Learning from the Terry Calandra case

There’s a lesson in the story of disgraced Vietnam veteran Terry Calandra, who admitted last week in federal court that he lied about earning prestigious medals in the Army 42 years ago.

Documents don’t always tell the truth.

Terry, who grew up in the Easton area and now lives in Belvidere, N.J., earned three Purple Hearts while serving with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam from January to July 1969. But he did not earn the Silver Star for gallantry, the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism and two additional Purple Hearts, as he had long claimed.

He fooled folks for a dozen years by faking documents, prosecutors said.

If you’re a reporter, it’s always prudent to check a veteran’s paperwork before you write a story about the person, especially if he or she claims to have earned high honors. But that’s not enough, as Ed Offley points out in his 2001 book, Pen & Sword: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Military. (There’s an excerpt online at http://www.concernedjournalists.org/spotting-phony-war-hero-or-pow.) You also need to compare the vet’s documentation to what’s in the military archives.

That work by the Army turned out to be Terry’s undoing.

He said he got the Silver Star for diving on a grenade to save a fellow soldier, a story he made up. In trying to have the medal upgraded to a Medal of Honor, he submitted doctored paperwork to then-U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who in July 2008 forwarded Terry’s request to the Army. The vetting process being what it is for the nation’s highest military honor, Terry was inviting close scrutiny.

Five months later, the Army Times reported investigators had found discrepancies in Terry’s service record: The general orders and citations for the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross didn’t match records at the National Archives and Records Administration. (Here’s the link to Brendan McGarry’s Army Times story of Dec. 15, 2008: http://www.armytimes.com/news/2008/12/army_calandra_121508w/)
“I’m going to stand on my military record,” Terry told the newspaper.

He couldn’t, though. His case culminated Oct. 11 in Philadelphia with his guilty plea to making false statements in relation to military honors. In return, he got a year’s probation and a $500 fine.

I know Terry from the times he attended meetings of the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. He and I chatted on several occasions about my cousin Nicky Venditti, an Army helicopter pilot who also went to Vietnam in 1969 but was dead in 11 days. Terry’s friendliness and apparent sincerity no doubt helped him win the aid of lawmakers, people in veterans’ organizations and members of the community in his quest for the Medal of Honor.

Those earnest people might not have suspected fraud because records-fudging by a soldier can be difficult to spot. Besides, you want to believe that the guy is giving you the straight story.

You want to believe that of anyone who serves the country in the military.

“The presumption is honesty and integrity,” Vietnam vet B.G. Burkett said in Stolen Valor, the 1998 book he co-wrote with Glenna Whitley. http://www.stolenvalor.com/  “Who would steal the valor of men who fought and often died for those medals?”

6 responses to “Learning from the Terry Calandra case

  1. I know last summer this group contacted me because I had information on the last Mission of the 42 Squadron of the 11 BGH in the Pacific on February 1, 1943. The Squadron lost it last three B-17 and their entire crews in the Pacific and returned to reequip with B-24s. A man was attempting to get a medal for that mission and stating he was on that mission and in 42nd Squadron. A great number of WWII United States Army Air Corp records were lost in a fire in 1976. This man made have been counting on this covering up for his claims. However I am in personal contact with the immediate families of a number of the men who were lost on that mission and the Director of the 11 TH BGH who also lost a brother on that same mission. NONE OF THEM HAVE ANY RECORD OF ANYONE RETURNING FROM THAT MISSION, everyone was lost. Again this individual may have known all the crews were lost and never counted on living members of the crews families. I put the group in touch with the families of the lost crews and they confirmed what I had learned. NO ONE returned and this man could not have flown on that date on any of those B-17s. How a person could wear or request a medal he did not earn is beyond me. This was an insult to the brave men who died on February 7, 1943 on the last three B-17s of the 42 Squadron. The 42nd Squadron’s war started on 12/7/1941, all the men who died on this mission had been at Hickam along with my father on 12/7/1941.

  2. Understand the 42 ND continued fighting in the Pacific after reequipping and training with B-24s. LOUIS ZAMPERINI was a pilot in the same 42 nd Squadron AFTER THEY reequipped with the B-24s.

    This man was again claiming a medal for action when the original Squadron went into the Pacific following the Attack on 12/7/1941.

  3. David, like you, I also first met Terry at a Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge meeting several years ago. Terry is an impressive guy and he has loads of documents which all point to the fact that he is who he says he is and he did the things he claims to have done. I was shocked when Frank Warner called from the Morning Call and asked me what I thought of Terry pleading guilty to falsifying his military records including receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and multiple purple hearts. At first I couldn’t believe it, then disappointment set in, followed by anger and finally sadness for a Vietnam vet I truly believed was the epitome of the all- American patriotic combat veteran. Terry did in fact serve his country in Vietnam, he served proudly and honorably. He experienced things and did things that most of us would have been overcome by. He returned home with more decorations than many others during the same time period. Why he subsequently did what he did, only Terry and God knows. He took advantage of many people who believed in him and eventually violated their trust. I wish Terry all the best in the future. After all, he is a decorated combat veteran who served his country honorably in some of the most turbulent times in recent memory. He may have lost much of his luster but he’s still an American veteran whom I will continue to honor.

  4. Siegfried Ronald

    Dave, I too went through a roller coaster of emotions when I learned of Terry Calandra’s deception. But unlike Dick Musselman I do not feel as forgiving considering the extremes he went to in perpetuating his myths. It is one thing to exaggerate your experiences to impress others but to falsify and forge documents is tantamount to theft. No matter what you did in combat gives you imprimatur to lie and steal. And that was what he did, there were a lot of financial consequences to what he tried to do. Duke Cunningham, one of two aces in the Viet Nam war, now sits in jail for contractor kickbacks. It seems like a $500 fine may be little light for Terry’s transgressions? What honor he deserved has been erased by his post war actions. I do not wish him ill, but he no longer has my respect. I say all this as an emotional response because deep inside my heart my prayer is that Terry would get competent counseling, repent and mend the fences of trust and integrity he has torn down.

  5. My parents, and most did, taught us before we went to school and as soon as we could understand. YOU DON’T LIE AND YOU DON’T STEAL. Veteran or not, he should have known better. He did have an Honorable Record, he tarnished that as well. What he did was wrong even if he was only a Boy Scout, we earned our badges or we used to you did not lie to earn them. You worked hard and honestly and then you were rewarded with the badge, this was wrong.

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