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Celebrated Military Nurse, Poet Revealed as a Fraud

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now a footnote to the history of the Vietnam War. You may have read poems by a woman named Dana Shuster about her experiences as a combat nurse in Vietnam. She's also known as Dusty, the speaker in her most famous poem about a nurse and a dying soldier. But it's recently come to light that Dana Shuster was never in the military and was never a nurse. NPR's Diantha Parker reports.

DIANTHA PARKER reporting:

In the early 1980s, former Vietnam War correspondent Laura Palmer was tracking down people who'd left tributes at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The book she eventually wrote about these interviews is called Shrapnel in the Heart, and one of the people profiled is Dana Shuster, whom she first knew only as Dusty.

Palmer tracked Dusty down by comparing the poem she left at the wall, written in green Magic Marker, to a photo of a woman at a peace march carrying a green-markered sign. Dana Shuster was written on the back of the picture. In 1986, when Palmer's book was published, she read Shuster's poem Hello, David on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

(Soundbite of NPR broadcast)

Ms. LAURA PALMER (War Correspondent): Hello, David. My name is Dusty. I'm your night nurse. I will stay with you. I will check your vitals every 15 minutes. I will document inevitability. I will hang more blood and give you something for your pain. I will stay with you, and I will touch your face.

PARKER: This poem resonated with a lot of veterans and their families. It was read by then-Vice President Al Gore at the 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial. Over the past 20 years, Palmer says Shuster told her several stories about the two tours she said she served between 1966 and 1968 as an emergency nurse.

Ms. PALMER: She said to me she had been on her feet for 72 hours in an operating room during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Her feet swelled so badly that she couldn't remove her boots for two days.

PARKER: Palmer even traveled to Vietnam with Shuster and considers her a friend. But recently some in the veterans community told Palmer no one seemed to remember working with or even meeting Dusty during the war.

Ms. PALMER: Several months ago I was asked a question that I couldn't answer. Did I know for a fact that Dusty had ever been in Vietnam? And I thought, huh?

PARKER: Palmer contacted Shuster and asked if she could corroborate her service in any way - military records, photographs, anything? She said she could not. Palmer immediately notified the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation. Her statement on the organization's Web site says Shuster was briefly hospitalized and is now in therapy. Palmer also acknowledges that many veterans and their relatives feel betrayed. One is Karen Spears Zacharias. Her father, named David, died in Vietnam after a field doctor could not stop his bleeding.

Ms. KAREN SPEARS ZACHARIAS (Soldier's Relative): That someone would, you know, claim to have been there and to have held the hand of a dying man named David is just unfathomable.

PARKER: Zacharias says she's hurt but is waiting to see what more comes out about Shuster's motives, and she admits that the poetry has an emotional truth that still moves her even now. Laura Palmer says many veterans agree.

Ms. PALMER: She brought recognition to nurses that they certainly deserved, and her poetry helped people appreciate the sacrifice that women made in Vietnam.

PARKER: Shuster is not the only person to invent her tours of duty. The last U.S. census shows nine million people claim to have served in Vietnam, but only three million are on record as doing so. Diantha Park, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diantha Parker