April 23, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the June 1, 1971, issue of National Review.
Al Hubbard is the executive director of the Vietnam Veterans against the War. I first met him the morning of April 21 at the VVAW "camp-in" on the Capitol Mall in Washington. He was sitting on a flatbed truck, explaining to a circle of six hundred or so members of his group that the Supreme Court had upheld the earlier ruling that the Veterans would not be allowed to sleep on the Mall that night. He was very calm and soft-spoken about it all, at one point interrupting himself to ask that volunteers take down a Vietcong flag someone had stuck in a tree. When he was finished talking, I went up to Hubbard and introduced myself and asked him about his service record, among other things. He said he had been an Air Force captain.
Actually, if I had watched Meet the Press the previous Sunday, I wouldn't have needed to ask that question at all. Hubbard had been introduced on that show by Lawrence E. Spivak as a former captain who had spent two years in Vietnam, and who had been decorated and injured in the process. The way it was later explained to me at the Washington "camp-in" was that Hubbard had been flying a transport plane into Danang one day in 1966 when he "caught some shrapnel in the spine."
That was April 21. On April 22, the story began to change. According to Frank Jordan, the Washington Bureau Chief of NBC News, NBC got a tip that Al Hubbard hadn't been an Air Force captain, but instead an Air Force sergeant. NBC reached Hubbard at a Washington hotel that night, asked Hubbard about the tip, and got a confession that, indeed, he had been lying about his rank. NBC broadcast that on its 11 P.M. news that night and also interviewed Hubbard on the Today Show the next morning. As NBC's Jordan remembers it, Hubbard explained he made up the business about having been an officer: "He was convinced no one would listen to a black man who was also an enlisted man."
Two weeks later, John Kerry, Yale's contribution to the VVAW, recalled that Today Show interview, citing it as proof of Hubbard's sincerity. "Al owned up to the rank question," said Kerry. "He thought it was time to tell the truth, and he did it because he thought it would be best for the organization." That, of course, neglects the fact that NBC had confronted Hubbard with its "tip" prior to the interview.
The next development was a Defense Department news release: "Alfred H. Hubbard entered the Air Force in October 1952, re-enlisted twice and was honorably discharged in October 1966, when his enlistment expired. At the time of his discharge he was an instructor flight engineer on C-123 aircraft with the 7th Air Transport Squadron, McCord Air Force Base, Tacoma, Washington. There is no record of any service in Vietnam, but since he was an air crew member he could have been in Vietnam for brief periods during cargo loading, unloading operations or for crew rest purposes. His highest grade held was Staff Sergeant E-5."
That raised an important new question about Hubbard's background. Not only was there his word for it that he'd lied about his rank, now the Defense Department was announcing it didn't have any record of his having served in Vietnam at all. As a liberally oriented newsman, sympathetic to the Vietnam Vets and impressed personally by Hubbard's leadership qualities, that came as something of a jolt.
Clearly, if Hubbard had spent considerable time in VA hospitals, the Veterans Administration would have a record of it. A spokesman for the Veterans Administration, however, while confirming that Hubbard did have a sizable medical record, refused to give out any details, saying that would be an invasion of Hubbard's privacy. He said the only thing the VA would say about Hubbard was that he has a service-connected disability of 60 per cent and that he has been receiving $163 a month.
So Al Hubbard had been seriously injured while in the Service. But the VA would not say whether it was during the Vietnam years or earlier. For after all, Hubbard had enlisted back in 1952. Conceivably, an air crash, if there was one, could have taken place long before 1966. I asked the Defense Department some additional questions: What medals had Hubbard received? What about a plane crash in 1966? And the answers came back: A Korean Service Medal, United Nations Medal, National Defense Medal, four Good Conduct Medals, Air Force Longevity Service Award, Air Force Unit Award and Air Force Expeditionary Medal. But no Purple Heart, and no mention of a Vietnamese Service Ribbon, which, according to the Pentagon, can be rightfully claimed by any member of an air crew serving in Vietnam, even briefly.
Despite that, Defense Department officials stressed it was still possible Hubbard could have served in Vietnam, flying in and out from Tacoma. However, they were skeptical in the extreme of the Danang air crash story. As one spokesman put it: "As far as we know there is no record of his having been involved in a plane crash ever in Vietnam. If he had been, and he'd been seriously hurt, he would have been in a military hospital in Danang. And it would have shown up in our records."
But what about that 60 per cent disability? Obviously, something had happened to Hubbard at some point during his Service career? It was suggested that I ask Hubbard about that. That seemed to make sense. But there was a slight problem, in that it was becoming difficult to find out where Hubbard was. Most of the Vets had returned to their homes after the April 24 March. But Hubbard and a few dozen others stayed on for the more militant Mayday activities. And on May 3, the first day of big trouble, Hubbard and twenty or so of the others were arrested for throwing cow manure on the steps of the Pentagon.
(John Kerry, one of the many members of the VVAW who had nothing to do with the Mayday protests, denounced them as "horrible": "Ripping out wires from cars, slashing tires it's criminal. It should be punished.")
Failing immediately to locate Hubbard, I talked to several members of the VVAW at their headquarters in Manhattan. They still remembered the Danang story, although some now emphasized that they had never really heard Hubbard tell it. Scott Moore, a 26-year-old former Army lieutenant, summed up the views of many, saying: "I really don't care whether Al was in Vietnam or not. He's a good man. That's all that counts."
That attitude wasn't shared, however, by the senior leaders of the group. Jan Crumb, the President, admitted he was concerned, and he indicated Moore's comment was primarily for my consumption. Said Crumb: "This matters to all of us, very much. But it's an internal problem for us to solve."
This happened on Friday, May 7. At the time Hubbard had been out of touch for several days. However, Crumb said I could expect a call from him the next week. Hubbard called on Monday morning, May 10. He said he was considering a lawsuit against the Defense Department and had demanded that they send him certain records. He said that until he received them he would make no comment. I asked him about the Danang air crash and he replied: "I told you, I will not cooperate with the media in any way."
Another source, however, was considerably more cooperative. On Thursday, May 13, saying he had seen Hubbard's medical record, this source said there is no mention at all of a 1966 air crash in Danang. There is, he said, a reference to a 1956 rib injury suffered during a basketball game, and a 1961 entry about a back injury suffered during a soccer game. And much later, in 1962, there was a reference by Hubbard to a 1956 plane crash, but nothing, according to the source, about any accident in Vietnam.
And that about wrapped it up. The Pentagon had answered all my questions except the ones touching on Al Hubbard's medical records. Al Hubbard had the opportunity to defend himself. Instead he chose to make no comment, and I was left to draw my own conclusions.
So what to do? First, of course, report it for my employer, CBS News. But the story required a longer telling than broadcast time permits. As a liberal, it had occurred to me that raising questions about Al Hubbard might hurt the antiwar movement, but as a journalist, it didn't seem that that should be a factor. I was wrong. No one would touch the story. Not David Sanford of the New Republic; not any other editor of any liberal publication, I contacted.