“I’ve told four women alone this week to run the other direction,” said Mary Schantag, who, along with her husband, Chuck, a disabled veteran, checks out potential impostors and posts their names on their Web site, the P.O.W. Network.
The claims surface as stray comments in bars, a line in a Facebook profile, or an insignia worn on a cap. The consequences are often nil. Pentagon officials have said they don’t have the resources to fact-check every potential liar.
So the only thing standing between SEAL impostors and the truth is a small band of veterans and civilian volunteers, scattered across the country, who have made it their life’s work to expose phonies in all aspects of military service, including bogus war medal recipients.
“Only 500 [SEALs] served in Vietnam. And we’ve met all 20,000 of them,” said Steve Robinson, a former SEAL in Forsyth, Mo., and author of
“No Guts, No Glory: Unmasking Navy SEAL Imposters.”
When news of bin Laden’s death broke, these investigators say, they were soon overwhelmed by reports of suspected SEAL phonies. Robinson, who had hunted fake SEALs for 10 years, was called out of self-imposed retirement to help fellow volunteers track down claims.
Military service impostors can go to extraordinary lengths to bolster their lies. A West Virginia man recently went to his grave saying he had won a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Service Cross and a Silver Star — and had news clips from the 1940s to prove it. But when Doug Sterner of Alexandria, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and war hero boast-buster, began digging around in March and obtained the man’s service records, he found a note from 1945 inserted by an officer that said the man’s medal claims were bogus.
As is often the case with such posthumous discoveries, the news did not go over well with the man’s family.
“If they saw me on the street, they would punch me out,” Sterner said.
The Defense Department has so far declined to make verifying war hero claims easier by centralizing records across the services. At the Washington Navy Yard, for example, the names of recipients of all Navy awards sit in boxes, recorded on 3-by-5 index cards.
SEAL impostors are among the easiest to catch. With a few clicks, their names can be run through a comprehensive and regularly updated database of all men who trained and served with the Naval Special Warfare units, which include the SEALs and their precursor units, from the end of World War II to the present day. (SEAL is an acronym for sea, air and land; members are part of the Naval Special Warfare Command, based in Coronado, Calif.)