12/30/07 — Veterans get copy of letter from Garris

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Veterans get copy of letter from Garris

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 30, 2007 2:00 AM

For more than 30 years, Cleeve Cox has called Preston Garris one of his closest friends.

The World War II veteran said they had a Purple Heart in common and combat stories to share.

But these days, Cox is simply one more Wayne County man scratching his head, trying to make sense of Garris' confession that he was never the military man he claimed to be.

A document bearing Garris' signature arrived at Cox's home Wednesday.

But it was not the "phony" DD214 his "old friend" handed him a few years ago at the Veterans of Foreign Wars' state convention -- the one that lists the LaGrange native as a Silver Star recipient and commissioned officer.

It was a letter penned by Garris -- an admission, Cox says, of "the lies" he has been "telling for years."

"To have been betrayed, it's just more than I can fathom," Cox said. "Your word is your bond. It's sad. No, it's tragic."

Tragic because it was Cox -- then chairman of Gov. Mike Easley's Veterans Affairs Commission -- who suggested Garris as its 2005 representative for District 3.

It was Cox who watched the General Assembly recognize him for having been awarded the Marine Corps' third highest medal for valor.

He said he had "no idea," that all the while, Garris was simply a staff sergeant who came back from Vietnam with a Purple Heart and "aspirations" for something more.

Easley's office confirmed Thursday that Garris was "appointed for a short time" to the NCVAC, from May to November 2005, but declined to comment further on the conditions of the veteran's resignation.

The governor's office refused to confirm or deny if the governor knew of the questions surrounding Garris' record or if those concerns forced his resignation.

The governor's office also did not comment on the investigation into Garris' record.

In actuality, the retired Marine had resigned because of whispers that he was "a fraud," Cox said.

But his closest friends did not believe the "rumors" -- at least not until they heard about Garris' plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office and saw the confession.

Easley declined to comment on the facts of the case.

But Congressman Walter Jones had plenty to say.

A co-sponsor of the Stolen Valor Act, he said Garris' confession "hurts."

"To me, when a man or woman falsifies or pretends to be something they are not, they obviously hurt themselves," Jones said. "But in this case, there have been men and women from Wayne County and across this nation who didn't come back. ... So I think that those who did come back have the right to resent someone who claimed to be someone he is not. ... I resent it myself."

And while he said he was "satisfied" with the disciplinary actions taken against Garris -- probation and orders to send a letter of apology to Easley's North Carolina Veterans Affairs Commission -- he hopes to see more harsh punishments handed out in the future.

It is the only way to deter people from committing similar crimes, he said.

"I would think that if this should happen again, that the decision as for punishment of a person who falsifies their service to this nation -- awards or whatever -- that it would be much, much more severe," Jones said. "I hope that people see this as a signal that this is not going to be acceptable."


Cox is not the only local veteran less than satisfied with Garris' letter, the "apology" he was ordered to send as part of pre-trial diversion that kept him out of the courts -- and, potentially, prison.

Mike Burris, the commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said it was far from what he expected.

"It wasn't what I hoped he would say," Burris said. "Anybody, I don't care who they are ... when you get out, you know exactly what your rank was and you know exactly what medals you won. For him to put it in that way in the first line of that letter, he's acting like, 'Oh, I didn't know that I didn't have it.' That's just complete bull."

American Legion executive board chairman Ken Snell wouldn't call Garris' words an "apology" either.

"In a nice way, he said, 'Well, they told me I can't represent the Silver Star,'" Snell said. "It was like, 'Well, I want to, but I'm not going to.'"

Retired Marine Bill Carr agrees.

"You know, in the Marines, we have a special formation we do for the Silver Star," he said. "You don't forget something like that. It gets ingrained in you. So Garris knew. He knew he was a phony. He knew he didn't earn that Silver Star. This letter is just poppycock."



As if issuing an apology to all veterans and having to plea his way out of jail time was not enough trouble, Garris now has more problems to face.

For years, he has been a member of several local veterans' organizations -- the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 657, the American Legion's Wayne County Post 11 and the Donald H. Kirkman Chapter 45 of the Disabled American Veterans, to name a few.

But with his confession has come a push from inside the organizations' memberships to have him removed.

In fact, Burris said the Purple Heart group has already voted to expel Garris from its ranks.

"We will send him a certified letter and set a date for a hearing," Burris said. "Then, he'll have 30 days to respond."

If he does not, his membership will be terminated immediately.

And if he does, only a successful appeal to the organization's national commander would keep him in the group.

The American Legion has voted, too, Snell said.

"We've already met. It was voted to suspend (Garris) from the American Legion indefinitely," he said. "He will be expelled not only from our post, but from the Legion itself."

Only the DAV has yet to make it official -- and only because the state leadership, not the locals, are handling the matter, officials said.

But Post 11 Commander Bill Graham said a decision should be reached soon by state leaders in Raleigh -- and he believes Garris will be voted out.



Some of the same veterans who condemn Garris' actions now feel as committed as ever to tell the stories of real American heroes -- veterans and active-duty alike.

Carr said he thinks about some of his buddies "every day," particularly those who never made it home from the jungle.

And their stories are still as legitimate as ever, Cox said, even if one man chose to embellish his.

"He's the one who did what he did," Cox said. "So he -- and only he -- should have to live with it."

Jones agrees.

The congressman said he was "convinced" that the American people and residents of North Carolina would continue to honor their veterans as they always have, despite the "bad choices" of a "sad" Wayne County man.

Garris has declined to comment on the conditions of his plea with the U.S. Attorney's Office, the fake DD214 bearing his signature, the letter he recently drafted to veterans and all other matters relating to this case.

His attorney, Daniel Boyce, asked that the News-Argus no longer contact his client.