June 5, 2015
Author admits he plagiarized entire Vietnam memoir, was never there
by Julia Fleischaker
In Dennis Surrendi‘s memoir, Set Me Free, self-published in 2014, he told the harrowing story of his time fighting in Vietnam. The details sounded an awful lot like the harrowing story told in Robert Mason‘s own 1983 memoir, Chickenhawk.
Set Me Free describes Surrendi being drafted into the United States Army while attending the University of Wisconsin. According to Surrendi, despite being Canadian and in the United States on a work visa, two CIA agents approached him with draft papers because of his athletic and scholastic background. Surrendi’s fabrications included stating he was one of the most decorated non-Americans serving in the Vietnam War by receiving two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star for bravery and the Silver Star. None of these things happened to Surrenid, and in fact all of these accomplishments are lifted from the pages of Chickenhawk.
Chickenhawk isn’t exactly obscure; its author was featured in People Magazine, and the book has sold almost half a million copies in its lifetime, so it’s a mystery how Surrendi thought he would get away it. But in an interview he gave around publication, he was confident in his reasons for “writing” the book.
“Psychologically it really bothered me having gone through that experience and not having a chance to even say anything,” Surrendi said.
“I wrote it as well because a lot of the guys that are still alive that were in that war encouraged me to write it,” Surrendi said. “When all of us came back, we were ostracized socially, the nations we represented didn’t want anything to do with us, it’s like we caused the war, but of course we didn’t.”
“The title is not only to set me free from having to keep all of this in my head, it was to let the world see what Vietnam, which has been under control of foreign government for hundreds of years,” Surrendi said. “So I wanted to embody this setting of Vietnam free as well.”
Mason discovered the plagiarism thanks to an Irish reader who alerted him, and agreed not to sue Surrendi for plagiarism as long as Surrendi apologized publicly. So in the May 27 edition of the Nanton News, Surrendi admitted the lie. “Firstly, I am not a war veteran,” Surrendi wrote, “and secondly, much of the material contained in my book was copied from another book written by a Mr. Robert Mason titled: Chickenhawk.”
Mason is less upset at his own personal story being taken than he is at the thought of somebody who never went to war pretending to be a veteran.
Mason says it’s not so much the plagiarism that make him mad, but the fact that Surrendi was parading around as a veteran.
“Pretending have been to Vietnam and take credit for it? That’s the most annoying part of it all.”
Like most plagiarism stories, this one ends sadly, with Surrendi’s family cutting off contact.
Surrendi’s deception comes as a shock not only to the small community of Nanton, Alberta where one citizen purchased the first copy of his work for $5,000, but to his family, including his step-daughter, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith. In an email statement, Smith stated her family had no reason to doubt his claims and that, “once my family became aware of the full nature of the situation we became estranged from him.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.