Help! My Stepfather Lied About Serving in Vietnam. Does This Make Him a Bad Person?

Advice on manners and morals.
June 12 2014 7:28 AM

Father Fibber

A loving dad who lied about his military service—and other Father’s Day conundrums.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My stepfather died in January and I considered him more of a dad than my biological father, who left more than 30 years ago. While helping Mom sort through paperwork, we noticed that we could not find the appropriate documentation for his military service—we wanted it to secure a service plaque that you see on grave markers. My stepfather fought in Vietnam and been wounded there. I contacted Veterans Affairs, the school he said he attended on the G.I. Bill, and enlisted the assistance of our U.S. senator’s office, all to no avail. My stepbrother, his biological son, also did research at the National Archives. We both discovered that while our father was in in the reserves, it appears that he never served in Vietnam. Of course, I feel that it is in extraordinarily bad taste to lie about this. However, I choose to continue to think about my dad in a positive light as he accomplished much in life and saw to his responsibilities, including taking care of my mom, me, and my brother (who has special needs). I gently told my mom about what my stepbrother and I discovered. She said she is going back to the VA to have them try another search. I think it’s normal that she would want to exhaust every resource in her quest to prove his story. But I’m afraid that she’s ultimately going to have come to terms with the fact that he told people a whopper. Do you think that I should sit down with Mom to tell her to face facts or let her continue on an apparent wild goose chase and reach the realization in her own time?

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—A Conflicted Stepson

Dear Conflicted,
It is a dishonorable thing for someone who never experienced combat to claim to have faced this. Numerous people have been hoisted by their own Vietnam-service petards, from famed historian Joseph Ellis to Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Fortunately, it appears that while your stepfather lied about his service, he did not try to receive benefits based on this falsehood, which would have been a more serious matter. It’s too late now to find out if your stepfather made up a boastful story as a young man and then was too embarrassed to come clean, or if he enjoyed the image of himself as a warrior, chimerical as that was. You and your stepbrother have sufficiently proved that your stepfather was never on active duty, and this will mark your memory of him. But you also know it does not undo all he accomplished, nor the admirable way he took on life’s duties. Your own biological father showed you how flawed humans can be. So now your stepfather joins the large pantheon of imperfect people. What you have to do is help your mother come to terms with the truth and accept that this failing of her late husband’s is a small thing in the context of their decades together. Impress upon her that the bureaucrats at the VA have much more important things to do—like making sure actual combat veterans are getting the services they need—than running down more leads that will only end up proving her husband never fought in the jungles of Vietnam. Tell her that your stepfather’s grave, even without the plaque you both wanted to affix, will still mark the existence of a good man.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I graduated from law school several years ago and it was the biggest mistake of my life. I had allowed my parents to persuade me of their dream for me—becoming an attorney. Law school was hell, academically and socially. I was miserable and filed the necessary paperwork to leave. My father told me that if I completed law school that he would pay all the loans I took out. I believed him because he had paid for college and he also showed me some of his accounts to ensure that he would be able to pay without bankrupting himself. I resumed classes and upon graduation, when I inquired about loan repayments, my father said that he never intended to pay, that he lied to me to get me to finish school, and that I was on my own. He stated that there was nothing I could do because there was no contract (obviously a major mistake on my end) and no witnesses, and he doesn’t care what I have to deal with. I am disgusted that he has no remorse and is so smug at getting away with deceiving me. I now have twice the debt I would have if I had I left school. How do I get over this betrayal?

—Resentful Daughter

Dear Daughter,
It may be time for you to review your contract law textbook. I actually ignored my own father’s advice that I go to law school, so to find out what legal recourse you may have, I contacted Randy Barnett, a contracts professor at Georgetown Law. It turns out that famous Samuel Goldwyn quotation is basically right: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it was written on.” (As Barnett notes, for precision, the quote should be “oral” contract; I note that apparently Goldwyn never even said it.). Because you failed to get this agreement in writing, Barnett says your father would be correct that you have no claim. But Barnett adds that if you have, sayan email trail with your father documenting that he offered to pick up the tab in return for your sticking it out at law school, you might be have grounds to initiate a breach of contract suit. I know that suing your own father is not an ideal way to celebrate Father’s Day, nor is it likely to improve your relationship with him, but it certainly would impress upon him that you indeed are able to find a practical use for your law degree. Barnett also suggested that a threat of a suit, which would require your father to hire a lawyer, might be enough to shake out some of that money he promised you. What your father did is indefensible, but if you simply want to find some way to make peace with what happened, you have to accept that your father misled you out of a belief that a law degree would make your future safe and secure. Yes, thousands of young J.D.s can tell you that they might have had better luck spending their tuition money at Vegas, but ultimately, the decision to continue was yours. If you are gainfully employed, and especially if your job is related to your degree, then take comfort that you are slowly working your way out of debt. Whether your father can ever work his way back into your heart is not something they teach in law school.

—Prudie

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