Mayoral candidate and newspaper columnist Michael Peterson, who built a successful career as a novelist out of his military experiences in Vietnam, admitted Friday that for years he has been falsely claiming a severe war injury to his right leg.
Peterson also has said repeatedly that he received two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, but Marine Corps files show no record of them. The medal is given to soldiers injured or killed in combat.
Peterson insists he received the Purple Hearts. But he acknowledged the lie about his injury after The News & Observer obtained his military service record showing it happened in Japan, not in Vietnam, as he had said.
In a recent interview, Peterson said he received one of the Purple Hearts when a land mine blew up near him in Vietnam. A radio operator stepped on the mine and died from the blast, he said, and the shrapnel ripped into his right leg.
"I was shot once, the other was a land mine - my radio operator stepped on a mine," he said then.
Confronted with his military record, Peterson disclosed that the leg injury occurred in a two-car accident in Japan. He said not even his family and closest friends knew the truth.
"It's a cover; I admit it," Peterson said Friday. "My second wife, she doesn't know. I'm going to discuss it with her today."
Despite the admission, Peterson said he will continue his campaign for mayor, and he said he plans to tell his supporters the truth.
"I'm going to be honest," he said, "and if they don't like that, that's fine, that's OK."
A retired Marine captain, Peterson is one of five candidates running for mayor. When he announced his candidacy in August, he left his role as a freelance, twice-weekly columnist for The Herald-Sun, a position he had held for two years.
He said he lied about his injury because the way it really happened was too painful a memory.
"It was just avoid everything. I got shot up in Vietnam, and that's pretty much been my story," he said.
The military file verifies that he received two other high combat honors, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with Valor.
His disclosure is a strange twist that military officials say they've never seen before: a decorated war veteran embellishing what already should have been seen as exemplary combat experience.
"It's unfortunate that someone who had served in combat and had medals for valor would feel the need to embellish his record," said Maj. Patrick Gibbons, a deputy chief of media affairs for the Marines.
The Silver Star, Bronze Star with Valor and the Purple Heart are among the most prestigious medals the military hands out. All are given for combat experiences.
In a Herald-Sun article and on his campaign Web site, Peterson, 55, of 1810 Cedar St., said that he received two Purple Hearts, but he has written little about his injuries. He has published four books about Vietnam, including the successful novel "A Time of War."
On Friday, Peterson insisted that he received two Purple Hearts for minor wounds caused by shrapnel. He said he was patched up in the field both times and continued his tour of duty.
As evidence, he displayed a medal that had a marking on it that he said represents two Purple Hearts. He also showed a black-and-white photo of him in dress uniform and pointed to a ribbon that he said represented his Purple Heart. He could not produce the written citation that accompanies receipt of the medal.
But his military service record does not show that he received a Purple Heart. Marine spokesmen said there have been occasions in which soldiers have received Purple Hearts that were not listed on their service records.
The record shows that Peterson, commissioned as a second lieutenant, served in Vietnam from Aug. 24, 1968, to Sept. 5, 1969. From there he was transferred to a recruiting station in San Diego, Calif., and stayed there until June 16, 1970, when he transferred to a naval air station in Atsugi, Japan.
His job was to provide security for the naval air station, and one night while driving a sergeant to the base, he said, a car veered and hit their vehicle head-on at a railroad crossing. The sergeant died in the crash, and Peterson said he suffered rib fractures, a punctured lung and a badly injured right leg.
He tearfully recounted the experience of finding himself in intensive care, surrounded by soldiers with war injuries so severe they would either die or survive with disabilities.
"It was, without a doubt, the worst thing that I had ever gone through in my life, because everybody there was injured so badly that they weren't going back to the United States," he said.
After returning to the U.S., Peterson received an honorable discharge with a permanent medical disability and retired.