But Chavous’ deeds of heroism weren’t true.
Chavous, 63, was in the Marines and was in combat during his one-year tour of duty in 1970. But there was no Navy Cross, no Distinguished Service Cross, no five Purple Hearts, and no escape from a North Vietnamese prison camp, according to records The Augusta Chronicle obtained from the National Archives.
Chavous pleaded guilty April 3 to hindering the apprehension of a criminal and concealing the death of another for his limited role in a 1975 slaying.
Connell didn’t know Chavous had fabricated his story of heroism. After being contacted by the newspaper about concerns regarding his client’s military record, Connell provided a copy of Chavous’ discharge document that listed his military awards including the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Navy and Marine Corps Purple Hearts, and the Bronze Star.
Connell said he also had a stack of VA medical records dating back to the ’70s that detailed Chavous’ story of being repeatedly wounded, taken captive and escaping from a prison camp.
After the newspaper obtained verification of Chavous’ military history, Connell said he couldn’t comment because of ethical guidelines.
Annis, who sentenced Chavous to five years of probation, said even if he hadn’t heard the account of heroism he believes Chavous’ sentence was appropriate for seeing Bronzi Leon Peppers murdered and never telling law enforcement.
Attempts to reach Chavous for comment were unsuccessful.
The April hearing wasn’t the first time Chavous had embellished his military service.
He told the same story to the Augusta-Richmond County Historic Society when it created Heroes Overlook on Riverwalk Augusta in 1994. According to a story in The Chronicle, two bronze plaques were to be set for Chavous. There are no plaques for him there, however, and no records exist to explain what happened.
Chavous was a rifleman and was awarded a Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnamese Service Medal and the Vietnamese Campaign Medal, according to his real military discharge document. But he was never wounded nor taken prisoner.
“We call it the POW sob story,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. John Michael McGrath, who was a POW and has worked with others to expose people who make false claims of military service.
In Vietnam, 966 Americans were POWs; only 662 got out alive, and 160 have died since the war, he said. The number of Americans who escaped from POW camps and survived was 30 in Vietnam and two in Laos, McGrath said. But according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1,000 people claimed to have escaped from prison camps, McGrath said.
McGrath, whose list of medals includes the Silver Star, Superior Service Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross from his time in Vietnam, said the fact that Chavous has been telling his story for decades is typical.
McGrath pointed to Edward Lee Daily, who claimed that he witnessed Americans commit the “Nogun-ri Massacre” during the Korean War. Published accounts of his story led to a special investigation. There was no massacre, and Daily also falsely claimed to have been a POW. He was prosecuted for fraud in 2002, convicted, sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to repay more than $400,000 in benefits.
Daily had been lying for 40 years.
McGrath said he has written to every VA secretary asking for an investigation. He has only received boilerplate responses that all is correct, he said.
McGrath’s list of 662 Vietnam POW survivors matches the Department of Defense’s records, he said. The VA could run its list against the department’s but has not.
The fraud continues, McGrath said. The VA has 91 POW survivors from Desert Storm, but there were only 21 and one has died, he said.
Why someone would fake war experiences is a good question, McGrath said. He thinks it has a lot to do with low self-esteem and the idea that it is only a “little white lie.” But such claims get repeated and then they are stuck with it. It even turns up in obituaries, McGrath said.
Those who take the lie to the VA also get additional benefits and tax exemptions.
McGrath, who was a POW from June 30, 1967, to March 4, 1973, said he doesn’t take great offense at those who lie. But one aspect does annoy him: all the people with POW license tags. POWs get a break on the fees. Most states, including his home state of Colorado, only ask the VA for a letter of verification and the VA allows service members to self-report.
McGrath sees the POW plates a lot, he said. But he knows there are only seven Vietnam POWs in the entire state.