Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it doesn't impress Ernie Brace.
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it doesn't impress Ernie Brace.
The Klamath Falls resident, who spent nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has no time for any veteran falsely claiming to have been a POW during that or any other conflict.
"It's a pretty crummy thing to do — we need to make sure everybody knows about what we call the 'wannabes,' " Brace said.
He was referring to claims by Central Point resident Clayton A. Winkler, 64, an enlisted Army veteran of the Vietnam War, that he had served some three years as a POW in Vietnam.
Winkler is listed as a veteran who embellished his record by falsely claiming to be a former POW in Vietnam on www.pownetwork.org/phonies/phonies.htm.
Until early last winter, the website included a YouTube video taken in July 2009 at a veterans gathering in Albany in which Winkler said he was held prisoner for three years after being dropped by a helicopter among 1,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars.
"The rest is history," Winkler concluded in the video, which can no longer be activated.
If you click on the "Actual Records" icon on the right-hand side of the website, his military records pop up. It lists Winkler's combat infantryman's badge and the Purple Heart medal for wounds suffered in Vietnam.
But there is no mention of his having been a POW during the time he served in the regular Army from Feb. 3, 1964, until March 17, 1967. He later served in the Oregon Army National Guard from June 1981 until May 1984, and in the inactive reserves until 1989. He was discharged as a staff sergeant.
The pownetwork.org site notes that Winkler resigned as commander of the Oregon Military Order of the Purple Heart, Rogue Valley Chapter No. 147, when confronted by chapter members about his POW claims in August 2009.
Brace and other war veterans contacted by the Mail Tribune stressed that veterans who misrepresent themselves as a POW or claim medals they didn't earn is a dishonorable act known as "Stolen Valor."
And they all noted they would be spending Memorial Day weekend saluting the legions of fellow veterans who continued to act honorably after hanging up their uniforms.
Brace, 79, a Marine Corps fighter pilot during the Korean War, was captured in Laos on May 21, 1965, while ferrying military supplies as a civilian pilot. He survived nearly three years in bamboo cages in the jungle before being taken to Hanoi in October 1968, then spent the next five years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton that had also housed John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate and current U.S. senator from Arizona.
The names of both Brace and McCain are on the official U.S. Department of Defense's Vietnam POW list. Winkler's name is not.
"When I first came home, I would have punched him in the nose for lying about that," Brace said, then added, "but things like that don't bother me as much as they used to. I guess they just don't surprise me any more."
The alleged misrepresentation surprised fellow members of the Rogue Valley Chapter No. 147 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Winkler was commander of the local chapter and vice commander of the Oregon arm until he resigned in anger over questions raised by other veterans over the truthfulness of his POW claims, according to fellow Purple Heart recipients.
When approached by the Mail Tribune shortly before last Memorial Day and before his credibility came into question, Winkler initially agreed through a chapter member to an interview for a story about his POW experience. However, he quickly changed his mind, citing emotional issues related to his alleged captivity.
When contacted by the Mail Tribune by phone last week for this story, Winkler said, "I don't know anything about it," then hung up.
"There is a side of me that has a high level of indignation toward someone who would embellish their records, but I feel more sadness than anger," said Ashland resident Jim Klug, 64, current state Military Order of the Purple Heart commander and an Army veteran wounded in Vietnam in fall 1967. Klug initially had befriended Winkler when he joined the chapter.
"They know the stories they are telling are untrue, that the accolades they get and looks of appreciation they receive from people are not merited," Klug added. "They know none of it is deserved. That has to bother them."
Yet any false claim hurts all veterans by making them suspect, he said.
"This is a theft of recognition and it takes from people who deserve the most precious of military service recognitions — heroism," Klug said. "We are all stripped of dignity in the shadow of a poser."
Winkler had joined the local Purple Heart chapter about a year-and-a-half ago when Klug was the chapter commander. After Klug was elected state commander, Winkler succeeded him as head of the local chapter and became vice commander of the statewide organization.
Longtime Chapter 147 member Marine Corps veteran John Waldrop, 62, who lost both legs in the Vietnam War, could only shake his head over the POW issue.
"I was a fairly good friend of Clay's," said the Medford resident. "The guy does have a Purple Heart. He did see combat in Vietnam. Why he said that about the POW thing, I don't have a clue."
Since questions were raised about the veracity of Winkler's POW claim, they are no longer friends, Waldrop said.
Jim Willis, 67, director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, met Winkler at the annual Military Order of the Purple Heart convention last year in Cottage Grove.
"By the time it was over, I and at least one other member of the group were questioning whether he was the real deal," Willis recalled. "What he said about being a POW just wasn't ringing true. And he wasn't listed anywhere."
Willis noted there are some 341,000 veterans in Oregon and that few lie about their records.
But those who do will be found out, he said.
"It's much more easy to detect these people now than it was in the past because there are better access to records," said Willis, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War.
Groups such as the POW Network watch closely for phony claims, he said.
Under the federal Stolen Valor Act of 2006, it is against the law to wear unauthorized military medals or lie about your military record for personal gain. Violators can be fined up to $100,000 and be sentenced to up to a year in jail.
Jim Sims, 71, a Shelton, Wash., resident who is the national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said his organization receives eight to 10 applications per month from people who aren't eligible for a Purple Heart.
"I don't understand the mentality," he said. "Maybe it's a feeling of inadequacy, a feeling of not having accomplished much in life. But these guys are delusional if they think they can get away with it."
Willis said former POWs hold a special place in the ranks of veterans. Among Oregon's veterans are a few former POWs, including Brace, he added.
"These are not people who like to draw a lot of attention to themselves," he said. "What strikes me about them is their attitude toward life, a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding and joshing with each other."
Their approach likely is the result of having survived life at its worst, he said.
"The real heroes don't often talk about what they did," he said. "The vast majority will tell you they were doing their job, that the real heroes are the ones who died."
Richard Eubank, 62, of Eugene, agreed. The retired Marine Corps sergeant major is the national senior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents 1.5 million American combat veterans. He is expected to become the national VFW commander in August.
"It's shameful that someone would steal the valor from a true hero like a POW," Eubank said. "A hero is someone willing to put their lives on the line. Someone falsely taking the glory for being a POW is obviously not a hero."
Eubank recalled an incident that occurred several years ago in Sacramento in which a veteran who claimed Vietnam service and several medals from that war was honored during an event that drew some 4,000 people. It was later discovered the veteran had not served in Vietnam, he said.
"The sad thing is there are a few people out there who do this," he said, adding, "It hurts everyone when it happens."
In Oregon, perhaps the most notorious veteran embellishment was a tale woven by former 2nd District Congressman Wes Cooley, a Republican from the Bend area, who lied about having served with Army special forces in Korea. Cooley, who was turned out by voters once his deception was uncovered, never left the states in his short stint in the Army.
Judith Emerson, a psychologist who is associate chief of staff for mental health at the VA's Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City, said veterans who embellish their records must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
"There really is no generalization why someone would do this," she said. "When these incidents occur, they stick in the mind because it doesn't happen that much. But with Memorial Day coming, a day when we honor veterans who have given so much, I hate to think an instance like this would take away recognition from veterans who deserve our respect."
Winkler had been volunteering at the SORCC until his alleged embellishment came to light, a spokeswoman said.
Klug, who notes that Winkler deserves respect for what he did in the military, said the controversy over the alleged deception has been difficult for every veteran involved.
"We opened our arms to this man," he said, adding that Winkler had become a friend to local chapter members. "What has happened has been hideous for all of us."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.