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
"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.
Bronze Star breaks down under Marty Steele's icy glare.
"How long have you been telling this lie?"
"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
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
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."
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 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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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,
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.