Opinion: 4 things to help the media and public identify "Stolen Valor"

Eye on Veterans
February 04, 2019 - 2:19 pm

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Paris Maxey

During the uproar over the recent incident surrounding phony Vietnam vet Nathan Phillips, I noticed a lot of blame aimed at the media for not verifying his veteran status. Some people felt that reporters on the scene shouldn't have included his claim of service in Vietnam until it was verified. 

Fair enough. His veteran status didn't add to the story except to make him a more sympathetic character, so it easily could have been left out. Still, I understand why it was included. Most vets aren't going to lie about serving in a war zone, and those reporters had no reason to doubt Phillips. What's more, I can tell you this with certainty: the average reporter has no idea what indicators would point to a military claim being false, let alone exaggerated.

To be blunt, most members of the media wouldn't recognize a red flag waving in their face that a veteran would spot from a mile away.

Instead of looking back at what could/should have been done in that case, I think it's best we look forward to try and avoid similar instances. It's in that spirit that I'd like to offer the following info on four types of people I think it's most important the media, and general public, know about when it comes to stolen valor in the hopes that they might be more likely to sniff out a phony.

1. The "Secret Records" Veteran.

U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt

It's a tactic most often used by someone who claims a career full of secret-squirrel, black ops missions as a SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger, Recon Marine, etc. while telling you not to bother looking into their background because their records are sealed. Special Operators exist, and the details of most of their operations will likely never see the light of day, but each and every one of them has a DD-214 which won't give you every detail of every operation but will damn sure tell you what their job was.

The SEAL candidate at BUD/S pictured above, if he made it through, will have it on his DD-214 when he gets out. Just like Bottle Breacher founder Eli Crane's DD-214 will tell you he was a SEAL and Tim Kennedy's will tell you he was a Green Beret whenever he finishes up his time in service. If someone was SpecOps, it can be verified and any claim that it can't should end the conversation immediately as the person telling you that is lying, full stop.

Even before all that, let's say someone is presenting as a super-double-secret operator. Ask yourself this: if their occupation was so hush-hush, to the point that there is no documented proof of them existing within the military, why would they be willing and able to tell you all about it?

2. The "Vague/Exaggerating" Veteran.

US Army Photo by Sgt. Ian Ives

This is a tougher one to spot. A recent example of an exaggerator is Jamie Morgan Kane, an actual Navy Corpsman who falsely claimed to have worked alongside Recon Marines and, like Phillips, was put on blast by retired SEAL Don Shipley. The folks in this category, strangely enough, are often actually veterans but use their military knowledge to exaggerate or fabricate major aspects of their service to differing levels of believability. Take for example the case of this fellow listed at This Ain't Hell who had an honorable 20-year career in the Navy as an Aviation Ordnanceman, but couldn't resist throwing on the Trident and telling everyone about his imaginary SEAL adventures and ethos after he retired.

Phillips is in the "vague" segment of this category. He served in the Marine Corps, but it seemed had never claimed to be a Vietnam vet specifically, instead saying he served during "Vietnam times." Despite that tip-toeing he was referred to as a Vietnam vet in interviews dating back several years including this one in Vogue. 

If you're wondering how something like that makes it into an article, consider this possible scenario: Someone identifies as a Vietnam vet to reporters when providing background info and then switches to using something like "Vietnam era" or "Vietnam times" during the actual interview. The subject is then identified as a Vietnam vet by the reporter, not them, thus offering plausible deniability if/when it's revealed they never deployed to Vietnam. After all they didn't say it on the record, the reporter did.

There's a rather simple way to figure this one out: ask where they were, and when. Unless they did their research (and valor thieves rarely seem to) those details will probably turn into one of those "sealed record" deals mentioned above. But think about it, even if they are SpecOps personnel, who wouldn't be very forthcoming with very detailed information like that, if they have already revealed they deployed someplace like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. then they're likely able to give you a general timeframe and/or region. Or, as in the first category, be able to verify that they are a member of that community to explain their reticence.

For the normal vet, it's not that involved or difficult. I can tell you, with a margin of error of about 2 weeks, when each of the 9 Permanent Change of Station moves I made from 1998-2011 took place. I can also tell you the exact day (Nov. 6, 2010) that I arrived at my duty station in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Most importantly I'd never have a problem with someone asking me to clarify that info, particularly if I'm the one who brought it up.

If someone alludes to being a war veteran or claims to be one off-record, but never actually says they were there and can't/won't give any detail on when or where they deployed? That's a red flag. It's not as big as the "secret records" red flag as there could be a legitimate reason they're not being forthcoming but it is, at the very least, cause to be suspicious.

3. The "Barely Trying" Veteran

The easiest category to figure out. You're most likely to run into these folks in an informal setting telling tales of their amazing military service and barely bothering, if at all, to get their facts straight. Or you might see them wearing a "uniform" like in the photo of the... SEAL, Ranger, Chaplain, EOD fellow above. They do this because they are betting against the likelihood of an actual vet being around to correct them, or that anyone will bother to look into it. So they just throw some nonsense out there with conviction, and the guys at the bar eat it up.

With these winners, a quick Google search will often expose them.

As luck would have it, Phillips falls into this category, too. In that same interview with Vogue last year, the former refrigeration electrician told the reporter he was a "Recon Ranger" while also seeming to lead the reporter to believe he was getting teary-eyed during a prayer walk while reminiscing about his time in Vietnam.

The problem with that is nobody knows what a Marine Recon Ranger did in Vietnam, primarily due to it not being a job in the United States Marine Corps. To the untrained ear it sounds very cool and, to be clear, those are both definitely words that exist within the military lexicon.

Still, each branch has their little-known units and in this case, it could feasibly be something that used to exist but doesn't anymore. To check I asked several Marines I know, including some in the recon community, if they'd ever heard of such a thing. One recalled a running cadence, but that was it.

Not surprisingly, it was revealed that Phillips was neither a Recon Marine, nor an Army Ranger.

4. The Stolen Valor Hunters

Photo courtesy Don Shipley

It wasn't the New York Times, Washington Post or even any military news organization that confirmed Phillips was a fraud. It was the man pictured above, retired SEAL Senior Chief Don Shipley. These days, Shipley spends his days treating wounded warriors to hunting/fishing excursions and exposing valor thieves. While he may be the best known, he's certainly not alone Groups like This Ain't Hell, founded by the late John Lilyea, the folks at Military Phonies, Guardians of The Green Beret and many more are out there keeping an eye out for this sort of thing, and they are most often alerted to stolen valor issues from the public.

If something about a service claim smells fishy these groups are great, easily approachable resources and don't mind one bit if you reach out to them with a legitimate question. If they don't know the answer, there's a very good chance they know someone who does and can point you in the right direction.

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