Nathan Phillips, Native American in standoff with teens, faces scrutiny of his military past

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: January 23, 2019

WASHINGTON — Nathan Phillips, the U.S. veteran whose standoff with high school students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial captured viral attention online, often has discussed his military past.

The Native American activist, seen beating a drum Friday as teens from Covington High School in Kentucky surrounded and mocked him, has referred to himself as a “Vietnam-times” veteran. He described in interviews getting spit on and called a baby killer by a “hippie girl,” and told the Detroit Free Press on Saturday that “I’m a Marine Corps veteran and I know what that mob mentality can be like.”

The sight of him surrounded by a group of teens wearing baseball hats emblazoned with President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan and the shifting narratives about the incident afterward have prompted political outcry from conservatives and liberals alike.

The incident also has led to scrutiny of Phillips’ service record after an organization representing him, the Lakota People’s Law Project, described him as a Vietnam veteran in a news release and numerous media reports identified him as one afterward. Several, including The Washington Post, have issued corrections since.

In reality, Phillips served from June 1972 to May 1976 in the Marine Corps Reserve, a service spokeswoman, Yvonne Carlock, said Wednesday. He did not deploy and left the service as a private after disciplinary issues. From October 1972 to February 1973, he was classified as an anti-tank missileman, a kind of infantryman, Carlock said. He then became a refrigerator technician for the majority of his service.

Daniel Paul Nelson, a leader in the Lakota People’s Law Project, said in an interview that his group made the error and Phillips himself never told it that he served in Vietnam. The group, Nelson said, “trusted what we had seen” in previous stories about Phillips, some of which also referred to him erroneously as a Vietnam veteran.

“We were trying to do the advocacy work that we do,” Nelson said.

Phillips, who turns 64 next month, is not old enough to have deployed to Vietnam as a Marine infantryman, prompting accusations that he was lying about his service.

The military typically will provide basic details about an individual’s military service within a day, but the situation with Phillips was complicated because he enlisted under another name associated with a family that raised him, Nelson said. He provided Phillips’ full Social Security number to The Washington Post with Phillips’s permission to help clear up the confusion.

On Tuesday night, Donald Shipley, a Navy SEAL veteran who investigates military service records, published a video in which he showed excerpts of Phillips’ service record.

“This is all going into that Native American guy that everybody keeps labeling as a Vietnam vet, and he is not,” Shipley said in the video. “A lot of these news outlets are using that claim of ‘Vietnam vet’ to kind of beef that story up and make it look even worse.”

Shipley, who did not respond to an interview request Wednesday, noted that Philips listed under another name and spent the majority of his time in the military as a refrigerator technician. He questioned how that squares with a April 2018 report by Vogue magazine in which Phillips is quoted saying that he was a “recon ranger,” a position that does not exist in the military.

“I have a relative here who said he’d lead the way and scout ahead for us,” Phillips said in the story, which describes a protest at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. “You know, I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger. That was my role. So I thank you for taking that point position for me.”

Nelson said that Phillips’ comments at Standing Rock were taken out of context, and that Phillips actually was referring to the work they were doing at the time on the reservation.

In other interviews, Phillips consistently has described being a veteran of “Vietnam times.”

In 2000, he told The Washington Post that he was a patriot who had served as “a Marine Corps infantryman” in the 1970s. He did not claim to have served in Vietnam and did not mention leaving the infantry after a few months to become a refrigerator technician.

In 2015, he described himself in a video interview with MLive as “a Vietnam veteran times,” and stated that he served from 1972 to 1976.

Nelson said he did not know Phillips before the uproar but has “incrementally learned about this man’s integrity, and I have not been disappointed.”

With all the scrutiny of Phillips’ military record, he has now been victimized twice, Nelson said.

“It’s definitely a distraction,” he said. “It’s a diversion, in fact. I’d like to make the point that these papers being released demonstrate the most important fact, which is that he was in the military. He did not lie about that, and there are a lot of people who have in a very irresponsible and vicious manner targeting him without being able to prove that.”

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