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
(AuthentiSEAL advertises itself as “The only service where all investigators are U.S. Navy SEALs.” For its part, VeriSEAL alleges that Robinson’s group stole many of VeriSEAL’s Hall of Shame names for AuthentiSEAL’s Wallof Shame.)
“Any SEAL will recognize another within 30 seconds of conversation,” Robinson says. “There’s no secret handshake or code words. Talk will go something like, ‘Do you remember instructor so-and-so, were you in training class such-and-such? Names of other individuals and instructors will come up. You know they’re lying when they say their records are ‘classified’ and it would violate the law to talk about them, or when an hour later, after three beers, they start quoting the plot line of a Discovery Channel program on SEALs or the movie Navy SEALs.”
“The phony SEALs are easy to expose because SEALs are a small community,” agrees Waterman. “A lot of them never were in the military, some were Army that got shitcanned in boot camp. One woman claimed she was a SEAL even though there’s never been a female SEAL.”
Both Robinson and Waterman see status as the main factor motivating fakes who pose as members of the Special Forces.
“In the male culture of our time,” Robinson says, “the guy perceived as the most dangerous is the one everyone looks up to. During Vietnam it was the Green Beret. Today it’s the Navy SEAL.”
“I think they believe it’s something they themselves respect,” says Waterman. “The people who do it don’t know much about the teams or have seen too many Steven Seagal films.
Fakebusting is not a hobby for its partisans, but a relentless, obsessive hunt for certainty. “I don’t know of a single investigator who hasn’t boiled over and stepped back to take a break,” says AuthentiSEAL’s Robinson. “It takes over your waking life and enters your dreams.”
Busting fakes can turn nasty when a suspect’s e-mail, home address and license plate number, along with home and work phones, are posted on the Internet — and especially if former SEALs or POWs suddenly appear on his doorstep. Robinson claims he has been warned away from contacting suspects by lawyers fearful for their clients’ safety.
VeriSEAL, originally formed in 1992 to conduct background checks on job applicants for the Security Enterprise Corporation, is also pitiless in tracking down and exposing phonies. When celebrity bodyguard Tony Maffatone, who is sometimes credited with being the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character, died in 2000, the New York Post described Maffatone as a hero who “was one of 11 of his 30-man SEAL unit to survive” Vietnam.
VeriSEAL’s Web site begged to differ. “Fake SEAL, So-Called ‘Security Pro’ Dies in Diving Accident,” headlined its account of Maffatone’s death.
When I asked VeriSEAL’s Waterman about this, he replied, with Mickey Spillane–like fatalism, “Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you’re not a phony.”
Fakebusters claim suspects are given every opportunity to clarify the record and that the POW database and Freedom of Information Act requests ensure virtual DNA maps to the truth.
“We haven’t found one authentic POW who was left off the list,” says Schantag.
Still, other alleged fakes, including Charles Holland, have been threatened with violence, and the humiliation and pressure of public exposure can cause men to snap. David Silbergeld committed suicide after being unmasked, as did America’s top Navy officer, Admiral Jeremy “Mike” Boorda, in 1996, when he learned Newsweekwas about to run an article questioning his right to wear “valor” clasps on his Vietnam service ribbon.
After the publication of Micah Wright’s first book, a “remixing” of patriotic WWII posters with anti-war messages called You Back the Attack! We’ll Bomb Who We Want!, fakebusters within the Ranger community bombarded him with hostile e-mails and, in a typical strategy, went to the media after doing their own research. When he learned the Washington Post was about to expose him, Wright admitted he’d lied and began publishing not one but three apologies on his Web site, each more contrite than its predecessor, a sign that the Rangers were not happy with the earlier ones. Tellingly, one mea culpa ends, “And please . . . no more death threats.”
“Every swinging dick on TV in a uniform is considered a hero,” Steve Robinson says. “There’s been a big turnaround in military honor, everyone wants to know about the military — it’s in high repute.”
Over the past 20 years America’s attitudes toward the armed forces have undergone a radical about-face, which can be directly attributed to the country’s re-evaluation of the Vietnam War — at one time regarded as an imperial disaster but now nostalgically held up as a moment of American innocence. This radical change in public perception, in turn, owes much to what might be called the cult of the POW and the forgotten-man syndrome.
The first created an enormously powerful movement that popularized the accusation — still heard today — that there are thousands of Americans languishing in Vietnamese prison camps, left behind by an ungrateful country. Forgotten-man syndrome springs from a similar complaint — that soldiers returning from Southeast Asia never got their parade or monuments, but were instead spat upon. Today, however, the parades never stop in America, which embraces the Vietnam conflict with a culture of remembrance befitting a world war or the Holocaust.