News & Politics

No, Tribal Elder Nathan Phillips Is Not a Vietnam Vet

Multiple media outlets are having to make fresh corrections to stories featuring Native American leftist activist Nathan Phillips, after new information revealed that he is not a Vietnam vet as originally reported.

Phillips is the Native American elder who led a group of activists from the American Indian Movement to confront a group of teenagers from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C., on Friday. The students were in D.C. for the March for Life, and the ensuing controversy has gripped the nation.

Based on Phillips’ claims, the media reported that the boys formed a mob around the tribal elder and mocked him as he was peacefully marching. He told  the Washington Post that Nicholas Sandmann, the teen seen smiling in the viral video, blocked his path and wouldn’t allow him “to retreat.” And the media reported Phillips’ assertion that the students subjected him to racist taunts and chanted “Build the Wall,” even though no video has emerged to show that.

Phillips also claimed that the teenagers “were in the process of attacking these four black individuals” and he was trying to de-escalate the situation. Of course, the opposite was true.

The complete video has debunked those claims, and many media outlets have updated or rewritten their stories to reflect that.

What the video could not confirm or debunk was the question of Phillips’ alleged service in Vietnam. Many of the headlines and stories about the controversy reflected that Phillips was a Vietnam veteran, making the Catholic teenagers’ alleged offenses seem even graver.

The Washington Post issued a major correction to its story on Tuesday, saying that Phillips served in the Marines but “was never deployed in Vietnam.” The story had previously claimed — without evidence — that he had “fought in the Vietnam War.”

Both before and after Phillips’ confrontation with the Covington teens, many other media outlets and media personalities also described the activist as a “Vietnam War veteran.”

They were wrong, but it’s not clear whether Phillips willfully misrepresented his military experience or the media just misunderstood.

In an update, the New York Times stated that it had used information provided by the Indigenous Peoples Movement to come to the incorrect conclusion.

An earlier version of this article, using information from the Indigenous Peoples Movement, gave an incorrect description of Mr. Phillips’s military service. While Mr. Phillips said he served in the military during the Vietnam era, he told The Times after publication that he was not deployed in Vietnam. The Times has requested his service record from the Pentagon.

The Indigenous Life Movement’s Facebook page also reflected that Phillips was a Vietnam vet.

The military blog This Ain’t Hell, which investigates potential Stolen Honor cases, has been trying to find out what Phillips has actually said about his military service.

In a CNN newscast, for instance, Phillips stated that he was a “Vietnam times veteran,” while CNN quoted him as saying “I am a Vietnam veteran.”

This Ain’t Hell notes that in this direct quote with NewsMaven, he used the same terminology:

Nathan Phillips: Thank you for your support. I could do some more prayers. Honestly. I’m still scared. I’m still feeling vulnerable. But I’m not gonna back down. Those young people from that school, that song was a prayer for their future and my children’s future. We’re facing critical times and we’ve got to make choices, and they’re going to be some hard choices.

I’m not a chief or anything. But I feel like at that moment it was for me to do what I’ve always said in for a long time is that I’m expendable. You know, when I was in Vietnam times and when I was in the Marine Corps times, that’s what I was. I was expendable. Expendable to corporate greed. You know, in all wars, especially the ones that are going down for the oil, you know, we’re fighting against — the pipelines. Now that we’re at a point where we’ve drawn the line, we’ve got to stand that line. All of us.

The Arizona Daily Star on January 20, 2019, stated that Phillips was a “Vietnam War veteran,” although Phillips was not quoted directly.

Former Florida mayor and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum also made the mistake and his tweet is still standing:

BuzzFeedSlate, the BBCHuffPost, and many others also described Phillips as a “Vietnam War veteran” without bothering to check.

USA Today went with “Vietnam veteran” and Vogue went even further, falsely claiming that Phillips “served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War.”

Going back further, This Ain’t Hell found a 2009 article published in The Warren Record and titled “Drum Group Showcases Native American Culture.”  They also referred to Phillips as a “Vietnam veteran” — and again, he was not quoted directly as claiming that.

It could be that by telling reporters that he served in “Vietnam times,” Phillips was being purposefully vague to suggest Vietnam War experience, without coming out and saying it. But so far, no instances of Phillips outright claiming that he served in the war have emerged. As the media has proven in recent days, it is perfectly capable of botching a story without any help.