Stolen valor? Local veteran accused of lying about Vietnam service

Friday, November 2, 2018
In a 2013 interview, Sonny Smith said he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his military service in Vietnam. Now, Smith’s family members and others say he never served in Vietnam.
File photo

In 2013, Sonny Smith gave an emotional account of his military service in Vietnam — service he said led to him receiving a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He maintained his story in an Oct. 4 interview with Lovely County Citizen, describing his service in detail.

“I’m glad to say I was a baby killer. I saw every bit of it. I stayed drunk for 20 years when I got back,” Smith said. “If you weren’t there, you don’t understand.”

Today, his family members say those claims are untrue. Smith is a military veteran, but his brother-in-law John Boyuka says he never stepped foot in Vietnam.

Boyuka’s daughter Cindy said she reconnected with Smith last year, when Smith sent her a 2013 Citizen article about his alleged service in Vietnam. She had no idea her uncle served in Vietnam, Cindy said, and her father told her Smith never did.

Service records

The Boyukas contacted Dane Brown, who works with the website Military Phonies, and soon had a copy of Smith’s military records. According to the records, Smith served in the United States Army National Guard from Dec. 7, 1975, to July 1, 1983. The records say Smith received the Army Service Ribbon, Marksman Badge with Auto Rifle Bar and Sharpshooter Badge with Rifle Bar. There is no mention of a Bronze Star or Purple Heart.

“He never set foot out of the continental United States,” Brown said. “The Purple Heart and the Bronze Star? That’s not real.”

Smith includes a citation for the Bronze Star in his book “Vietnam War Memoirs,” and Brown said it’s completely plagiarized. Brown said the signature on the citation belongs to a veteran who retired from the Army in 1964 after serving in World War II and the Korean War.

“He stole a dead person’s identity to sign that Bronze Star certification,” Brown said.

Smith said the service records are true but not the whole truth. His enlistment was split, Smith said, between three separate services: his alleged service in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, his service in the National Guard from 1976 to 1979 and his service in the Army from 1980 to 1983. He said he has three different DD214 records but can’t access all the documents.

“For the last eight years, I’ve tried to get all my paperwork three different times,” Smith said. “They sent me just little snippets of stuff. I called them and said, ‘That’s not all,’ and they said, ‘This is all we’ve got, so that’s all there is.’ ”

When he allegedly served in Vietnam, Smith said, he was issued a service number. The military began identifying servicemen by their Social Security numbers in 1970, Smith said, and that’s why his records are split up. Brown said that’s not how it works at all.

“They didn’t split DD214s up based on somebody being in the middle of their service period,” Brown said. “If they started his records with a service number, they would have stuck with the service number.”

Smith said he’s not sure what his service number is.

“People say, ‘I know my service number. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,’ ” Smith said. “Well, that was 50 years ago. I’ve been through a lot of crap since then. I can remember it, but I’m not sure if it’s the right order, and that’s what I’m figuring out right now.”

American Legion Post 9 Commander Mark Pepple said he’s never met a veteran who doesn’t remember their service number.

“Without hesitation, they’ll tell you what their service number is,” Pepple said. “And Sonny says he has to go look for it.”

There’s nothing else to look for, Brown said. He said Smith’s service records from 1975 to 1983 are the only records that exist.

“All his records are in St. Louis, Mo., where everybody else’s is,” Brown said.

Conflicting stories

Smith has such vivid recollections from his alleged time in Vietnam, John Boyuka said, because he heard those stories from his family. Boyuka, who served in the Vietnam War, remembered catching up with his friends from the Marine Corps years ago. Smith was there, Boyuka said, and he was listening.

“That’s where he got most of those stories, because I’ve heard some of them,” Boyuka said. “It’s a bunch of crap.”

Smith said he doesn’t understand why his family is attacking him. His niece “hates his guts,” Smith said.

“They went on a witch hunt on me,” Smith said. “It’s a family thing. They’re bringing all this out without the correct information.”

Cindy Boyuka said she doesn’t hate her uncle. She said Smith even walked her down the aisle at her wedding in 2008.

“I wasn’t mad at him,” she said. “I’m mad at him now. I feel sad for him, and I feel ashamed.”

Brown said John Boyuka isn’t the only person Smith stole stories from. Smith’s entire book is plagiarized, Brown said, from military documents to a verbatim quote from the 1987 film Hamburger Hill. Smith said he doesn’t own a computer. When asked if he forged any of the documents in his book, Smith said people can do that.

“I’m not saying I did, because I didn’t,” Smith said. “I don’t have a computer, but I’ve been told you can get stuff off the computer. Some people do that. I’m not saying I did, because I didn’t.”

Smith said he can’t prove he received a Bronze Star or a Purple Heart, either.

“They’re saying I don’t have it, and I can’t prove it,” Smith said. “So what do I do? Lie and say I do when I can’t prove it yet?”

Pepple said the timeline of Smith’s alleged service in Vietnam doesn’t make sense. There’s no way Smith could have stepped foot in Vietnam in November 1968, Pepple said, when he wouldn’t have been done with training until January 1969 at the earliest. Smith said he’s not sure how to respond to questions about his alleged service in Vietnam.

“I’m not going to say yes or no until I can prove it. Since I can’t prove it, logic only says I can say no,” Smith said. “When I can prove it in a couple of months or year or whatever it takes, I’ll say yes.”

He continued, “I’m saying no at the time because I can’t prove it. I don’t know what an answer between yes and no is. I don’t know how to defend myself here with that answer.”

Brown said Military Phonies has never gotten it wrong.

“We won’t take one step forward with something like this unless we’re 100 percent sure,” Brown said. “Sonny’s done. He’s cooked. He never set foot in Vietnam, and that whole book is a fairytale.”

Community response

Since his military service became a hot topic in Eureka Springs, Smith said, he’s been physically and verbally attacked. In a phone interview Oct. 29, Smith said he resigned from American Legion Post 9 to protect the post from the allegations. That is the reason Smith gave for his resignation, Pepple said.

“He said he resigned to protect us from legal action, but we’re in no bind here,” Pepple said.

A few hours after the phone interview, Smith called the Citizen to say he really resigned because he felt betrayed by members of the post.

“I didn’t feel they were supporting me. They showed me all the stuff that was on the internet and they said, ‘Well, we have to believe this until you can prove it,’ ” Smith said. “I’ve been with that post for nine years, and I felt like they were stabbing me in the back.”

Pepple said he’s disturbed by the allegations. The members of the post have known Smith for years, Pepple said, and they’ve come to trust him.

“We are still reeling under the weight of the hurt of it, because he’s hurt a lot of people,” Pepple said. “He’s basically stomped on every Vietnam grave.”

Smith said he’s astounded at how people in the community have turned against him. He’s lived in Eureka Springs for 40 years, Smith said, and that should mean something.

“I’m overwhelmed by the amount of hate coming from people who have known me for years with only half the facts to go on,” Smith said. “The internet is not the final answer, and frankly, right now I don’t give a damn what people think. It don’t mean nothing.”

Pepple said he’ll believe the existing military records until Smith can provide proof of his alleged service in Vietnam.

“We will support Sonny if it comes back that what he is saying is true, but I don’t think it’s going to,” Pepple said. “There’s too much evidence pointing in the other direction. I’m sorry this happened in our little town.”

He continued, “I’m sorry it has turned out Sonny is not the person he claimed to be, but all veterans are not like this. When it becomes necessary to call out a vet, we’ll do that. That’s how we protect our vets … the truthful ones.”

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