The First Rathergate: The CBS anchor’s precarious relationship with the truth

September 15, 2004, 5:52 a.m.

By Anne Morse

Critics are calling the media scandal over the Jerry Killian forgeries “Rathergate.” But to thousands of Vietnam veterans, the real Rathergate took place 16 years ago when Dan Rather successfully foisted a fraud onto the American people. […]

On June 2, 1988, CBS aired an hour-long special titled CBS Reports: The Wall Within, which CBS trumpeted as the “rebirth of the TV documentary.” It purported to tell the true story of Vietnam through the eyes of six of the men who fought there. And what terrible stories they had to tell.

“I think I was one of the highest trained, underpaid, eighteen-cent-an-hour assassins ever put together by a team of people who knew exactly what they were looking for,” said Steve Southards, a Navy SEAL who told Rather he had escaped society to live in the forests of Washington state. Under Rather’s gentle coaxing, Southards described slaughtering Vietnamese civilians, making his work appear to be that of the North Vietnamese.


Rather then moved on to suicidal veteran named George Grule, who was stationed on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga off the coast of Vietnam during a secret mission. Grule described the horror of watching a friend walk into the spinning propeller of a plane, which chopped him to pieces and sprayed Grule with his blood. The memory of this trauma left Grule, like Steve, unable to function in normal society.

Neither could Mikal Rice, who broke down as he described a grenade attack at Cam Ranh Bay, which blew in half the body of a buddy, “Sergeant Call.” “He died in my arms,” Rice tearfully recalled. Rice described how the sound of thunder and cars backfiring would regularly trigger his terrible memories.

Most horrific of all were the memories of Terry Bradley, a “fighting sergeant” who told Rather he had skinned alive 50 Vietnamese men, women, and children in one hour and stacked their bodies in piles. “Could you do this for one hour of your life, you stack up every way a body could be mangled, up into a body, an arm, a tit, an eyeball … Imagine us over there for a year and doing it intensely,” Bradley said. “That is sick.”


The The Wall Within was hailed by critics who — like the Washington Post’s Tom Shales — gushed that the documentary was “extraordinarily powerful.” There was just one problem: Almost none of it was true.

The truth was uncovered by B.G. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and author of Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History (with Glenna Whitley). Burkett discovered that only one of the vets had actually served in combat. Steve Southards, who’d claimed to be a 16-year-old Navy SEAL assassin, had actually served as an equipment repairman stationed far from combat. […]

And George Gruel, who claimed he was traumatized by the sight of his friend being chopped to pieces by a propeller? Navy records reveal that a propeller accident did take place on the Ticonderoga when Gruel was aboard — but that he wasn’t around when it happened. […] Nevertheless, Burkett notes, Gruel receives $1,952 a month from the Veterans Administration for “psychological trauma” related to an event he only heard about.

Mikal Rice […] actually spent his tour as a guard with an MP company at Cam Ranh Bay. He never saw combat. Neither did Terry Bradley, who was not the “fighting sergeant” he’d claimed to be. […]


[…] Says Burkett: The Wall Within “precisely fit what Americans have grown to believe about the Vietnam War and its veterans: They routinely committed war crimes. They came home from an immoral war traumatized, vilified, then pitied. Jobless, homeless, addicted, suicidal, they remain afflicted by inner conflicts, stranded on the fringes of society.”

Burkett, who did check the records of the vets Rather interviewed, shared his discoveries with CBS. So did Thomas Turnage, then administrator of the Veterans Administration, who was appalled by Rather’s use of bogus statistics on the rates of suicide, homelessness, and mental illness among Vietnam veterans — statistics that can also be easily checked. […]


Anne Morse is a writer living in Maryland.