Monday, March 08, 1999

Finding POW pretenders is vet's mission

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike McGrath figures he won one. Another man faking his war record has been exposed.

        Last week, Donald Nicholson admitted he lied about being a hero in battle and a prisoner of war in Vietnam (STORY). The lies of Amelia's retired police chief were exposed by a group of Vietnam vets and POWs. Mike McGrath was among that number.

        Mike is an airline pilot in Colorado Springs, Colo. I tracked him down after reading last week's story about Amelia's former top cop.

        When he isn't flying out of Denver's airport, Mike spends his spare time adding names to his list of wannabes — fakes like the retired chief who claim they were held in North Vietnam as prisoners of war.

        Mike doesn't do this for money. Or revenge. He does it to honor what he and his buddies went through 30 years ago in a hell called Vietnam.

Naming names
        There are 290 entries on Mike's wannabe list. He started taking names three years ago. His list keeps growing. Last month, 24 more names entered his “Hall of Shame.”

        All of the names are posted on the Web site of NAM-POWs Inc. at Mike is president of the veterans organization.

        The list includes a biker and a lawyer. There are guys who claim to be POWs just to get a free lunch at Kiwanis and Rotary meetings. A woman on the list fakes her POW status to relieve rich men of their fortunes.

        Mike's list grows through newspaper clippings, Internet chats and face-to-face encounters.

        “I met one wannabe when both of us were giving a speech at a university,” he told me. “I called him a fraud right to his face.”

        Mike does that without fear. He used to be a wrestler at the Naval Academy. And, although he's 59 and feels he needs a whole-body transplant, he still knows how to put somebody in a headlock.

        “Most of the wannabes just start out bragging at a bar,” Mike said. “They say they were a POW to get sympathy and pick up women. They have a very low self-esteem.”

        Their stories are low, too. Most are stolen from the battlegrounds of Hollywood, borrowing heavily from the cartoonish plots of Rambo films and the war movies of Chuck Norris.

Ready explanations
        When Mike McGrath confronts bogus POWs, he knows they always have an out. They won't be able to tell him the date they were captured. Old head wound. Memory loss.

        They'd like to show him their military records. But, oh darn, they burned up in a warehouse fire.

        They would be on the government's official POW list. But they were on a secret mission. And it's still classified.

        “Bull,” Mike said. This is not an episode of The X-Files we are talking about here. This is real life. If your name's not on the government's list, you were not a prisoner of war.

        The government's list of POWs contains 691 names. Mike has them memorialized and memorized in alphabetical order.

        “Abbott (Bob, Joe and Will), Acosta, Agnew, Alvarez ...” The names rattle off by the dozens.

        Mike started learning those names as a prisoner of war. “In prison, the only thing you have is your memory,” he told me.

        He remembers the day his plane was shot down. June 30, 1967. He knows when he was released. March 4, 1973. Days as a POW: 2,074, most of them at the infamous prison dubbed the Hanoi Hilton.

        “We had to use our minds,” he said. “They didn't give us any books, paper or pencils.”

        But they did give him beatings. He came to the prison with a dislocated shoulder, broken arm, leg and back. The beatings broke his good leg and arm, and dislocated his other shoulder.

        Mike bears no grudge against his torturers. He sees them in the same light he views fake POWs.

        “I can't waste emotion on them. The war is over. I can't live life as an ex-POW. I need to press on.”

        That's why he won't bring up his war experiences in conversation. But, when asked, he'll say what he did in Vietnam. And he'll tell you what those wannabes never had the courage to do.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.