The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

January/February 2003
 
   
 

A Legend in Their Own Minds:
Poseurs, Fakes, and Wannabes

BY BERNARD EDELMAN


Marty Steele, the retired lieutenant general who leads the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum in New York City, tells this story: Mingling among the guests at a cocktail party, he listens with more than casual interest as one well-heeled, obviously prosperous man in middle age regales those gathered around him with tales of combat in Vietnam and the Bronze Star he received for valor.

Steele, a two-tour veteran of Vietnam, a Marine who has lived combat, lingers. Something about the stories and about the man doesn't ring true. As the conversation ebbs, he engages Bronze Star.

"What unit did you say you were with?" he asks. Hearing the answer, Steele replies, "That unit never served in Vietnam."

"Oh, yes, it did," Bronze Star says.

"Oh, no, it didn't. And you didn't, either," Steele retorts. "Did you?"

Bronze Star breaks down under Marty Steele's icy glare.

"How long have you been telling this lie?"

"Twenty years."

"You really should get some help," Marty Steele says.

Bronze Star tearfully assures him that he will. Steele knows that he won't.

Vietnam veteran wannabes, imposters, fakes, frauds, pretenders, poseurs - call them what you will. You rarely heard about them when the stereotyped image of the Viet vet was the dysfunctional baby killer who just couldn't seem to get his act together back in The World. Today, they're a growing plague, and a pox on the community of veterans.

"They're a nationwide epidemic," said Mary Schantag, who with her husband, Chuck, devotes countless hours to the POW Network they operate out of their home in Skidmore, Missouri. Said Chuck: "We've documented over seven hundred phony prisoners of war from Vietnam - more than the total number of POWs who were repatriated in '73. Every time we expose an imposter, it seems like we get reports of two or three more. Their numbers just keep growing and growing."

"We see it everywhere," VVA President Tom Corey told the New York Times last year. Acknowledging VVA had discovered that several veterans had claimed to have been prisoners of war, he said, "A lot of times they say they're Navy SEALs or special forces or POWs, and a lot of them never left stateside."

Of course, fake warriors are not a new phenomenon. "Historically there have always been pretenders," points out Bob Greene, staff assistant to the director of the VA's New York Harbor Healthcare System and a member of VVA Chapter 126. "This is nothing new."

One of his VA colleagues, who has studied about the psychological implications of phony vets for years, cites the last reunion, in 1913, of troops from both the Union and the Confederacy who had fought at Gettysburg, one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War.

"So many showed up, thousands upon thousands of old men, that the organizers had to regroup," he recounted. By 1913, only a few hundred legitimate Gettysburg veterans were thought to still be alive. So many of their contemporaries, he feels, "just wanted to be there," to be, however vicariously, part of history.

Most recently, after the release of the movie Black Hawk Down, there was a rush of poseurs claiming to have been Rangers in Somalia, said Steve Jaeger, president of the U. S. Army Ranger Association.

It is precisely this inherently dishonest pose that angers many veterans like Jaeger. "Their lies break down all trust. All we have is our good name. If we've lied, what's left?"

The liars roil vets like Chuck Schantag. "I see some dirtbag pretending to have been a prisoner of war who's being comped with free room and meals at some hotel in Branson based on a lie and I boil," he said. "Because to know real ex-POWs, you know they are the most humble men you'd ever want to meet. By their lies, the fakes diminish the suffering of the real POWs: They have no conscience."

Too many veterans never get over their combat experiences, their wounds, their nightmares. Imposters, Mary Schantag added, "steal the stories of heroism, but they're not stealing the nightmares, or the pain."

Different Degrees Of Phoniness

Frauds and wannabes are of two types: Many are legitimate veterans, men and women who have rendered honorable service but feel the need to inflate their records with deeds of derring-do. They often elevate themselves into SEALs or Green Berets or Rangers or LRRPs, veterans of special ops, recipients of the nation's highest decorations, up to and including the Medal of Honor.

Others never served a day.

Legitimizing their claims, they falsify their DD-214s, which is about as difficult to do as going to Staples to buy the whiteout they'll need.

While the VA requires an original or a certified copy of a veteran's 214, most VSOs and employers that accept the DD-214 as proof of service are not so demanding. Even third-generation copies are accepted. How intently they are scrutinized for discrepancies is open for discussion. It is usually when a fraudulent veteran attempts to rise within the organization or run for office that his lies crumble.

The wannabes know no boundaries of race or class or ethnicity, of enlisted man-- and, in a few instances, woman - or officer. More than a few have led lives of prominence and success: The onetime publisher of the largest daily newspaper in Arizona, Darrow Tully. A congressman from Oregon, Wes Cooley. A sitting judge in Missouri, Michael O'Brien. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Mt. Holyoke College, Joseph Ellis. The onetime manager of the Montreal Expos baseball club, Tim Johnson.

An article that ran on the first page of the business section of the venerable New York Times on April 29, 2002, related the fall from grace of one Joseph A. Cafasso. Described as a "gruff, barrel-chested military man" who "claimed to have won the Silver Star for bravery, served in Vietnam and was part of the secret, failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980," Cafasso befriended real military men and hoodwinked Fox. Claiming to have been a lieutenant colonel in Special Forces, Cafasso's total military experience amounted to 44 days in basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1976.

In 1985, I was invited to listen as a former POW related his experiences as a prisoner of the Viet Cong to two dozen actors of the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theatre Company in New York City. VetCo was working on a play about prisoners, and Larry Mitchell, who had been named a special assistant to the president of Yale University, had agreed to share his story.

For two hours, he mesmerized us. All of the VetCo actors were veterans; most had seen their share of combat. None, however, had been taken prisoner.

At one point in his presentation, Mitchell pulled out a dog-eared copy of Time magazine, pointed to a grunt hurling a grenade, and announced, "That's me." Looking at him, then at the photo, it very well could have been. It wasn't. One week later, Mitchell was exposed as a fraud.

To Be A Man

Why do these people - wannabe-hunters call them "pukes" and "scum" and other less flattering names - live a lie?

"I still don't know," 84-year-old Mitchell Paige said recently in response to a reporter's query. Almost 60 years ago, Paige, then a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps, received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during a battle in the Solomon Islands. He has been pursuing those who sell fake medals and those who wear them since the 1950s.

Others offer educated guesses. Poseurs have in common an almost visceral need to confabulate, to "be all that they can be," to paraphrase Army recruiting commercials of 20 years ago. For many, the lie they have lived has become their reality.

Ben Weisbroth, who spent two decades as a benefits counselor with the VA and is now deputy director of the New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs, offers this: "These guys are looking to impress people. They want to pretend they were part of something they weren't part of."

Steve Maguire, who served as a Ranger in Vietnam and is vice president of the U.S. Army Ranger Association, explains it this way: "If you want to be an airborne Ranger, you have to meet a certain standard." The wannabes, they wake up in their 40s and time has passed them by. So they read adventure novels and spy stories, and a lot of them begin to fantasize and create fake personas.

"It wasn't that many of them eschewed going through the training back in the 60s, they just didn't. And now they wish they had really gone through it when they had the opportunity."

Bob Greene, a combat veteran who has been with the VA in Manhattan for more than 20 years, adds this caveat: "Liars are lonely people. What you have in essence is a weak person who wants to project the image of a hero, then uses this false persona as a credential - a credential he has not earned."

Writing about a "wannabe war hero" who had risen to a position of prominence in a local VFW post, Lou Sessinger, a columnist for The Intelligencer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, wrote: "If they naively think their esteem can be inflated by portraying some dark, blood-drenched fantasy of mayhem, death and honor and its troubling legacy of personal angst and moral ambivalence, well, that's probably a powerful indication that they never got close enough to a battle to so much as smell the cordite."

"Serving in the military was the one chance to test your manhood," said Mary Schantag. "And if you missed the opportunity, you create a lie and live that lie until you are caught. But many aren't, and they spread their deception speaking in schools, at memorial services, at ceremonies honoring those who served and those who died. It's one thing to brag about fictional exploits in a bar. To tell these stories in schools is simply insane."

One longtime counselor at a Vet Center on the West Coast, a veteran who had seen his share of combat in Vietnam, a friend who'd rather retain the cloak of anonymity than risk running afoul of the VA bureaucracy, has encountered scores of fakes over the years. "The most difficult job we have in the Vet Centers," he told me, "is convincing people who come in that they're not veterans, or that they couldn't have experienced the horrors they claim to have witnessed."

Part of the counseling at the Vet Center is oriented to convince these individuals "that they are living a lie, that they're not going to be healthy psychologically or physically until they come to terms with their lie, and get to the truth." It's okay to have been a cook or a clerk: You did what you were told to do. That was part of the lottery that was military service, and that's the reality you have to come to grips with. But you weren't a "clerk-doorgunner." That MOS just didn't exist.

What my friend sees as ironic is that during the war in Southeast Asia, infantrymen had the hardest trek, often living in the bush with few of the amenities available to troops at the rear. Now, grunts are held in high esteem, in large measure because they're the ones who put their lives on the line. Now, adds Paul Bucha, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during a four-day encounter with NVA troops near Phuoc Vinh in Binh Duong province in March 1968, ``It is chic to be a Vietnam veteran. It is chic to have been part of it. And we helped set the table for the imposters with our pride of service.''

Gain Without Pain

Although living vicariously in the past may be the prime motivator for many imposters, there are other reasons to lie. "If there is an advantage to be gotten by claiming to be what you're not," offers Ben Weisbroth, "there'll be someone who'll make that claim."

Last year, I was walking along a street in Santa Monica, California. Noticing that there seemed to be a homeless man every hundred yards or so along this particular stretch of street. One emerged from the shadows. He appeared to be in his mid-50s, tall and lanky. "Can you help out a homeless Vietnam veteran?" he asked.

For some reason, I snapped. This is a line I've heard so many times before. "Who'd you serve with in Vietnam?" I asked.

"I's in combat."

"No. What unit did you serve with?"

A pause. "147th."

"Nice try," I said, my suspicions confirmed. "No such animal."

The homeless guy shrugged.

Are there veterans who are homeless? Of course. A lot more, certainly, than we'd like. Yet for every truly homeless veteran, how many others pass themselves off as veterans to elicit sympathy - and coin - from a public belatedly conscience-stricken about the nation's treatment of those who served?

Yet the relatively paltry takes of street people who lie about having served pale in comparison to others whose accounts of their valor in Vietnam dupe women into bed and the VA out of thousands of dollars in benefits. Indeed, tales abound of phony vets beating the system, scamming the VA - and taxpayers - for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ranger Steve Maguire, for one, charges that the VA "doesn't want to be embarrassed by lots of guys getting checks who aren't even veterans."

While false claims have always been a problem, "very few who are not vets are collecting money because of the way the system works now," said Ben Weisbroth. "Eventually, the system will catch up with them."

Richard Ehrlichman, a deputy assistant inspector general with the VA, points out that the VA checks claimants for discrepancies using several large data bases. In some instances, VA investigators respond to a complaint, or a lead, or a hunch; in others, general checks weed out those whose claims raise the proverbial red flag.

In all these cases, Ehrlichman said, "We vigorously pursue frauds. Computers enable us to do data mining and computer matching. And if you've scammed the system at first, we'll catch up to you sooner or later."

As the VA recently did to one Gary Horn, a laborer in the Houston area. Between 1997 and 2002, Horn received pension payments from the VA and medical services from the VA Medical Center in Houston in excess of $80,000. He claimed that he had served with the Army in Vietnam, had sustained wounds in combat, and had been incarcerated in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. In reality, Horn never served a day in the military. He is facing felony theft charges filed in Texas State District Court.

Michael Blazis, who has spent a dozen years working claims for the VA, adds: "If there's a question about the service of any veteran who makes a claim, we'll go to the appropriate branch of service to verify that he, or she, has in fact served, or if they were exposed to the alleged stressor that would warrant, say, compensation for PTSD."

"One of the problems we'll be facing is that a lot of the Vietnam guys are retiring, and it's not so easy to find replacements who know what questions to ask, who know the appropriate military lingo" to authenticate service, said a counselor at a Vet Center in California.

One who has come to know the lingo is Thomas A. Cottone, Jr., a special agent for the FBI currently assigned to its Newark, New Jersey, division, who works out of an office in West Paterson. Tom Cottone is the national case agent for investigating alleged instances of fraud in the wearing, manufacturing, or sale of the Medal of Honor.

It was Tom Cottone who, in 1996, made the case against Lordship Industries of Hauppauge, New York, for illegally selling 300 Medals of Honor, which it had been under contract to manufacture for the government. Now, backed by stiffened penalties called for in the U.S. Code - penalties achieved after years of effort by Mitchell Paige - Cottone goes after frauds like Jackie Stern, who dazzled them in Florida for years with tales of combat - combat as a New York City homicide detective, and combat of  "How I Won My Medal of Honor."

For Cottone, it's essential "to insure that all of our military awards retain their integrity and dignity." It was sweet satisfaction that when Jackie Stern was convicted, part of his sentence was 400 hours of community service. He had to write letters to each of the living Medal of Honor recipients apologizing for his false heroism.

To Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha, the Jackie Sterns of the world cheapen the medal with their lies. "We need to protect the integrity of the medals that recognize sacrifice because these medals must be presumed to have merit and worth," he said. "People should not have to be suspicious of those who wear the medals they've earned by their service." At the same time, Bucha cautions, "we need to be wary of the self-appointed, self-righteous regulators who attempt to discredit legitimate veterans because of the smallest blemish."

The poseurs, however, discredit themselves. And when they are discovered and confronted, the hardest thing for them is to have to face those who have loved them and tell them the truth. Publicity, and its consequent ostracism and humiliation, Cottone believes, are more potent than prison.

Steve Maguire of the Ranger Association agrees. "Who gets hurt the most are the liars themselves, especially those who have conned folks for decades, including their own families," he said. "When they get taken down, this causes a great deal of grief. I just can't imagine what their kids think of them."

Years ago, newspaper columnist Pete Hamill wrote about a young man, Brooklyn-born, who was attending law school in Austin, Texas, when he got word that his father had died.

The young man decided that his father, his Korean War-hero father who had been so traumatized by the horrors he had witnessed - horrors he recounted to fellow patrons at several of the saloons he frequented in lieu of a steady job - should be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. When he was informed that his father did not qualify for interment at Arlington, he demanded to know why. It was then he learned that his father had never suffered at Chosin. His dad had served in the Merchant Marine during the fighting in Korea, and the nearest he got to that peninsula was Guam.

The young man was not angry. He was ineffably saddened that his father had lived a life that had been a lie, and that lie was his legacy to his family.

"For me it was enough to have served during the era," says Chuck Schantag, who was wounded by a Chicom grenade in 1968. "A guy came up to me once and said, 'I wish I could have got a Purple Heart.' "

"I wish I could give you mine," I told him.


True Confessions

Several Web sites devoted to exposing frauds and fakes post a Wall of Shame, which features the names and alleged stories of these imposters. "We can prove that the frauds and the wannabes are lying," says Mary Schantag of the POW Network. "They can't prove they're telling the truth." The POW Network posts the apologies of those whose lies they have uncovered, people like Dan Corley, whose e-mail of May 16, 2002 to Chuck and Mary Schantag follows, misspellings and all:

Whatever you say is what I will do. I won't take up your time to try to explain why I felt that way and perhaps it does not matter. I lied. I was not a POW and cannot ever make that claim. I do not possess and altered 214 and the ribbons will be either donated to a museum or they will be destroyed as you wish. . . I am moving from this city and it is no more than I deserve. My family has suffered enough shame because of me and I will cause neither them nor your organization more problems. I deserved to be shown up and I have been. For a few moments of attention, I have lost everything and it is no more than I deserve. I am leaving my business and my home and all that know me and that is hard, but I brought it upon myself and no one else is to blame. . . Those of us who do this are little better than dirt and not worthy to even associate with those of you who were the real heros. . . I do not know why I did it and can make no excuses. All I can do is apologize to the families of the real POWs and MIAs and to you and your group. Believe it or not I am a very partriotic person who does love this country. . . .

And this January 18, 2002 e-mail from Bill Rainwater:

I want to thank you for your web site. If not for the site I would have continued my life of lies. I notified MOPH [Military Order of the Purple Heart] today and asked them to remove me from their membership list as I have never been awarded the Purple Heart. I will return the POW tags on my car . . . and get real tags. I have removed all stickers from my car that implied I was a Nam vet, a PH recipient or a POW. I have told my wife all. She suspected that I was not honest concerning my military records. I will talk with both of my sons this weekend. By the way, they both served proudly in the U.S.A.F. If asked by anyone that notices that I no longer have a POW tag I will tell them "I never was a POW nor did I serve in Vietnam." Again, I wish to thank you and the persons that reported my lies.


How to Spot a Wannabe

Many veterans are reticent to share their experiences with anyone but brother veterans. Former prisoners of war are hesitant to talk of their travails. Recipients of the Medal of Honor are among the most humble of men.

Wannabes do not share these traits.

A wannabe is someone who basks in the valor earned by others, as Special Forces veteran Norb DeBolt puts it on his Web site, http://home.att.net/~Lzzzbolt/BEWARE.htm

U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers refer to themselves as the "Quiet Professionals," and others have referred to them as "Warrior Diplomats." Wannabes are not quiet, not professional, not diplomatic, and most of all, they are not warriors.

At a patriotic event, wannabes "will be the ones dressed in well-worn fatigues, adorned with all sorts of ribbons and patches, and of course, wearing their berets. [T]hey will be telling war stories about their dangerous missions, and all their medals. Of course, when pressed for proof, [nothing] can be documented. It was all classified and not in their records; records are sealed; or records were destroyed in the fire at the Records Center in St. Louis several years ago."

The Web site http://www.navyfrogmen.com/phony.html offers a seven-point checklist to identify a fake SEAL.

1. He's wearing camouflage clothing decorated with multiple patches, ribbons, and tridents.

2. When asked for his class number, says he didn't have to go through training . . . went straight to SEALs from Marines, Air Force, etc.

3. When asked what team he was in, says Team 6 (everybody wants to be in Team 6).

4. When asked for names, places, dates, etc., the wannabe says it's top secret, still classified.

5. Claims to have been a POW, or his entire platoon was wiped out and he was captured.

6. Talks about his medals, maybe even the Medal of Honor (SEALs don't talk about their medals).

7. He can't remember the name of his swim buddy, commanding officer, or platoon officer.