Viet­nam vet­eran’s claim of nine Pur­ple Hearts raises ques­tions

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN BEN­TON STAFF WRITER

Sil­ver Star. Bronze Star. Pris­oner of war in Viet­nam. Nine Pur­ple Hearts. Sounds ex­tra­or­di­nary, but that’s what 69-year-old Viet­nam vet­eran Stephen Douglas Hol­loway claims.

For three of those claims, the Hix­son res­i­dent’s DD-214 — the of­fi­cial doc­u­ment ev­ery mil­i­tary vet­eran who serves is given when dis­charged from duty — backs it up.

One of Hol­loway’s mul­ti­ple DD-214s, any­way.

If Hol­loway’s Pur­ple Heart claims are true, vet­er­ans who study mil­i­tary awards, doc­u­ments and records say, he would be the most dec­o­rated ser­vice mem­ber to serve in the Viet­nam War.

But so far, the Times Free Press has been un­able to ver­ify any of those claims through mil­i­tary chan­nels, or through Hol­loway him­self.

•••

On Nov. 10, 2016, the Times Free Press in­ter­viewed Hol­loway by tele­phone be­fore he

spoke at ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­monies for the new Vet­er­ans Park in Pikeville, Tenn.

Hol­loway said he had spent that morn­ing talk­ing with stu­dents at a Bled­soe County ele­men­tary school about the up­com­ing Vet­er­ans Day and his mil­i­tary ser­vice.

In the first in­ter­view, the Ne­braska na­tive said he was “Air­borne Spe­cial Forces, U.S. Army 101st Air­borne,” reach­ing the rank of ma­jor, and later was a pris­oner of war, cap­tured by the Viet Cong.

That was how Hol­loway was in­tro­duced at the ded­i­ca­tion, where he also claimed to be a “DMZ tun­nel rat.” Hol­loway said noth­ing in his short speech about his Pur­ple Hearts or other medals, but he praised fel­low vet­er­ans for their sac­ri­fices and thanked those who turned out.

But in an in­ter­view the previous day, Hol­loway said he also worked for an agency “that you can­not talk about.”

He also claimed he earned more than 50 medals in all, in­clud­ing a se­cond Sil­ver Star, three Army Com­men­da­tion Medals, three pres­i­den­tial ci­ta­tions and scores of oth­ers.

“I’ve got 57 medals,” Hol­loway proudly pro­claimed, re­mark­ing that some were pinned to his chest by Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son him­self.

“And I hated Pres­i­dent John­son,” Hol­loway said. “John­son was the one who gave me these. He pokes you ev­ery time he puts them on.”

But not all of those 50-plus medals were listed in a DD-214 and other doc­u­ments ob­tained by the Times Free Press from the National Per­son­nel Records Cen­ter, part of the National Archive.

•••

Hol­loway’s claim of earn­ing nine Pur­ple Hearts is far too im­pres­sive to over­look, but also too easy to be­lieve for any­one not fa­mil­iar with mil­i­tary jar­gon or how rare it is for any­one to earn such mul­ti­ple medals. To re­ceive a Pur­ple Heart, one must be wounded or killed in bat­tle.

The day the story ran, and for days af­ter­ward, more than a dozen vet­er­ans from the Chat­tanooga area and across the na­tion chal­lenged Hol­loway’s claims. Hol­loway and a fam­ily mem­ber asked the Times Free Press for a re­trac­tion of the por­tion of the story claim­ing he was a POW. An audio record­ing of Hol­loway’s in­ter­view con­tains sev­eral min­utes of Hol­loway de­scrib­ing de­tails of his “tor­ture” at the hands of “a cou­ple of slant-eyed-look­ing peo­ple,” his weight loss, and eight fel­low cap­tives. Hol­loway, how­ever, ac­cused the news­pa­per of “mak­ing it up.”

The of­fi­cial doc­u­ments draw as much scru­tiny from vet­er­ans as Hol­loway’s claims.

A pri­mary re­lease pa­per, the DD-214, is given to all mil­i­tary ser­vice mem­bers when they are dis­charged. Hol­loway has two DD-214s filed in the National Archive for his first en­list­ment. They’re iden­ti­cal, ex­cept one lists the Pur­ple Heart awards and the other does not.

Hol­loway has at least those two, and pos­si­bly as many as four, DD-214s on file with the National Per­son­nel Records Cen­ter that bear the same dates and other sim­i­lar de­tails of his record but with a star­tling dif­fer­ence.

One of the National Archive copies and a match­ing copy pro­vided to the Times Free Press by a fam­ily mem­ber state Hol­loway re­ceived a National De­fense Ser­vice Medal, Viet­nam Ser­vice Medal and Viet­nam Cam­paign Medal, and that’s it.

But Hol­loway says, and an­other DD-214 filed with the National Archive states, he also earned those nine Pur­ple Hearts, the Bronze and Sil­ver stars and an Army Com­men­da­tion Medal for valor. Hol­loway has ver­bally claimed far more medals than those.

Both DD-214s for his first en­list­ment say Hol­loway worked as a sup­ply clerk and was in­volved in man­ag­ing traf­fic but don’t de­scribe a com­bat po­si­tion.

There is at least one more DD-214 for Hol­loway’s se­cond tour of duty — he signed up for a four-year stint but was dis­charged af­ter a year — but those mil­i­tary records were ap­par­ently part of a records re­quest by an­other gov­ern­ment agency and have been unavail­able for months.

Hol­loway’s DD-214 bear­ing “(9) PUR­PLE HEARTS, BRONZE STAR, ARCOM W/V, SIL­VER STAR” is sus­pi­cious for two rea­sons: the word­ing is “in­cor­rect nomen­cla­ture” for mil­i­tary dec­o­ra­tions and the claim of nine Pur­ple Hearts is out­ra­geously high, said Bruce Ken­drick, a mem­ber of Ernie Pyle Chap­ter 1945 of the Mil­i­tary Or­der of Pur­ple Hearts.

Ken­drick said the in­cor­rect nomen­cla­ture raises red flags be­cause the doc­u­ment should read “Pur­ple Heart with one Sil­ver Oak Leaf Clus­ter and four Bronze Oak Leaf Clus­ters.”

The pa­per­work from the National Ar­chives held copies of “2-1” jack­ets, manila doc­u­ment hold­ers with an in­dex list­ing some of the awards in hand­writ­ten and type­writ­ten en­tries. Those en­tries match word­ing on the DD-214 that Ken­drick points out. But, al­though the 2-1 in­cludes all nine Pur­ple Hearts, the box for list­ing “wounds” is empty, de­spite Hol­loway’s claims of be­ing wounded in com­bat nine times.

The Times Free Press re­cently sub­mit­ted a fol­low-up re­quest in an at­tempt to gather re­main­ing records.

“I’d have to look. I … I threw … when I came back from ’Nam, I threw ev­ery­thing away, so I’ve got a few things and I’ll have to …” – STEPHEN DOUGLAS HOL­LOWAY

•••

A fake Pur­ple Heart claim flies in the face of the peo­ple who have le­git­i­mately re­ceived them.

“There’s only one per­son that’s been awarded nine Pur­ple Hearts. His name was [Al­bert L.] Ire­land. He was a staff sergeant in the Ma­rine Corps. And he has of­fi­cially been awarded nine Pur­ple Hearts. No one else in his­tory has,” said Ken­drick, who re­ceived the Pur­ple Heart four times and has the doc­u­ments to prove it.

And Ken­drick doesn’t mind be­ing asked for proof of his awards. He said most vet­er­ans don’t.

Hol­loway ini­tially of­fered to pro­vide a copy of his DD-214, but he never pro­duced it af­ter re­peated re­quests.

When Hol­loway was con­tacted in mid-June and again in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber seek­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion of his Pur­ple Hearts ci­ta­tions and other awards, he didn’t of­fer proof. He of­fered ex­cuses.

“I’d have to look,” Hol­loway started. “I … I threw … when I came back from ’Nam, I threw ev­ery­thing away, so I’ve got a few things and I’ll have to …”

Af­ter be­ing told that Ken­drick and oth­ers be­lieve he faked the DD-214 bear­ing the long list of awards, Hol­loway dodged.

He said he was go­ing out of town and said he would call when he got back, but he never called.

In Oc­to­ber, he again said he’d thrown ev­ery­thing away, adding that he was be­ing treated for can­cer.

In Novem­ber, as an­other Vet­er­ans Day passed, Hol­loway still had not proved his claims. He said he was be­ing treated for prostate can­cer, was in line for knee re­place­ment surgery, had kid­ney failure and bleed­ing be­hind his eyes and now was go­ing blind.

Did he main­tain his claim to the nine Pur­ple Hearts?

“Yes, just leave me alone and let me get this stuff done and I will do it for you,” Hol­loway said on Nov. 14.

The Times Free Press ex­tended an on­go­ing of­fer to seek the doc­u­men­ta­tion with Hol­loway’s per­mis­sion, but he de­clined again.

“No, be­cause you can’t find noth­ing about me, do you?” he said. “That’s what I’m try­ing to tell you. You’re not find­ing noth­ing about me.”

Why is that?

“I don’t know,” he said. Asked if he was ly­ing about his record, Hol­loway bris­tled, “No, and I’m get­ting tired of talk­ing to you about it, ac­tu­ally.”

On Nov. 28, Hol­loway didn’t an­swer his phone or re­turn the call af­ter a mes­sage was left.

•••

News that the 2016 Vet­er­ans Day event keynote speaker was be­ing chal­lenged on his mil­i­tary record left the vet­er­ans in Pikeville al­most at a loss for words.

Ray Evans and John Har­gis, two for­mer mem­bers of the Bled­soe County Vet­er­ans Park board of di­rec­tors and U.S. mil­i­tary vet­er­ans them­selves, said they be­lieved Hol­loway when he told them about his mil­i­tary record. Hol­loway pro­duced an award-laden DD-214 to prove his claims, they said.

Har­gis was shocked, es­pe­cially since he’d seen the DD-214 and be­lieved Hol­loway’s ver­bal claims of be­ing a “DMZ tun­nel rat” and a pris­oner of war. He said he be­lieved Hol­loway and didn’t ques­tion the doc­u­ment he showed them.

Evans also was stunned. “I thought he was telling the truth,” he said. “I ac­cepted him at his word.”

Con­tact staff writer Ben Ben­ton at bben­ton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @BenBen­ton or at www.face­book.com/ ben­ben­ton1.

STAFF FILE PHOTO

A copy of Stephen Hol­loway’s DD-214 is seen ear­lier this month at a Mil­i­tary Or­der of the Pur­ple Heart meet­ing in Chat­tanooga. Per­sonal in­for­ma­tion has been redacted.

CON­TRIB­UTED DOC­U­MENT

Doc­u­ments ob­tained from the National Archive through the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act — Stephen D. Hol­loway’s first en­list­ment DD-214s and as­so­ci­ated files — are avail­able to down­load and read at timesfreepress.com. The (b)(6) redacted per­sonal in­for­ma­tion has been with­held un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

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