Fake Vietnam War Veteran Embezzled Money Meant for Agent Orange and UXO Victims
By Drew Brown
Chuck Palazzo during an interview in Da Nang, Vietnam, Feb. 12, 2013 / Drew Brown
For years, Chuck Palazzo has told the world that he served in combat as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam from 1970-1971.
As a former journalist, I’ve interviewed a lot of veterans. Palazzo’s claims about his exploits during the war were some of the most riveting I’d ever heard.
Palazzo maintains that he joined the Marines at age 17, shipped out to Vietnam at 18, and served with the 1st and 3rd Reconnaissance Companies near Da Nang airport and at the U.S. airbase in Chu Lai.
He now stands accused of embezzling more than $100,000 in donations from Chapter 160 of Veterans for Peace, an organization of former U.S. service members dedicated to helping Vietnamese who have been harmed by Agent Orange and unexploded bombs left over from the war. Palazzo served as a founding member and the group’s secretary treasurer, until he was removed from the post last May when evidence of the financial wrongdoing surfaced.
According to a May 23 statement to VFP 160 members and donors, the group’s remaining leaders said that Palazzo had admitted to the misuse of donor funds, and that an independent review of the chapter’s financial records and transactions had been launched. Vietnamese police were also asked to look into the matter. However, the results of neither investigation have yet been announced, and it is unclear if Vietnamese authorities will pursue criminal charges.
This story is an edited version of a letter I sent July 4 to VFP 160 and U.S. veterans living in Da Nang, Vietnam, where Palazzo has also resided for several years, detailing the results of what I discovered when I looked into his military record. My letter was circulated widely among U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and others associated with the legacy issues of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance. Journalist Calvin Godfrey, of Vietnam Express International, who published the first media account of the case in October, referenced my findings extensively. http://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/american-advocate-of-vietnam-s-agent-orange-victims-accused-of-fraud-embezzlement-3477426.html
The first time I interviewed him for a McClatchy Newspapers story on Agent Orange, Palazzo told me that his recon team had been sent routinely into North Vietnam to locate and “take out” surface to air missile sites.
He also told me that he had been exposed to Agent Orange when a U.S. helicopter sprayed defoliant nearby while his team was on a mission in the hills near Da Nang.
Palazzo later claimed in a February 2013 interview, for which I shot the pictures, that he had parachuted into combat on several occasions.
“I’ll go so far as to say that I was a Reconnaissance Marine, and that we had various duties,” he said then. “We did long-range reconnaissance. We jumped out of planes. We jumped out of helicopters. We engaged the enemy, blew things up, that kind of thing. In ’71, we were actually on one of the last formal missions of the Marines that were here.”
Palazzo repeated the assertion about parachuting into combat to journalist Seymour Hersh for a story published in The New Yorker magazine on March 30, 2015. He also told Hersh that his team searched out and destroyed enemy missile sites, although he did not specify the location.
“I was involved in a lot of intense combat with many North Vietnamese regulars as well as Viet Cong, and I lost a lot of friends,” he was quoted as saying.
Palazzo even claimed in both interviews that when he left Vietnam at the end of his 13-month tour, he flew back to America as an escort in a C-141 cargo jet filled with the coffins of U.S. troops killed in action.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Every single one of Chuck Palazzo’s tales about serving as a Marine in Vietnam is a complete fabrication, part of an elaborate series of lies that he built up over the years, presumably to bolster his standing among other veterans and to enhance his credibility as an activist working on behalf of the country’s Agent Orange victims.
According to information released from his DD-214, which I obtained from the National Personnel Records Center last February through a Freedom of Information Act Request, Palazzo did, in fact, serve as a Marine, but he never stepped foot in Vietnam nor did he ever serve in a reconnaissance unit in any capacity.
I looked into Palazzo’s claims about his military service for several months. In the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I was prompted to do so after losing $20,000 in a business venture with him that left me questioning his truthfulness and integrity. I also became a member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 after McClatchy Newspapers published my Agent Orange stories in July 2013.
As I began to look into some of his key claims, I soon confirmed what I’d already come to suspect — that most of Chuck Palazzo’s story was complete bullshit.
After his embezzlement from Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 came to light, I wrote an open letter to the group detailing what I’d learned about Palazzo’s military record, so that there would be absolutely no question that his so-called combat experiences had anything to do with his actions.
According to the record, Charles K. Palazzo enlisted in the Marine Corps in New York City on Jan. 13, 1971 — a year later than he claims to have signed up — and he was discharged Jan. 10, 1975 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif.
Palazzo served as a general warehouseman at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and was discharged as a legal clerk with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, according to his DD-214.
The closest he ever came to Vietnam was Okinawa, where he served as a legal clerk assigned to 3rd Force Support Regiment, Fleet Marine Force Pacific, from Sept. 1972 to Sept. 1973.
I spoke briefly with Matthew Yardley, the National Personnel Records Center archivist who handled my FOIA request. Yardley told me that his research turned up only one person with the name Charles Palazzo who served in the U.S. military during the late Vietnam War era.
“He’s the only one I found who served during the 1970s,” Yardley told me.
I also submitted Palazzo’s name to two different companies that conduct background checks on people based on public records. Charles Kim Palazzo, born Nov. 20, 1953, was the only possible match based on what he has posted on social media about himself and from what he has repeated in a number of media interviews.
Palazzo lists Nov. 20 as his birthday on his Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Details on LinkedIn of his education and work history generally match what turned up in the background checks.
On his LinkedIn page, Palazzo states that he served in the Marines from 1970-1975, and that he achieved the rank of Sgt. E-5. He also lists 1st, 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions, 1st and 3rd Reconnaissance Battalions, Force Recon, Southeast Asia and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, El Toro, presumably as the units and places in which he served.
According to his DD-214, however, Palazzo was actually discharged as a Cpl. E-4. His stateside assignments included Camp Lejeune and El Toro. He was assigned to 3rd Force Support Regiment on Okinawa from Sept. 1972 to Sept. 1973, the most likely period he could have deployed to Vietnam. However, the odds of being sent to Vietnam by that time were very low for most U.S. service members.
According to “U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The War That Would Not End, 1971-1973,” part of the nine-volume official Marine Corps operational history of the war, there were only about 25,000 U.S. troops left in Vietnam, including 1,200 Marines, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in Jan. 1973.
All U.S. military personnel, with the exception of those assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, left Vietnam by the end of March 1973, according to the history.
Nowhere does the information from Palazzo’s DD-214 indicate that he ever served in Vietnam.
I became friends with Palazzo after I interviewed him for my Agent Orange project in 2012. He was an outgoing and charismatic guy who had what seemed like a genuine passion for drawing attention to the plight of Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims. He introduced me to several key local contacts who became central to my story. He was the first person who suggested that I should settle in Da Nang, where I lived from 2012-2015. It was impossible for me not to like him.
Looking back, however, I should have questioned his alleged war record from the beginning. I am a veteran myself. I served as an airborne infantryman with Company A, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, from 1989-1993. We actually did parachute into combat once, just after 0100 hours on Dec. 20, 1989, at the start of Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama. I’m also a student of military history, and as a journalist, I specialized in military affairs. I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for several years. Some of Palazzo’s claims were so incredible they should have automatically warranted further scrutiny.
Yet, even while I may have been skeptical at the time of some of the things Palazzo told me, I had no real reason to believe that he might be lying about his military record. Perhaps, I thought briefly, if I thought about it all, there were some operations that took place during the war that were still classified, and maybe he had been a part of those. I frankly did not consider the possibility that he would lie to another veteran about such a fundamental issue. He was such a prominent and passionate voice on the issue of Agent Orange — appearing in many U.S. and Vietnamese media reports on the subject — the possibility that he might actually be a fraud did not cross my mind until it was entirely too late.
In retrospect, of course, the evidence was in plain sight from the beginning.
Palazzo often claimed to have been so traumatized by his combat experiences that he refused to talk about them in great detail. That was the primary reason, he once told me, why he always walked away when other veterans started talking about the war. “My PTSD is too bad,” he told me. He said that he still had vivid combat dreams on a regular basis.
However, Palazzo also maintained that the Department of Veterans Affairs had rejected his disability claim for the disorder. “They told me that since I was in Recon, I should’ve known what I was getting into,” he told me.
I recently asked two VA counselors — one currently active, the other retired — what they thought of Palazzo’s assertion. Both have extensive experience working with veterans who have PTSD.
“Bullshit,” snorted the counselor who is currently active.
“Sounds fake to me,” said the retired one, himself a Vietnam veteran. “[I’ve] run into a lot of posers.”
A second major warning occurred when another war veteran made the observation to me that there was no way Palazzo could have served with 3rd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion since that unit left Vietnam at the end of 1969.
Later, when I asked Palazzo about the discrepancy, he insisted that he had served in Vietnam from 1970-1971 “with stints in 1st and 3rd Recon Battalions.”
It’s hard to explain why I ignored what were clearly two huge red flags about the veracity of Palazzo’s story. The latter, especially, was a fact that I could have easily verified. Looking back, I have no explanation to offer except that, somewhere along the way, I evidently got trapped into thinking that his activist work meant that his story must be legitimate. After all, Palazzo was a prominent figure who was doing good work. If he was a fraud, then how could he have gotten along for so many years without being exposed as one?
I debated with myself for months over whether I should denounce Palazzo to members of VFP 160 and other Da Nang veterans. I am annoyed with myself that I trusted and believed in him, but I also sincerely did not want to cause strife within Chapter 160 and among the local veterans community, all of whom were my friends. Had I come forward a year ago, when I realized that my business venture with Palazzo had been little more than a vehicle to fund his living expenses for a year, then perhaps his theft of Chapter 160’s money might have come to light sooner. I sincerely regret not doing so.
I received the information from Palazzo’s DD-214 in February, but could not find the resolve to move forward. It seemed petty of me to expose him publicly over what was essentially a private issue. Eventually, I decided the best thing to do would be to let the matter go, and mark it down as a a lesson learned. After all, I willingly gave Palazzo my money, and the world is full of self-described entrepreneurs who are really nothing more than con artists. Live and let live, I thought. Karma would sort everything out in the end.
I decided to reveal what I knew to VFP 160, after it was disclosed in May that Palazzo had stolen practically all of the group’s charitable funds. After his misdeeds became known, I became alarmed when I saw people expressing sympathy for him under the mistaken impression that he was a severely traumatized war veteran, and that his “combat experiences” may have played a role in his actions.
I sent an earlier draft of this story to members of VFP Chapter 160 in July, after Suel Jones, president of the group, contacted me to ask if I had a copy of Palazzo’s DD-214. I am publishing this story now in full because several journalists have recently contacted me to ask about Palazzo’s military record.
Vietnam Express International reported last month on my findings and that members of VFP 160 had asked Vietnamese police to investigate Palazzo’s misappropriation of “approximately $100,000 charitable donations.”
The New Yorker recently acknowledged on their website, in a clarification to Hersh’s 2015 story, that “doubt has been cast on Palazzo’s account of his military service.”
I spoke last summer with Charlie Kershaw, president of the 1st Recon Battalion Association, to see if there was any shred of truth to Palazzo’s claims about combat parachute jumps and secret missions into North Vietnam. Kershaw served as a lieutenant, company commander, and operations officer in 1st Reconnaissance Battalion from Feb. 1969-May 1970.
Kershaw said he was aware of two parachute operations involving 1st Recon that took place “in the 1967-1968 time frame,” but “there were absolutely none” in 1970-1971.
As for secret missions into North Vietnam by 1st Recon personnel, “it never happened,” he said.
“There were no off the books operations outside the Da Nang AO,” Kershaw said. “This guy must be dreaming. It didn’t happen.”
The area of operations, or “AO,” for 1st Recon stretched from the Hai Van Pass just north of Da Nang to the U.S. air base at Chu Lai, about 60 miles south of the city.
Da Nang lies about 85 miles south of the former demilitarized zone that once separated North and South Vietnam.
A few weeks before I sent my story to VFP 160, I tried to contact Palazzo by phone and by email and offer him an opportunity to come clean about his military service, but he did not respond.
For now, at least, why a former Marine with a perfectly respectable peacetime service record would make up a fake combat history remains a mystery.
“It’s always a big surprise to me why people feel the need to fabricate their record like this,” Kershaw said. “I guess when other people are sitting around having a beer and telling war stories from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever, they must feel inadequate.”