Belluck, Pam. "On a Sworn Mission Seeking Pretenders To Military Heroism," New York

 

Belluck, Pam. "On a Sworn Mission Seeking Pretenders To Military Heroism," New York
Times, 10 August 2001, pp. 1, A14.

Last April, in a dignified ceremony meant to honor a war hero, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska
pinned a Purple Heart on Timothy R. Webster, who stood humbly wearing a large eagle insignia,
the kind worn only by members of the Navy's elite Sea-Air-Land units, the Seals.

Mr. Webster, 26, of Columbus, Neb., had told Senator Nelson's office that he had been wounded
in the Persian Gulf in 1994, and he had presented a letter on Navy stationery saying he won a
Purple Heart.

But Mr. Webster was not counting on the likes of Larry Bailey.

Captain Bailey, a former Seal commander, got wind of Mr. Webster after his picture appeared in
the Columbus newspaper. Captain Bailey checked a database he maintains of members of the
Seals, found no Timothy Webster and alerted Senator Nelson's office, which asked the Navy to
investigate.

This week, the Navy gave the senator its verdict: Mr. Webster "did not receive Seal training, he
was not wounded in combat and is not a recipient of the Purple Heart Medal."

Senator Nelson's office said Mr. Webster was a radio operator in the Gulf. When reached by
phone, Mr. Webster said he would not comment until he received records he had requested from
the Navy.

Captain Bailey, 62, of Mount Vernon, Va., is part of a growing network or people who have
made it their business to sniff out those who life about their military service.

The ranks of fraud hunters have grown in response to what appears to be a surge of wartime
fabrication, especially involving the Vietnam War. The most recent notable was Joseph J. Ellis,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who said he had been a platoon leader with the 101st
Airborne in Vietnam, when he had actually spent the war teaching military history at West Point.
But there have been hundreds of others.

"We have seen it everywhere," said Tom Corey, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America,
who said the group discovered this year that several members had falsely claimed in the
organization's membership directory that they had been prisoners of war. "A lot of times they say
they're Navy Seals or special forces or POW's, and a lot of them never left stateside."

Most fraud hunters are veterans motivated by outrage. Operating mostly through Web sites and
on their own dime, they scrutinize claims in small-town newspaper articles and in membership
rosters of veterans groups.

They also field an increasing number of calls and e-mail messages from people doubtful about
the wartime resume of a co-workers or a daughter's fiancee.
"It's an epidemic," said Mary Schantag, who with her husband, Chuck, exposes impostors from
their farmhouse in Skidmore, Mo.

Last year, the Schantags say, they logged 7,000 queries about military claims, up from 22 in
1998.

"There's a very active movement to show ‘em up sort of thing," said B. G. Burkett, a Dallas
stockbroker who helped catalyze the movement to unmask pretenders with his 1998 book,
"Stolen Valor."

The fraud hunters are sometimes accused of being overzealous, determined not only to expose
fakers but also to get them fired or ruin their lives. Critics cite the case of Adm. Jeremy M.
Boorda, chief of naval operations, who killed himself in 1996 after revelations that he wore
Vietnam decorations he had not earned.

The debunkers are partly the offspring of the Internet, which makes it easy to check claims
against lists of Medal of Honor winners, prisoners of war and other elite veterans.

But they are also responding to a growing eagerness of people to associate themselves with
Vietnam, whether they were there or not. The war's image has undergone an overhaul as time has
soothed society's bitterness, as movies and television have depicted Vietnam veterans as
sympathetic victims or admirable warriors, and as politicians and business leaders with solid
Vietnam records have become models of success and dignity.

Mr. Burkett, who is know as Jug and has an admittedly unremarkable Vietnam record as an
ordnance officer, said he had helped to expose the fictitious military stories of about 1,800
people, including Wes Cooley, a former Republican congressman from Oregon, who was forced
out of office after claiming falsely that he had served with the Army Special Forces in the Korean
War.

Captain Bailey, who commanded the Seal training center, said counterfeit solders often had little
trouble passing for the real thing.

"Our society is so mobile and so reluctant to check out anybody's bona fides, that we just accept
it," said Captain Bailey, who said more than 7,000 Seal pretenders had been uncovered, ith about
650 posted on a Wall of Shame at cyberseals.org.

Embellishers have included Tim Johnson, the Toronto Blue Jays manager, who was fred after his
stories of search-and-destroy missions in Vietnam collided with the reality that he never say
combat. Darrow Tulley, former publisher of The Arizona Republic and a friend of Senator John
McCain's, the former prisoner of war, admitted that he lied about flying jet fighters in the Korean
and Vietnam Wars.

Then there were the two top officials of a Vietnam War Museum in San Antonio who falsely
claimed they had served in Vietnam. And the eight men in medal-bedecked camouflage who a
few years ago visited the Vietnam Memorial on Memorial Day and swappd fake stories of being
in the Seals.

"Half of them had eyesight so bad their glasses made them look like a frog looking up through a
block of ice." said Steve Waterman, a Maine lobsterman and Navy veteran, who helped expose
them. "I don't even know if those within the group knew the others were all phonies."

Fraud hunters are most incensed by people who publicize fictitious exploits in the meda or use
them to get elected, promoted or wrangle underserved veterans' benefits.

Donald R. Nicholson, a retired police chief of Amelia, Ohio, said the prospect of additional
benefits prompted him to claim he had been a prisoner of war, even buying fake medals and
military papers and persuading the Army to award him the Distinguished Service Cross.

Others seeks to be heroes, giving inspiring speeches at schools or becoming respected members
of veterans groups.

William T. Whitely, a University of Oklahoma professor who founded an organization to prepare
students for Navy Seal training, admitted in March hat he had been lying for a decade by
claiming he had been a Seal member and the recipient of Silver and Bronze Stars Mr. Whitely,
caught after a real Seal veteran reported him, said he had told himself his fictional story was
inspiring to students.

"I never claimed being a Seal in the beginning," Mr. Whitely said. "It just kind of happened."

Some play on the image of the troubled and traumatized veteran, even using it to win sympathy
from a judge or jury. Joseph Yandle, who was convicted of killing a Boston liquor store owner,
had his life sentence commuted in 1995 after convincing the governor, the state pardon board and
national media that he had harrowing combat experiences as a decorated marine in Vietnam.
Three years after Mr. Yandle was released, Mr. Burkett proved he had only been a clerk in
Okinawa, and Mr. Yandle was put back in prison.

There is debate about how many people try to use fake claims to take advantage of government
programs and veterans' groups. Bob Epley, an associate deputy under secretary for policy and
program management at the Departmnet of Veterans Affairs, said the department's screening
system worked well.

"We don't think that this is a problem of magnitude," Mr. Epley said.

But a criminal investigator for the department, speaking on condition of anonymity, said military
masquerading was "probably extensive."

And Mr. Corey said embellishers "go through chapters of V.F.W. or V.V.A. or some other
organization, and you usually don't find out until they try to rise within the organization or if
they're running for office."
Fraud hunters say they can verify claims of the highest military honors or elite service quickly
because these groups are relatively small. Less extraordinary claims take longer, often months, as
debunkers wait for a claimant's file to be sent by the military records center.

When they believe they have proof of a pretender, they post the name on line and sometimes
confront the person with phone calls or scathing e-mail messages. Some people apologize; others
stick by their claims.

"The only thing we have in our corner is humiliation," said Ms. Schantag, who recently
discovered that a man who claimed to be a prisoner of war and gave a keynote address at a
Veteran Memorial Traveling Wall exhibit was apparently a prisoner only in his own fantasies.

Some fraud hunters offer trips on spotting a pretender. Beware, they say, of people who boast of
grisly combat or say they are not only official rosters because their duties were top secret. And
watch out for people who know too many details.

"I'm convinced some of them could pass a polygraph test," Mr. Burkett said. "They often know
more about the battle, they study it and work at it much harder than the guy who was there.
Because the guy who was there only remembers six feet on either side."