
According to Yandle's various descriptions of events, he was claiming that he fought in the now-infamous battle of Khe Sanh, a relentless siege by the enemy that lasted 77 days. Hundreds of Marines died in the battle of Khe Sanh, but thousands of the enemy were killed. The siege added to the legend of the Marine Corps' ability to take on incredible odds and prevail, as had the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima a generation before, and today is considered one of the most important engagements of the Vietnam War. For a Marine to say he was at the battle of Khe Sanh is to convey instantly that he performed heroically and survived the worst carnage of the Vietnam War.
Despite the horror, Yandle volunteered for another year in Vietnam. He later received a Bronze Star Medal for valor for saving another "grunt" to add to his two Purple Hearts. To deal with his terror, Yandle started using dope, working his way up from smoking pot to smoking heroin.
After Vietnam, Yandle returned to Charlestown with "a fistful of medals" and a $300-500 a day drug habit. Convicted of the murder of Reppucci and sentenced to life without parole, Yandle went into counseling and kicked his heroin habit. In 1978, he co-founded American Veterans in Prison and was eventually elected president of the state Council of Vietnam Veterans of America. Before the state of Massachusetts clamped down on programs allowing inmates furloughs, Yandle successfully completed 20 such overnight excursions outside prison walls, visiting his wife who had married him in prison. She and his lawyer began lobbying to get him out.
Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen and columnist Mike Barnicle wrote a series of stories about Yandle's crime and punishment. Cullen always referred to Yandle as a "decorated Vietnam veteran." He interviewed Yandle and his wife, who had borne a child conceived during a furlough. Yandle pleaded for his release on the grounds that he should be allowed to go home to his wife, his young son and stepson. In 1991, the Massachusetts pardons board unanimously recommended the release of Yandle, then 46, saying he had worked to better himself.
Governor William Weld declined to recommend the commutation of Yandle's sentence after meeting with Reppucci's family. But then the powerful national media took up Yandle's case. In February 1994, "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace broadcast a story called "The Get Away Drivers," comparing the cases of Joe Yandle, Vietnam veteran-turned-criminal, and Katherine Ann Power, antiwar protester-turned-criminal who had finally surfaced after years underground. Power had been charged with the murder of a Boston policeman killed during a 1970 bank robbery; she had driven the get-away car in that crime, committed to raise money to further the antiwar effort. While Yandle, two-tour "war hero," was condemned to spend the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison, Power was given only five years, a virtual slap on the hand.
Yandle contended that his addiction was caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but at a commutation hearing he didn't bring it up. But the VVA was not reluctant to use PTSD as an issue. In May 1994, the board of the VVA took the unprecedented step of asking all its state councils and chapters to encourage their members to lobby Governor Weld that Yandle's sentence be commuted. Weld's office was inundated with letters.
In May 1995, after putting off a decision for four years, Governor Weld, under pressure from the VVA, the Boston Globe, and Mike Wallace, finally recommended Yandle's release, based in large part on the contention that his Vietnam service and PTSD was at the root of Yandle's crime. Weld mentioned that he was particularly impressed with the large numbers of letters he received from other Vietnam veterans. Shortly after that, "60 Minutes" ran its third piece on the issue, with an update from Wallace on the news of Yandle's commutation.
On October 11, 1995, Joseph Yandle walked out of prison, a free man.
But Yandle's true military record is far different than his tale of valorous victimization. Joseph Russell Yandle wasn't an 18-year-old Marine hero thrown into combat in Vietnam. In fact, according to his military record, which I obtained through FOIA, Yandle never served in combat. He did not receive a Vietnam Service Medal or Combat Action Ribbon. He did not receive a Bronze Star Medal for valor or two Purple Hearts. And he Yandle was not wounded in combat.
Yandle did not serve even one tour in Vietnam. Assigned to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade in Okinawa -- a Japanese island far from the war zone -- as a supply administration clerk, Yandle worked his way up to administrative manager. After a year of duty filling out forms, Yandle was back in Kansas City, Missouri.
Neither Kevin Cullen at the Boston Globe nor Mike Wallace at "60 Minutes," ever questioned Yandle's claim he was at the battle of Khe Sanh nor his insistence that his heroin use stemmed from combat trauma. They made Yandle a poster boy for Vietnam PTSD without ever independently checking his military record and ultimately helped put a convicted murderer back on the street. (After the release of Stolen Valor, Yandle was re-arrested and returned to prison.)
Yandle's case is a classic example of how the VVA -- the only congressionally chartered organization exclusively for Vietnam-era veterans -- has built a political platform on the continuing assumption that Vietnam veterans are victims not only of the war, but of the Iron Triangle: Congress, the VA, and other veteran's organizations like the American Legion.
The organization's clout in Washington belies the fact that most Vietnam veterans are not members of the VVA. Only a tiny percentage of combat vets belong to the organization. How, then, does the VVA set the legislative agenda for a generation of veterans? The answer lies in the politics of victimhood.
Part I - Rambo and the Bogus War Heroes
Part II - Welcome Home, Babykiller
Part III - Will the Real Vietnam Vet Stand Up?
Part IV - The Ragtag Brigade
Part V - Would I Lie To You?