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AUTHOR DISPUTES BANKO VIETNAM WAR DECORATION

For years, almost no one has disputed the unofficial title Stephen T. Banko III holds -- the most decorated Vietnam veteran in Western New York.

Now a Dallas author claims Banko and about 200 other Vietnam War veterans have misrepresented their Vietnam records. It's a claim Banko vigorously denies.

At issue is the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second-highest medal, second only to the Medal of Honor.

It's an honor that has sat atop Banko's impressive list of Vietnam medals, including two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, one Air Medal and four Purple Hearts.

B.G. Burkett, the co-author of "Stolen Valor," doesn't deny that Banko served in Vietnam, was wounded there and was a decorated soldier.

But he says Banko, a top aide to Mayor Masiello, never received the Distinguished Service Cross.

"Steve Banko does not have a Distinguished Service Cross," Burkett said in a telephone interview from his Dallas office. "He fabricated that lie when he was in the Army. He refabricated that lie when he got out. This book is about individuals who have stolen the valor of others. Banko is one of those individuals."

Banko disagrees. He says a group led by a general pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on his pillow in a Vietnam evacuation hospital in December 1968, while he was sedated for two gunshot wounds to the leg. But the medal and his other personal effects were lost after he was sent to a hospital in Japan for further treatment.

"It is silly to think that I would attempt to claim an award so easily checked," he said. "I'd know that I would be found out. I included it in everything I wrote."

For years, Banko claimed he had won the Distinguished Service Cross. After he listed it in his author's credits for an article in VIETNAM magazine several years ago, the Army contacted him with the news that he wasn't on its list of Distinguished Service Cross recipients.

He then removed the reference from his resume and took down the smaller replica of the medal from the framed decorations over his City Hall desk.

"As far as I'm concerned, I got the Distinguished Service Cross," Banko said in a two-hour interview last week. "If somebody made a mistake, it's the Army, not Steve Banko. Their mistake was in awarding it in the first place or in not following through."

Burkett said the issue over Banko's medal occupies about 2 1/2 pages in his 720-page self-published book, which is due in bookstores in September. It's in a chapter called "Fudging the Records," in a section called "Heroes Too Far."

Probably 200 people are mentioned by name in the book, Burkett estimated.

"I just don't question (their Vietnam accomplishments)," he said. "I blow them out of the water."

Three decades have made it more difficult to determine whether Banko received the Distinguished Service Cross after the battle on Dec. 3, 1968.

Banko does concede that he never received the "general orders" -- the official paperwork -- for the prestigious award.

The medal was presented as an "impact award," just days after the battle for which he was honored, and before the official paperwork could be prepared, Banko explained.

An Army spokeswoman in the Pentagon said such "impact awards" are presented soon after a heroic deed, while another higher award is pending.

Would the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal, be given as an "impact award?"

"We don't have any records of that," said Shari Lawrence, media relations officer for the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command. "That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but it would be a real rarity if it did."

Burkett was more definitive.

"It's never happened," the author said. "An impact award is never given beyond the Silver Star."

The reference in Burkett's book challenges the reputation of the leading advocate for Vietnam veterans in Western New York.

Banko has been instrumental in helping erect Vietnam memorials on the waterfront, in West Seneca and in Sprague Brook Park; in bringing the Moving Wall to Western New York; in setting up a scholarship for children of Vietnam veterans; in making dozens of speeches; and in writing articles for national and local publications.

"I've got a 30-year history of promoting the understanding and appreciation of Vietnam veterans, all over this community and all over the country," he said. "If the Army says there are no orders (for the award), there are no orders, but I know what happened. If B.G. Burkett thinks that somehow sullies the reputation or understanding of Vietnam veterans, then he doesn't know anything about me or about what I've done."

Burkett -- who says he set out to write the true history of the Vietnam War and erase its many myths -- was asked about soiling the reputation of a man who has been a tireless advocate for Vietnam veterans.

"I don't care if the guy puts money in the church collection on Sunday or how many babies he's kissed," he replied. "On this issue, he's wrong.

"He's a liar," Burkett added. "He has stolen the valor of another man who has given his life for his country. That is wrong. If you don't understand that, I feel sorry for your community."

"Stolen Valor" -- with the subtitle "How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History" -- already has received plenty of national publicity.

James Webb, former secretary of the Navy, writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, called it "one of the most courageous books of the decade."

Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and a financial adviser in Dallas, relied on more than 10 years of research in the National Archives and hundreds of requests for military documents under the Freedom of Information Act, according to the book's web site.

Banko says he relies on his own memories from the war.

"If I had to testify under oath about my recollections about the battle and its aftermath, including the awarding of that medal, I would do it," he said.

Besides categorically denying Burkett's charges, Banko provided a more detailed account of his 17-month Vietnam service, an account filled with life-saving actions, a comrade dying in his arms and times when he may have caused the deaths of others.

The battle that led to the disputed medal occurred Dec. 3, 1968. That's when Delta Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry was nearly wiped out.

The 110 soldiers were helicoptered into a meadow near the Song Be River, where they were surrounded by enemy fire, while a grass fire robbed them of their concealment.

Sgt. Banko and another soldier took a machine gun onto a nearby ant hill, where a rocket blew the barrel off the weapon. Banko was shot in the bottom of the knee, breaking his shin bone.

Sgt. John N. Holcomb, a former tight end at Oregon State, ran the 75 meters to Banko with a functioning machine gun and collapsed. Banko applied pressure to Holcomb's shoulder wound, but blood spurted from three other wounds.

As he lay dying, Holcomb pulled Banko close to him and mumbled something inaudible. Banko leaned closer, his ear next to Holcomb's mouth.

"Don't let 'em take us," he whispered. "Don't let 'em."

"I had my arm around him, and he was holding my hand," Banko remembered. "When he died, he squeezed so hard, he broke three of my fingers."

Holcomb posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for bravery.

"He literally saved my life," Banko said.

Later in that battle, Banko crawled to a wounded man whose shirt had caught on fire. Before dragging the fallen soldier to the edge of the battlefield, Banko was shot again in the right knee, just 2 inches from the earlier wound.

He later was taken out by Medevac helicopter.

"When the helicopter lifted off the ground, you get to see the whole panorama of the battlefield, and I saw Holcomb behind the ant hill," Banko said. "All of his clothing had been burned off, and his . . . hair was smoldering. There were burned bodies lying all over the place."

Banko was taken to Saigon, and later to an evacuation hospital in Vung Tau. Doctors didn't know if they could save his leg.

On Dec. 12 or 14 -- he remembered only that it was an even-numbered day -- he was told to shave and clean up. Then a general, whose name he didn't know, came in with a group of military officials.

"They stood at the bed, and the thing I remember was that the general was speaking like a person, rather than reading from something military . . . I remember the general saying I exposed myself to save the life of a comrade.

"They pinned the medal on my pillow. I remember the nurses were crying and holding my hand. That was it. It was over in 10 minutes."

On Dec. 24, Banko was sent to Japan for possible amputation of his right leg.

Some of his personal effects got to him six months later. But nothing came from the evacuation hospital, including his medals or his maps, he said.

The Dec. 3 battle virtually wiped out Delta Company. The casualty toll: 29 dead, 58 wounded, or 87 out of 110.

"I need to feel like I survived that battle and survived that day for a reason," Banko said. "If God gave me a talent to communicate, then I wanted to use that talent to (help people) understand how much we loved each other as soldiers. That's the only thing that's going to survive that war."

Banko also talked about his failures.

One night, before he was wounded, Sgt. Banko took his squad out on an ambush. One of the 18-year-old privates was stoned on marijuana. Rather than send him back to a probable court-martial, Banko agreed to let two of the private's friends take him along. They promised to watch out for him.

But that night, the stoned soldier walked out into the line of fire and was killed.

"I think about it every day when my feet hit the ground in the morning," Banko said. "Every decision I made in Vietnam affected somebody's life.

"The choices in combat are always (between) bad and worse."

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