By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Travis Chatham
The day Charles Holland resigned last spring as president of the Writers Guild of America, forced out by his lying about serving in the Army’s elite Special Forces, marked an escalation of the brush war between military impostors and the “fakebusters” who bring them down. Fought over the Internet and through Freedom of Information Act requests, this war is a uniquely post-Vietnam phenomenon born of the information revolution, a newfound reverence for the armed forces and old-fashioned American gullibility. As impostors use bogus credentials to bilk and flimflam their way into jobs, business contracts and free medical care, informal networks of obsessive fakebusters track them with a zeal reminiscent of Nuremberg Trial investigators. But are the impostors worth the effort? And have the fakebusters, by recently applying their zeal in a highly partisan effort to discredit presidential candidate John Kerry, lost sight of their mission?
The liars have been at it for years. Actor Brian Dennehy’s oft-repeated claims of having been a wounded Marine in Vietnam were uncovered when, in 1998, B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley revealed in their book, Stolen Valor, that Dennehy had never set foot in Vietnam. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has been forced by angry former SEALs to stop claiming he’d been a member of their group in Vietnam. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Mount Holyoke professor Joseph Ellis was suspended when his imaginary war heroics were debunked. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patrick Couwenberg lost his job for making up his war résumé. Then there was Joseph A. Cafasso who, using a counterfeit Special Forces past, finagled work as a terrorism expert at FOX News and with Patrick Buchanan’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Categories of service claimed by military fakes include Vietnam War POWs and combat veterans, Purple Heart winners and members of Special Forces teams. According to various “shame” lists posted on fakebuster Web sites, the number of verified military impostors tips well into the thousands. The POW Network (www.pownetwork.org), begun by Chuck and Mary Schantag in 1989, is a mom-and-pop outfit that possibly operates the largest nongovernmental database of proven prisoners of war. (Chuck runs POWnet’s Web site, Mary does the research.) The Missouri couple became fakebusters by accident when they began hearing from people claiming to have POW neighbors who did not show up in the Schantag’s database. On the phone Mary Schantag sounds like an exasperated den mother when she describes the long-term effects of sifting through so many lies.
“Sadly,” Schantag says, “it makes us doubt everyone we come into contact with. It’s forced us to take a whole different look at humanity. If I’m shopping and see a car with POW plates in the parking lot, I’ll leave a calling card requesting the owner send me confirmation. If I don’t hear from them I’ll run the license number and call them.”
Schantag says she began tracking phonies in 1998 and that about 75 percent of POWnet’s time is now spent exposing them. Although service records cannot be released without members’ permission, the Freedom of Information Act permits third parties to receive a redacted summary of a personnel file (DD Form 214) to tell whether they are lying. Schantag says she receives about 20 inquiries a week and has exposed more than 1,500 people.
“We file Freedom of Information Act requests seven days a week,” she tells me. “People will fax me [inquiries] on Christmas Day — they’ve been sitting at the dinner table and have had enough of years of listening to their father’s war stories. Or someone will make a deathbed request for a military funeral, only to have the family find out the person was never in the military. I had a woman [living with an impostor] call who said, ‘I’m pregnant and need to know if my baby might be at risk from Agent Orange.”
Fakebusters will tell you they don’t go after the guy bragging in a bar, only those people who go public or use a fictitious military record for personal gain. About a half-dozen well-established Web sites expose phonies by posting information, including photographs, of identified fakes and descriptions of their claims. Some pictures were taken at formal galas or barbecues, and their subjects tend to be heavy-set, late-middle-aged men stuffed into beribboned dress uniforms or, sometimes, biker-type vests impressively splattered with unit patches. POWnet’s long columns of fakes describe the masqueraders in terse sentences:
“Claims 5th SF, Major, 4 DSC, 5 Purple Hearts, 101st Airborne. Wears tan TAM (not U.S. MILITARY ISSUE beret) with flash on it! Oak leaf (rank) is not worn properly.”
“Claims SEAL, Green Berets 1969, 10th Special Forces Group 1970, 5th Special Forces MACVSOG with 41st Rangers in Moc Hoa. Shot by sniper 6 days before end of 2nd year in Vietnam.”
Some impostors use their phony credentials to run scams ranging from embezzlement to lonely-hearts swindles. (Others have allegedly even used falsified records to get jobs within the Department of Veterans Affairs.) Convicted cocaine smuggler David Silbergeld “became a SEAL with a typewriter,” as one fakebuster told me, referring to Silbergeld’s fictional SEAL war record, which earned him full disability pay of more than $2,300 per month. Silbergeld used a prison-earned doctorate from a diploma mill to become a Pennsylvania community-college history professor and contributor to National Defense magazine, as well as to set up a business that defrauded the U.S. government through sales of night-vision equipment. At his sentencing he pleaded for leniency — by pointing to his bogus military record.