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Storming Fort Brag 

Military fakes and the people who bust them

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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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.

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“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.

 

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.

(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 Wall of 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 Newsweek was 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.

As Robinson says, this new reverence has recast all American soldiers — from field grunts to mess-hall cooks — as “warriors” and heroes above reproach simply because they wear uniforms. Such an uncritical environment offers hustlers and wannabes alike an irresistible temptation and explains why, as the number of Americans who have served in the armed forces steadily shrinks in proportion to those who haven’t, the ranks of people illegally masquerading as military veterans have exploded.

There has been another consequence: Even now, as the first Iraqi war impostors are beginning to appear on fakebusting shame lists, the resurgence in military pride has also provided ammunition to those still fighting the culture wars of the 1960s and ’70s. The official Web sites of the U.S. armed forces, fraternal veterans organizations and military benevolent associations, with their sleek graphics and politically neutral pages, have become part of a well-paved information highway. Beyond these, however, lie military sites catering to war buffs, gun enthusiasts and paintball warriors. Here the information highway turns to gravel as spelling becomes shaky and the tone gets shrill and profanity-punctuated. This is where you’ll find fake — and long-ago debunked — photos of John Kerry sharing a podium with Jane Fonda during the Vietnam War, along with “evidence” that Kerry shot himself to get out of continued service in Vietnam or that he really received a dishonorable discharge.

Not since the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term has a presidential candidate been the object of so much partisan hatred as Kerry. None of the vitriol directed toward him appears on fakebusters Web pages, but the anti-Kerry attacks are only one mouse click away from some, while individual fakebusters pour out their bile from personal online sites. Forget that Kerry hasn’t falsely claimed to have been a POW or Vietnam combat vet — he may as well change his name to Michael Moore, as far as some veterans are concerned. These same fellow Vietnam vets who turned on John McCain with such fury (even questioning whether or not he’d truly suffered during his years as a POW) for opposing George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries regard Kerry’s early anti-war activism as treasonous.

Indeed, POWnet’s Chuck and Mary Schantag have been widely quoted as saying no veteran they’ve spoken to would vote for John Kerry, while Erika and Henry Mark Holzer, who co-authored a fakebusting book in 2003 (Fake Warriors), have gotten into the act by publicly obsessing over the appropriateness of Kerry’s medals — rather than whether or not Kerry was actually in the Navy or served in Vietnam. Meanwhile, B.G. Burkett, whose Stolen Valor is a kind of bible for vets who believe their honor has been sullied by fakes and political correctness, is busy speaking on behalf of the anti-Kerry Vietnam Veterans for Truth, a group cloned from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Last month Burkett (who did not return phone calls for this article) spoke at a “Kerry Lied” rally held in Washington, D.C., and organized by Vietnam Veterans for Truth president Captain Larry Bailey, USN, Retired — himself a key SEAL fakebuster. Photos of the rally, posted on Steven Waterman’s personal Web site, show a banner with caricatures of Fonda and Kerry, wearing Vietnamese peasant hats, their names spelled in the kind of “oriental” lettering you find on Chinese takeout boxes. Perhaps more comically, Burkett later admitted, in a Washington Times interview, that his rally had been attended by none other than a notorious military impostor.

What has been even more startling than the anti-Kerry veterans’ charges is the ferocious anger with which they burst onto the election campaign scene. Retired U.S. Army Colonel and author David Hackworth, in his online Soldiers for the Truth column, pleaded for both sides in the Kerry-Bush service disputes to halt their attacks, yet singled out the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as “a chorus of haters” who were harming the cause of all veterans. “A judge,” Hackworth wrote, “would call these men liars and disallow their biased statements.”

 

Regardless of whether John Kerry becomes president, the credibility of military fakebusters will be questioned by at least some Americans who wonder why a decorated combat veteran is being hounded by people who don’t bat an eyelash over George W. Bush’s phantom National Guard service. Justifiably or not, when they see B.G. Burkett on FOX News dusting off McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics, in trying to link Kerry with Jane Fonda, they’ll begin to wonder how fair and balanced is his own fakebusting research. (“He absolutely caused more deaths in Vietnam,” Burkett told Hannity and Colmes. “He extended the war. That’s why he’s mentioned favorably in virtually every north Communist [sic] book, biography . . . His picture hangs in honor.”)

The deeper lessons of the Kerry donnybrook may lie in a realization of how nearly impossible it is to define the past. Both sides in this campaign issue have assembled experts and even eyewitnesses who still swear by diametrically opposite truths.

Since John F. Kennedy’s assassination, historic events have been captured in increasingly detailed relief by ever more sophisticated recording technologies, yet remain Rashomon-like mysteries open to interpretation. Forget about solving Kennedy’s murder — how would his PT-109 legend fare under the gaze of today’s history police? In the 21st century military fakes have unprecedentedly sophisticated tools at their disposal via the Internet. Their implacable hunters also use cyber research to expose them, yet new fakes begin operating every day. As Steven Waterman says, “We bust them but keep finding more under the rocks.”

Perhaps distortion has become second nature to Americans. “I certainly would condemn these people,” professor Jellison says of military fakes, “but let’s not treat them as though they are completely different from us. There’s an element of impression management that we all engage in. It can be something as simple as inflating your résumé, using cosmetics or having plastic surgery. It is important to recognize that we all have that trait.”

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