As the story continued to unfold, pushed along by a toxic social media brew of rumors, backtracking, and the usual swarms of bots and paid trolls, claims appeared about Phillips involving allegations of “stolen valor” and an opportunistic GoFundMe campaign.
A rambling January 21 2019 Clover Chronicle blog post (passively titled “Questions Are Being Raised About Native American Elder Nathan Phillips’ Alleged USMC Service During The Vietnam War”) is characteristic of those claims. The post alleges that Phillips had “lied” about his record of military service, although its only basis was that the dates did not appear to match up:
Popular independent news outlet BNL reported Monday Nathan Phillips, the elderly Native American man who sang and drummed repeatedly in front of a Covington Catholic High School student, “lied about being a Marine combat vet during [the] Vietnam war.”
…According to the Vietnam War Marine Corps Official History Volumes, the last combat marines left Vietnam in 1971:
Other sources say marines were still stationed at the U.S. embassy when the liberation of Saigon occurred on April 30, 1975.
If Phillips’ claim about serving in Vietnam turns out to be false, it is a case of stolen valor and will look bad not only for himself, but also the mainstream media (who worked so hard to push his side of the story to the public).
The site went on to say that Phillips was using the aforementioned “lies” to bolster a GoFundMe campaign:
UPDATE #5: The Native American elder has a GoFundMe page titled ‘Fundraiser for Native Vietnam Vet Nathan Phillips’ that has raised over $300 so far. The campaign was created by user ‘Raina Meyer’ from Minneapolis, MN.
If it is true that Phillips is not an actual veteran, this may prove troublesome.
All quoted portions here followed the same pattern: They made a claim, then tacked on an “if this is true” element to cover all bases.
The page then linked to [PDF] a law called the “Stolen Valor Act of 2013.” What went unstated outright (relying instead on the same heavy innuendo), was that if Phillips was falsely claiming to have served in the military and then raising money based on that lie, he could be criminally liable.
However, none of these insinuations appear to be accurate.
By Clover Chronicle’s own admission, Phillips did not have a GoFundMe — a “Raina Meyer” did. In that campaign, she stated outright that Phillips was not involved in the fundraiser:
I’ve received a couple of comments questioning the authenticity of this campaign. I can guarantee that I will absolutely contact Mr. Phillips to transfer the funds to. If he doesn’t wish to receive them himself, I will transfer them to an organization of his choosing that benefits Native American communities, Native Head Start (which my mom has worked with before), or the Native Youth Alliance.
I will NOT collect any of the funds myself. I am a teenager who cares about creating more respect and empathy in our society and I’m simply trying to do something of value in response to the ordeal Mr. Phillips has been put through. I realize that this may be hard to believe given the rumors of fake PayPal accounts that have been set up on behalf of Mr. Phillips, but I ask for your trust in this fundraiser.
A similar claim about Phillips was made by the Facebook page “Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children” on January 21 2019. Once again, the claim hinged on speculation which rested on dates related to Phillips’ age and the drawdown of troops in Vietnam specifically:
I called it
At 62 years old, highly unlikely he served in Vietnam. The war was over in 1975 the same year he would have turned 18. Let’s see some proof of his service.
These claims may have originated in a Washington Post article, which originally reported:
Phillips, an Omaha tribe elder who fought in the Vietnam War and lives in Michigan, has long been active in the indigenous rights movement.
It was later updated with an editor’s note reading:
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips served in the U.S. Marines from 1972 to 1976 but was never deployed to Vietnam.
Phillips (who was by many accounts born in February 1955, which would have made him nearly 64 in January 2019 rather than 62, as “Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children,” which is apparently not run by math whizzes, falsely claimed) neither described himself as a Vietnam veteran nor makes outward reference to his military record; the newspaper amended its own descriptor without making it clear where the false impression originated.
CNN added fuel to the fire with a transcript of an interview with Phillips, providing more “evidence” that he had lied about his service in an article headlined, “Native American elder Nathan Phillips, in his own words,” with a quote that appears damning on the surface:
CNN: Let me ask you about what happened to you. These boys in the middle of this group and you find yourself surrounded. How did that happen and what did that feel like as a person standing there face to face with a young man who seems to be staring at you or glaring at you? How would you describe that moment?
Phillips: 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.”
But the transcript does not match the audio. In the video (at around :39), Phillips quite clearly says, “And I’m a Vietnam-times veteran, and I know that mentality…” indicating not that he was in combat in Vietnam, but that he was in the military during that time and he remembers when crowds would taunt soldiers in uniform, and how it feels to be surrounded.
A second reference to Vietnam in the transcript (which bears the caveat that it was “lightly edited for flow and content”) does not appear in the audio on the page at all, making what he said impossible to check against the text.
Sites like The Gateway Pundit and RedState and various forums ran with it anyway, also spreading the claim that Phillips lied about his service. They often linked back to a blog called This Ain’t Hell, which centers on stolen valor. However, that site has not said that Phillips didn’t serve:
We have filed for his military records but the point of this article is that there are stories all over the place about what Phillips’ status is and to do this right takes time.
It has been reported several times in the media that Nathan Phillips is 63-64 years old. That would have put him at 18 years old in 1973, so he would have graduated high school in either 1972 or 1973. It would have been an extremely tight timeline to have him in the country of Vietnam during the War. This alone has some people raising questions.
So, as we at TAH do the right thing and wait for all the correct facts and documentation to come in, we can watch this story play out in the media as to Nathan Phillips’ military service – what he actually claimed and what the media is claiming.
Maybe some of the TAH ninjas can find other quotes and/or piece together more information from their own experiences?
Some will be quick to claim it a case of Stolen Valor but what did Mr. Phillips actually claim? Others may be embarrassed that they went with a story too quickly before all the facts were checked – because it was too sexy to ignore and it fit their narrative. It will be interesting to see how some folks will backtrack.
Like other excerpted claims, This Ain’t Hell makes heavy use of passive wording — “some people” are “raising questions,” and “it has been reported” but “some will be quick to claim.” In terms of solid, checkable information, the blog states the “right thing” is to “wait for all the correct facts and documentation to come in.” But in its own words, “to do this right takes time.”
A number of outlets and blogs speculated, based on not much research about a vague period of time between 1971 and 1975, that it was possible Phillips was too young to have actively served in Vietnam. But where headlines claimed Phillips was a “poseur” or that his service constituted “stolen valor,” the articles they heralded admitted such claims were purely speculative.
We found earlier stories about him indicating that he served from 1972 to 1976, and that he was born in February 1955, although some stories seem to indicate he was born the year before. We were unable to find evidence that Phillips claimed to be a Vietnam combat veteran, much less using that to raise money for himself — just that he was in the military during that general time. There is nothing credible to suggest he was lying about his service record, which not a minor accusation to make — particularly without any evidence to support it.
Update, January 24 2019: On January 24, the military news site Task & Purpose published a video of Phillips calling himself a Vietnam veteran:
Here’s the full quote, taken from a video of Phillips posted to the Native Youth Alliance Facebook page (9:45 mark):
“I’m a Vietnam vet, you know,” Phillips said. “I served in the Marine Corps from ’72 to ’76. I got discharged May 5, 1976. I got honorable discharge and one of the boxes in there shows if you were peacetime or… what my box says that I was in theater. I don’t talk much about my Vietnam times. I usually say ‘I don’t recollect. I don’t recall,’ you know, those years.”
In the same video, at around the 23:45 mark, he states, “I got a Section 8 home because I’m a veteran, wartime veteran like that. Honorable, in theater, so I have Section 8 home.”
Phillips did serve in the Marine Corps from May 20, 1972 until May 5, 1976, according to a Corps spokeswoman, but did not serve anywhere near Vietnam or any theater of war. He had zero deployments and his only award was a National Defense Service Medal. He briefly had the military occupational specialty of 0351 Anti-tank missile-man before being assigned as an 1161 refrigerator technician.
He also was discharged as a private after four years of service.
This simultaneously indicates that Phillips did claim at one point to have been a Vietnam veteran and also puts to rest any doubts that he did indeed serve in the military. There remains no evidence that Phillips was using this incident to raise funds for himself.
We have so far been unable to reach anyone from the Marine Corps for comment.