Unknown Soldier

updated 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

PAUL MAHAR REACHES INTO A DARK CLOSET in his Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, apartment and pulls out a piece of his past—an Army dress jacket he wore in Vietnam. "It is weird to think," he says, "that whenever I used to put this on, I became Frank. I don't think I'd want to wear it again. It feels good to be myself."

More than 25 years after his return from Vietnam, Mahar, 46, has a bizarre story to tell. In his 406 days in Southeast Asia, he crawled through Viet Cong tunnels, risked his life to save a comrade, rose to the rank of sergeant and was cited for bravery. Yet the name on his medals and citations is not Paul Mahar but Frank Clouse.

The reason? Paul Mahar went to war—and became a hero—in his best friend's place. Even as Mahar was on ambush patrol, the real Frank Clouse, now 47, was hiding in New Jersey to avoid serving. "When I first arrived in Vietnam," says Mahar, "I kept thinking, 'What am I doing here? Why doesn't Frank get me out?''

Mahar's story begins in 1964 when, at 17, he dropped out of high school in Summit, N.J., to enlist in the Army. The third of four children of a bookkeeper and an IRS personnel manager, Mahar says he was a teenager with a "hard altitude," a washout in school who liked to drink with his buddies. "There was an unwritten rule," he says, "that if you were a troubled kid, the Army would take you and straighten you out. I thought they'd make me a better man."

Instead the Army rejected him because of a metal plate in his left arm. He had broken the arm one night four years earlier, wrestling with his friend Frank Clouse on a street corner in Newark, N.J., where their families then lived. "What happened that night," says Mahar, "would affect the rest of our lives."

In January 1966, Clouse was drafted. In August, after basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and advanced training at Fort Polk, La., he was ordered back to Dix to ship out for Vietnam. Clouse, who had married his childhood sweetheart a year before, was terrified. "He was so paralyzed by fear," says Mahar, who was living in a Lakewood, N.J., boarding house at the time, "that I agreed to hide him so he could go AWOL."

A month after Clouse was supposed to report, and after his unit had already shipped out for Vietnam, the two devised a seemingly ingenious plan: Paul would assume Frank's identity and report to Dix; he would point out that he had a plate in his arm—and be rejected again. "In my mind," says Paul, "Vietnam was not a possibility."

It was very much a possibility, however, in the mind of the officer in charge of new recruits at Dix, who noted that "Private Clouse" had had no problem with training. He gave Mahar a choice: Vietnam or prison. Thus, without a day of military training, Mahar shipped out to join the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry in Cu Chi, 20 miles north of Saigon.

"My five days at Fort Dix are a blur," says Mahar. "I didn't call Frank because I thought the arm excuse would work when I got to Vietnam. But when I got over there, I was told, 'You're staying.' I felt a little panicked, but I wrote Frank a letter. I thought Frank would report in and I would be sent home. But he never stepped forward."

Instead, says Mahar, Clouse told his parents he was going to Vietnam, then hid out in Asbury Park. N.J. Clouse grew a beard, donned a beret and, when he ran short of cash, emerged from hiding to work the midnight shift at a doughnut shop, using Mahar's social security number.

"The whole thing was so absurd," admits Mahar, who corresponded regularly with Clouse while in Vietnam—often receiving tins of candy and cookies from Frank and his wife, Margie. "People ask today why didn't I speak up and stop it." The main reason, says Mahar, was that "I found out I belonged in Vietnam. The bonding of men at war was the strongest thing I'd felt in my life."

For Mahar—who was terrified that his lack of training would cause him to mess up and bring disaster to his comrades-in-arms—that bond was tested two months into his tour, when his platoon, on patrol, tried to cross a canal near Cu Chi in a sampan. On one crossing, the sampan overturned, dumping a GI weighted down with ammunition into the water. Mahar and the platoon leader dove in and pulled him ashore, where Mahar successfully performed artificial respiration. For his bravery, he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal—in Frank Clouse's name.

A couple of weeks later, Mahar volunteered as a "tunnel rat"—one of the most dangerous jobs in Vietnam. "I wanted to prove that I could be a real soldier," says Mahar, who at 5'8" and 135 lbs. had the right physique for crawling into holes with a flashlight and a .45-caliber pistol to flush out enemy soldiers. "But I kept pushing it and pushing it, until finally I got real scared. I felt my luck was about to run out."

On Dec. 19,1967, after extending his tour 45 extra days, Mahar was released from duty and returned to New Jersey. He phoned Clouse and told him, "We need to gel drunk and talk." Over a bottle of wine, Paul related his war stories—so that Frank could pass for a retuning veteran. He handed over his uniform, medals, photos. The next day Clouse returned home to his family. He later told Mahar he had wept when he told his father about the death of Richard Parham—one of Mahar's close Army buddies.

Mahar stayed with Clouse and his wife for a week. But the atmosphere was tense. "We had created a situation," says Mahar, "that neither of us knew how to handle. I had taken away his rite of passage, his manhood." Although Mahar would later talk to Clouse on the phone, he would never see him again.

Depressed and restless, Mahar hitchhiked across the country, taking odd jobs. During a brief stay in Atlanta, he even walked into an Army recruiting office and tried to enlist. But he was rejected once again when he mentioned the plate in his arm. "Vietnam had left an ache inside me," says Mahar, who missed the camaraderie.

In San Francisco in 1975, working in a nursery school, Mahar fell in love with a fellow teacher named Chris Roberts, marrying her in 1976 (they have a child, Molly, 14) and divorcing in 1981. He married once more in 1989 and divorced again two years later.

For the past six years, Mahar—a laid-off woodworker living in a two-bedroom apartment with a view of the majestic Coeur d'Alene Mountains—has been trying to regain the identity he both won and lost in Vietnam. In 1991 he wrote to the Army, telling them the truth about him and Clouse and asking to have his own service recognized. Last December the Army finally accepted his story—and agreed to send him the medals and citations he earned as Frank Clouse. (Army spokesman Maj. Bill Buckner says it is unlikely that Clouse will be prosecuted for his role in the switch.)

Mahar says he feels sorry for Clouse, who still lives in Mew Jersey and has refused to talk to PEOPLE. "There has to be a lot of stress, a lot of fear," says Mahar, who told Clouse he was going public with their story in 1988. "I wish he would just come out in the open, let it go."

"It's a strange feeling, giving up your identity," he says. "It took going to Vietnam to leach me that when it comes down to it, that's really all anybody has."

CATHY FREE in Coeur d'Alene

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