As a video showing an altercation between Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, and a group of students from Covington Catholic school wearing Trump-slogan “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats went viral in January 2019, a number of news outlets published articles identifying Phillips as a “Vietnam Veteran” or a “veteran of the Vietnam War.”
Some news sites, though, such as the Washington Times, noted that this label was improbable due to Phillips’ age and reported years of service:
Native American activist Nathan Phillips faces questions about reports that he’s a veteran of the Vietnam war.
According to multiple news accounts, the activist is 64 years old, which means he would have been 18 years old in 1973, the last year any U.S. combat units were stationed in Vietnam.
Mr. Phillips also claims to be a Marine veteran, although the last Marine combat units left Vietnam in 1971.
Other sites, such as the “Conservative Daily News,” more harshly classified the discrepancy over Phillips’ military service as “stolen valor” and claimed that the Native American elder had outright lied about his military service.
While it’s true that a number of January 2019 accounts from national news outlets incorrectly labeled Phillips as a “Vietnam veteran,” the use of that label in those reports did not, as far as we can tell, originate with Phillips himself. The Native American activist told reporters in January 2019 that he was a “Vietnam-times” or “Vietnam-era” veteran, meaning that he was an active member of the armed services during the time of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam (not that he had been deployed to Vietnam during that period).
News outlets such as the Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times all published updates to their stories to correct that reporting:
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips said he served in the U.S. Marines but was never deployed to Vietnam.
Correction: Jan. 22, 2019
An earlier version of this article, using information from the Indigenous Peoples Movement, gave an incorrect description of Mr. Phillips’s military service. While Mr. Phillips said he served in the military during the Vietnam era, he told The Times after publication that he was not deployed in Vietnam. The Times has requested his service record from the Pentagon.
Correction: This video states that Nathan Phillips is a Vietnam veteran. Phillips told CNN he is a “Vietnam-era veteran.” Phillips told the New York Times that though he did serve in the military during the Vietnam War, he was not deployed to Vietnam. CNN requested his service records from the Pentagon but was told those records are part of an archive not easily accessible during the government shutdown.
But the corrections indicated the misinformation had not come from Phillips himself. CNN’s transcript of their interview with Phillips twice included Phillips’ referring to himself as a “Vietnam veteran,” but the first instance was obviously a transcription error, as Phillips could clearly be heard saying that he was a “Vietnam-times veteran” (not a “Vietnam veteran”) in the network’s video at the 38-second mark:
When I was there and I was standing there and I seen that group of people in front of me and I seen the angry faces and all of that, I realized I had put myself in a really dangerous situation. Here’s a group of people who were angry at somebody else and I put myself in front of that, and all of a sudden, I’m the one whose all that anger and all that wanting to have the freedom to just rip me apart, that was scary. And I’m a Vietnam veteran and I know that mentality of “There’s enough of us. We can do this.”
Another portion of the interview transcript also quoted Phillips as using the term “Vietnam veteran” in reference to himself, but since the CNN video only included selected excerpts from the longer interview (not including the part quoted below), we couldn’t verify whether Phillips actually said “Vietnam veteran” in that case or whether it was once again a transcription error:
They were there looking for trouble, looking for something. Everybody knows the right to life and (pro-choice), it’s been like this and they’re hateful to each other. And it’s because I’m a veteran — I’m a Vietnam veteran — that these two groups even have the right in this country to have protests, to have conflicting opinions. If they were doing that, they should’ve done that there and then when they come into public, that wasn’t the place for that. That was a public forum where we was at. We were still under the protection of our permit for the indigenous peoples rally.
The New York Times stated that their incorrect description had come from information provided by the Indigenous Peoples Movement, and the Washington Post noted that the leader of the Lakota People’s Law Project said that group had erroneously represented Phillips as a Vietnam veteran, but that “Phillips never told him that he served in Vietnam”:
In reality, Phillips served from June 1972 to May 1976 in the Marine Corps Reserve, a service spokeswoman, Yvonne Carlock, said. He spent much of his enlistment in California, did not deploy and left the service as a private after disciplinary issues. From October 1972 to February 1973, he was classified as an antitank missileman, a kind of infantryman, Carlock said. He then became a refrigerator technician for the majority of his service.
Daniel Paul Nelson, a leader in the Lakota People’s Law Project, said in an interview that his group made the error and that Phillips never told him that he served in Vietnam. The group, Nelson said, “trusted what we had seen” in previous stories about Phillips, some of which also referred to him erroneously as a Vietnam veteran.
In an older, rambling Facebook video that surfaced after the controversy broke, though, Phillips could seemingly be heard to say (at around the 9:35 mark) “I’m a Vietnam vet, and I served in Marine Corps 72 to 76. I got discharged May 5th, 1976 … I don’t talk much about my Vietnam times. I usually say I don’t recollect, I don’t recall those years”:
But in other similar videos, Phillips described himself as a “Vietnam-era vet” or referenced his Marine Corps service without mentioning Vietnam:
In those many hours of interviews and videos, Phillips has made a number of unclear or ambiguous statements about his service that allow for a variety of interpretations (or misinterpretations). In the first Facebook video linked above, for example, he stated — in reference to a form related to his discharge — that he left the service in peacetime and “what my box says is that I was ‘in theater.'” He didn’t say what theater, though, nor did he directly declare that he was in fact ‘in theater’ during his time in the Marines. He cryptically observed something about a “box” on his discharge form, and it was unclear whether he garbled whatever he was trying to say, was being deceptive, or was pointing out a mistake.
In a 2018 Vogue article about Standing Rock, Phillips referenced Vietnam and his being “a recon ranger,” but again the statement was ambiguous — he said he was “from Vietnam times” and that “I’m what they call a recon ranger,” but it was again unclear whether he intended his statement to convey that he had actually served as a “recon ranger” in Vietnam (which he did not), or whether he was using the term “recon ranger” to describe his post-military activities:
“I have a relative here who said he’d lead the way and scout ahead for us,” Phillips continued, his voice breaking. “You know, I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger. That was my role. So I thank you for taking that point position for me.”
According to Daniel Paul Nelson, Phillips’ comments “were taken out of context and [he] actually was referring to the work they were doing at the time on the reservation.”
In a 2008 article about Native American veterans, Phillips was cited as maintaining that he had been called “a baby killer” and spat upon — experiences commonly reported by Vietnam veterans returning to the U.S. — but that article now identifies him as a “veteran of the Vietnam era” and notes in a correction that “This article has been adjusted from its original version to show that Nathan Phillips was a Vietnam-era veteran and that he was spit on while in uniform as opposed to when he was returning from combat.” Did Phillips explicitly say he suffered such indignities while returning to the U.S. from Vietnam, or did the writer mistakenly assume that from something less specific that Phillips said to him?
Another Vogue article from January 2019 about Phillips stated that he “joined the Marines and served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War,” but that reference was soon excised from the article (without a correction notice). Again, did Phillips explicitly tell the writer he was “an infantryman in the Vietnam War,” or was that yet another misunderstanding of something Phillips (or someone else) said?
It’s difficult to determine at this point whether Phillips has deliberately misrepresented the nature of his service, whether he has been so vague and ambiguous in many of his descriptions (unintentionally or otherwise) that misinterpretations have entered his narrative, or whether he has tried to be accurate but may have just occasionally slipped up in his many, many hours of conversation and sometimes neglected to include the qualifiers about his service that he has used in many other videos and press interviews. Nonetheless, at times it has certainly sounded as though Phillips was trying to foster the impression that he had both served during the Vietnam War and had been deployed to Vietnam at some point during his service, even if he didn’t literally say so.
We note that Veteran’s Affairs (VA), for the purposes of determining eligibility for VA Pension benefits, considers the Vietnam era to be the period between 28 February 1961 to 7 May 1975 for those who served in Vietnam, and between 5 August 1964 and 7 May 1975 (a window during which Phillips’ reported service falls) for those who served elsewhere. The Military Times noted that Phillips had “spent four years in the Marine Corps Reserve and left in 1976 with the rank of private, or E-1, the Marines said in a statement providing his personal releasable information,” but we haven’t yet been obtained copies of Phillips’ official service records to verify exactly when and where he might have served.
(We note that an image purporting to be a copy of Phillips’ DD Form 214 — Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty — has been circulated on social media, but that image has not yet been verified.)