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
Not every impostor is a civilian or a crook. Some once served brief, undistinguished hitches in the service, some were even decorated; others seem happy to use imaginary backgrounds to become officers in veterans groups, to regale school assemblies with make-believe combat yarns or, bizarrely, to show up at military funerals in full-dress uniforms. (Falsely wearing military uniforms and medals are minor federal crimes, though rarely prosecuted.) Jerald Jellison, a psychology professor who teaches at the University of Southern California, is an expert in the field of “impression management,” which he defines as the study of “how we go about the management of other people’s impressions of us.”
“This phenomenon of deception takes place in other species besides Homo sapiens,” Jellison says. “There are animals that for their own protection look like other, dangerous animals. Two questions are important for the impostor: What’s the incentive? And what’s the likelihood of getting caught? It helps if [they] live in a highly mobile environment where people don’t know [them]. Another thing that helps is our belief that we’re good at detecting lies.”
Jellison says that impostors in any part of society tend to unintentionally back into fictitious identities through a kind of primal white lie that soon snowballs:
“They usually start small and go through some steps. The full-blown thing of putting on a uniform with medals is preceded by a lot of smaller steps that are often started in some very specific situation. Maybe it’s an argument about parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and a person wants to win that argument. He’d find it very easy to say, ‘Well, I was in Vietnam.’ Or maybe it’s to impress a woman — ‘Yeah, I’ve seen duty, don’t want to talk about it.’”
The case of Micah Ian Wright, a TV animator and popular anti-war illustrator whose work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, fits Jellison’s profile. Last April, Wright had his new book yanked from the printer after admitting he’d lied about serving as an Army Ranger in the 1989 Panama invasion — during which, he claimed, he’d experienced an anti-war epiphany. When I contacted him, he, like other alleged fakes sought out for this article, declined to speak and instead sent an e-mail, stating, “I’m still trying to put this whole thing behind me, so I’m gonna pass.”
Wright’s online narrative, at least, confirms Jellison’s theory of steps. “Like most lies,” Wright admits on his Web site, “this one started off small and rapidly spiraled out of control. I never could have imagined that it would grow to eventually consume every facet of my life.”
“Once you go public with these claims, you’re often trapped,” says Jellison. “Other people will want to publicize you. Once the ball starts rolling you have to keep it moving. And you have to be convincing — you have to deceive yourself into believing yourself you were there.”
“I’ve met phonies my whole life,” says Steven Waterman. “I just didn’t have any way to check them.” Waterman, who speaks in a gruff, Maine accent, is part of an investigative team called VeriSEAL (www.VeriSEAL) and quick to point out that he is not a SEAL, but a former Navy deep-sea diver, intelligence and combat photographer who served in Vietnam. His autobiography, Just a Sailor, was published last year.
“My affiliation with VeriSEAL is busting persons claiming to be former SEALs,” he says. “Not the kind who’s trying to impress a girlfriend, but people who are using the rib cages of others who have gone before as ladders of success.”
One of Waterman’s former competitors is Steve Robinson, who is an ex-Navy SEAL. In 1972, he was taking a radio course at Coronado, California, when the Navy made a design change in the enlisted SEALs’ “Budweiser badge” (the eagle and trident emblem that somewhat resembles the beer company’s logo) from silver to gold. Robinson immediately faced a dilemma.
“I was newly married and very poor,” he tells me. “I made about $200 per month with jump and demolition pay.”
Unable to afford the $14 for a new badge, and with an inspection coming up, Robinson sold his silver Budweiser to a non-SEAL classmate, who told Robinson he planned to apply for SEAL training and merely needed the badge for inspiration.
“Three weeks later,” Robinson says, “he’s at a bar in cammies telling tall tales about being in Seal Team Three — which was not yet in existence. I confronted him before class one day.” Word about the deceit quickly spread. “His mattress was rolled up by the end of the day and he was gone.”
Today Robinson lives with his wife in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, where he works as a blacksmith and knife maker. On the phone Robinson speaks in an earnest, though agitated voice, while in the background his parrot, Manu, whistles Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” or perfectly mimics a meowing cat. Until recently Robinson was an investigator for a fakebusting rival of VeriSEAL called AuthentiSEAL (www.authentiSEAL.org), then left to write a self-published book on frauds, No Guts, No Glory.