Native American Who Confronted High School Students Not a Vietnam Veteran: Reports

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
January 22, 2019USshare
Native American Who Confronted High School Students Not a Vietnam Veteran: Reports
Nathan Phillips, center with glasses, and other Dakota Access Pipeline protesters march in North Dakota, on Feb. 22, 2017. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

Native American activist Nathan Phillips, whose encounter with high school students in Washington on Jan. 18 went viral, isn’t a Vietnam veteran as many descriptions of him claim, according to new reports.

The Washington Post, one of many news outlets to initially take Phillips’s word on what happened and later backtrack when taking into account the full video footage of the incident, quietly amended a correction to its main article about the incident, which relied heavily on quotations from Phillips.

“Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War,” the Post stated. “Phillips served in the U.S. Marines from 1972 to 1976 but was never deployed to Vietnam.”

None of the three reporters listed as having written the piece have said how they learned that Phillips didn’t serve in Vietnam. The article was up for two days before the correction appeared. The reporters also didn’t say they’d seen evidence of his military service during that time.

Numerous other media outlets, including CNN, the New York Times, and UPI also listed Phillips as a Vietnam veteran. None have issued corrections as of yet.

In an interview, Phillips told CNN that he was a “Vietnam times veteran.” He’s used similar vague language in other interviews. CNN has the quote transcribed as “I’m a Vietnam veteran” but it’s different in the actual video. A chyron that ran during the interview also said “Vietnam veteran,” not “Vietnam times veteran.”

The Washington Times noted on Jan. 21 that some things about Phillips’ service didn’t seem to add up.

“According to multiple news accounts, the activist is 64 years old, which means he would have been 18 years old in 1973, the last year any U.S. combat units were stationed in Vietnam. Mr. Phillips also claims to be a Marine veteran, although the last Marine combat units left Vietnam in 1971,” the Times wrote.

Official U.S. Marines history states that by the end of 1970, more Marines were leaving Vietnam than arriving as replacements.

marines in vietnam jungle
U.S. Marines on patrol in a jungle during the Vietnam war on Nov. 4, 1968. (Photo by Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)

“On 14 April 1971, III MAF redeployed to Okinawa, and two months later the last ground troops, the 13,000 men of the 3d MAB, flew out from Da Nang. Although Marine combat units were no longer in Vietnam, Marine advisors remained to assist the South Vietnamese,” the Marine Corps stated.

If Phillips was 16 years old in 1971 then he couldn’t have enlisted until 1972, and even then he’d need parental consent or to be an emancipated minor, noted Red State. He does say that he enlisted at 17, but thus wouldn’t have been an officer and would not have been sent to Vietnam as an advisor.

Phillips has not responded to the correction regarding his service.

While Phillips himself has appeared to never directly claim to serve in Vietnam, some close to him have made such claims.

In a Kickstarter video raising money for a documentary that was later made about Phillips and his wife, the filmmaker says clearly that Phillips “was then a Marine in Vietnam.” Over $6,000 was raised through the campaign.

Rebecca Bengal, who said that she was honored to know Phillips’, said in an essay published in Vogue on Jan. 21 that Phillips was 17 when “he joined the Marines and served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War.” The article was later amended with no correction or editor’s note attached, nor did Bengal explain why the reference was removed.

In an article written by Bengal in 2018, Phillips told her: “I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger. That was my role.”

Some interviews seemed to point to Phillips describing service in Vietnam or returning from serving there. In Indian Country Today, Phillips was described as telling the publication that returning from Vietnam wasn’t easy. “People called me a baby killer and a hippie girl spit on me,” he was quoted as saying.

And in an article representative of many written about him, the Toledo Blade in 2007 stated definitively that “Mr. Phillips served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam from 1972-76,” though it again didn’t quote him directly.

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