Stolen Valor

Original photo from This Ain't Hell
Original photo from This Ain’t Hell

Glowing with delight and giddy over this new relationship forged in the electronic glow of an online game, she told me proudly, “he was a Navy SEAL.” Immediately my internal fraud detector went on red alert and I watched him even more intently. Nope. Did not compute.

I introduced myself and offered a firm handshake to gauge his confidence level and mannerisms. Throughout my adult life I’ve noted that some men seem intimidated by tall blondes who are comfortable in their own skin; it’s like they’re expecting me to giggle, act perky, and bring them coffee instead. My direct approach reconfirmed my suspicions.

So I contacted Don Shipley. I knew the routine: guy wants to impress girl, so guy procures himself a military uniform and embellishes it with ribbons, patches, and cords that aren’t even in the right places. Or guy gets a Navy SEAL bumper sticker and starts feigning modesty, “reluctantly” yet profusely spewing tales of his sacrifices for his country. It happens all the time and because we love our veterans so much, we don’t want to risk offending our heroes, so go along with it.

Shipley, a real former SEAL who specializes in outing fake SEALs, promptly replied: “_____ _____ is NOT listed in the SEAL Database… He was NEVER a Navy SEAL…” Yep. That’s what I thought. But it seemed to fall on deaf ears once I told my friend. Part of me wanted to rationalize it: maybe she had the wrong branch of service. Maybe he’s shy around women so invents cool pickup lines. Maybe he’ll come clean later. But there’s nothing admirable about lying to get the girl. Or to gain respect.

The CBS series NCIS and its offshoots have dealt with this subject over the years, sometimes in humorous ways. LL Cool J’s character Agent Sam Hanna on NCIS Los Angeles is a former Navy SEAL. In 1990 I went to the theater with two friends to see Michael Biehn and Charlie Sheen in Navy SEALS. The script was macheesmo (misspelling intentional) but I was transfixed; my friend Suzanne fell asleep.

There have been many other movies and TV shows, not to mention video games and books, featuring Navy SEALS. Tears of the SunJAG. The Abyss. SaharaUnder SiegeBurn NoticeG.I. JaneNikitaAct of Valor. The reboot of Hawaii Five-0. These guys are the stuff of legend. No wonder so many others want to be them.

Then there are a plethora of films and shows featuring other proud warriors like the Marines, Delta Force, Army Rangers, and the Green Berets. Black Hawk Down. Chuck Norris’ 1986 The Delta ForceDarby’s RangersHeartbreak RidgeBad Boys II. 24Person of Interest.  The Green Berets. Sands of Iwo JimaThe Hunted. If you’re one of these guys, many people will automatically treat you like a hero.

Funny part about true heroes though– they don’t parade around bleeding their war stories all over the place. An excessive need for attention or admiration can signal… narcissism. An aspect of many narcissists I’ve noted is that they’re terribly insecure on the inside, so have an extreme need to demonstrate how special they are. They also want to associate with special people. If you’re considered one of the “brotherhood” of a group of elite warriors, how special are you?

Sociopaths do whatever gets them the attention, companionship, or money they think they need. What better way to flatter others and ingratiate oneself than to piece together a SEAL uniform and show up to social events and funerals in it? You can score all kinds of prizes and profit by passing yourself off as something you’re not.

There was a story in the local news years ago about a con artist in Bellevue who faked cancer, pretended to have been in the military, and so on, complete with staged photos. He garnered free housing and benefactors among other bonuses. Guys like that don’t feel remorse. Strutting around in a flashy uniform you didn’t earn’s better than getting a job, right?

There are other reasons people fake association with the military. They could be mentally ill. They might be desperate for their life to have meaning. They might somehow identify with warriors and inappropriately express that through being a fake soldier. It could be a fantasy for them. They might have been forced to leave the military or served in a lower level position but aspired to be more. No matter what’s driving their act, it’s disgustingly disrespectful to those men and women who actually have served honorably to pretend to be one of them.

Readers know that I come from a long line of veterans. So my blood boils red, white, and blue when I learn of yet another wannabe who struts around acting like he’s an expert marksman, pilot, POW, or patriot like my people. I’m not a veteran, but I’m proud of my family’s service. I express that through membership and participation in organizations that preserve our heritage and honor veterans. In some organizations I can wear official insignia denoting my ancestors’ service.

Why is that not enough for the great pretenders? Because they don’t want to honor others. They want others to honor them. They want to throw their weight around and talk about their fictional, fight-filled glory days. They want women to fall at their feet and worship their supposed selfless sacrifices and feel sorry for the buddies they’ve lost. They prey on others’ appreciation of service and on their sympathy, especially if they’re a “vet” who’s down on their luck.

Last month a story hit the local news about a police officer who’d been spinning a web of just such lies for years. He’s married and has children, but built a relationship with another woman under an assumed name (she probably wasn’t the first). He told her he was Special Forces and that when he was wounded one night, all he could do was lie there and think about her. Having come up against some seasoned con artists in my time, I’m thankful this woman started noticing cracks in his story and found out who he really was. She now has a court order against him because of stalking.

Look around the web and you’ll easily find many other reports like this. Stolen Valor has an extensive list of such yarns. Guardian of Valor has a Hall of Fame. Note that some profiles of phonies include apologies from those guys; I question how many are sincere (are they sorry for what they did or sorry they got caught?). Don Shipley’s Extreme SEAL Experience site has instructions about how to contact him to determine if someone’s an actual SEAL. He’s had to start charging people for this service because his organization’s handling up to 30 such queries a day.

News stories about fake service members getting called out abound. A recent story that went viral was about a real Ranger catching a fake one in a Philadelphia mall. This summer another poseur was caught red-handed by two Marines at a funeral in West Palm Beach. He might have actually served in the Army, but the jumbled mess of mismatched medals indicated that he’s embellished his service record. Just recently the Texas Rangers nailed an imposter by offering him a treat he couldn’t refuse— an award for his “service.”

Here are more examples. In one case, a hundred thousand people were conned into honoring a fake veteran.

Cracked6 Military Fakes You Won’t Believe Fooled the World (language alert)

KSL, Utah: Man fools family for years by posing as military hero

KIRO, Seattle: Phony Navy SEAL buried with military honors (Real veterans demanded that his remains be removed and moved elsewhere. I don’t know if that happened, but it has in other cemeteries.)

The New York TimesIn Ranks of Heroes, Finding the Fakes

NBC News: Hunt for bogus war heroes uncovers thousands of hoaxers

The VVA VeteranA Legend in Their Own Minds: Poseurs, Fakes, and Wannabes

CBS News: Fake War Stories Exposed

The U.S. Department of Justice: Northwest Crackdown on Fake Veterans in “Operation Stolen Valor”: Phony Vets Scam More Than $1.4 Million and Damage Image of Honorable Veterans

Here are some interesting sites that discuss how to tell if someone’s actually a veteran and how to avoid related scams. This doesn’t mean the advice offered on these sites is 100 percent valid, but they do list red flags to watch for. Also, if you’re in love with a military man, why not confirm that he is who he says he is before you become more deeply involved? I’m a huge proponent of background checks in the dating world anyway.

Military Authority: Fraudsters Use Fake Military Forms to Convince Lovesick Women to Send Money

Stormbringer: How to Spot a Fake Veteran (Also see the follow-up article The curious cases of William James Clark to see just what a trail of fraud this guy left in his wake.)

U.S. Patriot Tactical Blog: Stealing Valor: How to Spot a Fake

The Old JarheadThirteen ways to spot a phony Vietnam Veteran (humor, but still insightful) Is he or she military? (excellent information)

Military Awards for Valor – Top 3 (U.S. Department of Defense, has lists of medal winners)

Here’s the good news: there are other ways to be a hero. Start by being a hero to your own spouse and children. Be there for them. Nurture them. Love them. Help your kids grow into honorable men and women who will thrive on acts of service instead of acts of selfishness. The world might never know the good you do, but God will.

There’s no need to go stealing others’ thunder to look like somebody. Draw closer to your Creator, and He’ll show you what you were created for. You have a mission. You have a purpose. There is something you’re meant to do in this life that no one else can do. Find that and run with it.

If you know of a fake veteran, be careful how you confront them about it and please don’t harass their family. It’s highly unlikely that their kids said, “Dad, please go buy yourself some fatigues off of eBay and pin on some of Grandpa’s old medals so you can be outed by a real soldier and look like a complete dork.” But know that lying about military honors to profit from them is a federal crime under the 2013 Stolen Valor Act.

Author Joseph Campbell said that a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. That’s exactly the opposite of what these fake veterans are doing. If your primary reason for wearing a uniform is for your own benefit, then you’re not really serving anyone. You’re a slave to your own corrupt, narrow-minded, and shallow quest for greatness– one that will take you downhill and over a cliff.


Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you. Stick with your purpose. Refrain from trying to win other people’s approval and admiration. You are taking a higher road. –Epictetus


©2014 H. Hiatt/ All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/

4 thoughts on “Stolen Valor

    1. Seems like that’s what a lot of these websites are doing– posting photos and stories. I do like that they’re publicly calling them out on their fraud. I just hope they leave the families out of it. I heard that people have even been harassing the kids of that fake Ranger caught on video recently.


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