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?”