The Monday, May 13, edition of The Mountaineer featured an article entitled “Alone in the Jungles of Vietnam.” It was part of our ongoing series about local Vietnam veterans.
We have since learned that portions of that story as told by veteran Bill Messer were incorrect, and are setting the record straight.
We were alerted to the story’s inaccuracies by several Vietnam veterans, including one who works closely with “stolen valor” websites and who questioned several portions of the story.
A second visit with Messer confirmed that some of his recollections about his time in Vietnam were inaccurate.
Messer undoubtedly served in Vietnam, as is shown on his DD 214 form, a certificate of release from active military duty. However, that form shows his Military Occupation Code was infantry, and he was, at some point, a team leader.
In the story, Messer said he was in Army Special Forces, but could produce no tangible evidence of that. He also said he entered the Special Forces immediately upon enlisting, which was a red flag for several Vietnam veterans who said it takes up to two years to even apply for such selective training. Special Forces training was not documented on Messer’s DD 214.
Several other details Vietnam veterans questioned were the solo missions Messer spoke of, the presence of rattlesnakes in Vietnam and dogs specifically trained to serve one individual that were killed upon that person’s discharge.
After the questions raised by readers, along with a second interview, we are retracting this particular story and promising to do a better job of fact-checking in the future.
Our job as a newspaper staff is to strive for truth, and the lesson learned from this experience will hopefully help us provide just that in future stories.
Throughout our Vietnam series, we’ve been taking the words of veterans at face value. Until this point, that’s mostly worked with the exception of some misremembered facts or possibly small embellishments.
Memory is a tricky thing, lest we forget. And that’s doubly true considering we’re now half-a-century removed from what was a truly mind-warping conflict.
We — as a staff, as readers, as a country — owe it to Vietnam veterans to allow them to tell their stories, warts and all. They deserve that much, and often a lot more.
But we, as a staff, also owe it to our readers to ensure that what they’re reading is as factual as possible.
To all the veterans out there: please keep telling your stories. They deserve to be told, and we need to hear them.