Five years ago, I found myself on the phone with Tom Richards, a highly decorated Marine Corps veteran. He’d discovered that there were possibly dozens of members of the Marine Corps Association who had lied about their military service, and he wanted the problem exposed.
The resulting story for Marine Corps Times was a whopper: We determined there were at least 16 fraudulent Medals of Honor, 16 fake Navy Crosses and eight bogus Silver Stars listed, relying on the military service records for many of the individuals included in the registry.
The members even included a man who claimed to have had an absurdly long 54-year career in which he earned both a Navy Cross and a Silver Star. In reality, he served less than a year in the Marine Corps before leaving as a private and — you can’t make this up — was briefly married to convicted murderer Susan Atkins, the ex-wife of serial killer Charlie Manson.
I recall that work with Richards today after learning that he died June 18 at age 67 after a difficult struggle with cancer. Based on conversations with his loved ones, it sounds like my experiences were quintessential Richards. I’d been covering the military closely for a little more than a year at that point, but he patiently worked with me on the project, pointing out how various military records obtained did not match what was in the membership book. A college professor of history with a strong sense of right and wrong, he graciously helped until the story was published.
Some of the modern military’s most highly decorated service members have similar stories, which is what makes Richards unique. As a corporal, Richards earned a Navy Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor or combat valor — in Vietnam on July 5 and 6, 1969. His award citation credits him with leading his small group of Marines against a much larger enemy force, braving gunfire-swept fields multiple times to help others to safety and manning a machine gun while under assault to prevent them from being overrun.
Richards went on to serve until 1995, when he retired as a lieutenant colonel. But it’s his volunteerism and dedication to others in retirement that set him apart. He served in numerous veterans organizations, perhaps most notably in the Legion of Valor, whose membership comprises recipients of the Medal of Honor and the service crosses — one step down — for each branch of service. In short, it’s an organization of the nation’s most highly decorated war heroes.
Richards’ wife, Diane, said in an interview that her husband had struggled with post-traumatic stress but overcame them. Afterward, he wanted to reach out to others who’d seen serious combat, especially those who’d earned a service cross or the Medal of Honor. One of them is Marine Staff Sgt. Cliff Wooldridge, who was awarded the Navy Cross in May 2012 for valor on June 18, 2010, a day in which he beat an enemy fighter to death with his own machine gun.
Wooldridge said in an e-mail that as soon as he received the Navy Cross, Richards reached out to him and congratulated him on the award. He invited the younger Marine to join him for lunch with other service cross veterans who served in Vietnam. They talked about current events and their military service, and then Richards invited him to meet again. A friendship was born.
“During our later meet-ups, dinners and celebrations, I learned so much about his character, his leadership and how he previously dealt with the pressure of receiving the award when he was on active duty,” Wooldridge said. “He made sure he set me up for success and sent me in the right direction, consistently checking up on me, asking for [situation reports] and meeting up whenever we could. I owe a lot to Tom. He was a role model for me.”
Mark Donald, a Navy SEAL who earned a Navy Cross and Silver Star for actions in Afghanistan in 2003, said Richards invited him to join in several veterans initiatives, and he was skeptical at first “because of some difficulties I was going through in my life.” But Donald, who wrote extensively about his struggles after combat in a book released last year, said he eventually came around, and Richards offered guidance.
“The one thing that he brought more than anything else was strength to get things done,” Donald said. “A lot of people have initiative and are willing to start, but he was able to close to deal. I never saw a guy spend more of his time with veterans issues than Tom.”
One of those issues that was dear to Richards’ heart was “stolen valor” — individuals lying about military service, frequently to earn benefits, gifts or perks in return. Richards pushed to expose them and prosecute them when possible, believing it was offensive. He worked for more than a decade on the issue, collaborating with others whenever helpful. Not unlike he did with this writer, I suppose.
Doug Sterner, another Vietnam veteran who has worked extensively on stolen valor issues, said Richards’ keen eye for detail and dogged nature made him a force in exposing military fakers. But Richards prided himself more on helping others.
“He was a father figure who was just great to those younger guys,” Sterner said. “And if you asked Tom to define himself, he wouldn’t say ‘Navy Cross recipient.’ He would say ‘Marine.’”
UPDATE, June 26, 2:15 P.M.: Sgt. Maj. Justin Lehew, a senior enlisted Marine who earned a Navy Cross for heroism during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, shared the following comments through email. I share them here, unabridged:
Tom reached out to me in the fall of 2004 while we were still fighting for the cemetery in Najaf. I had just came off patrol as a 1stSgt with Company C, BLT 1/4. As I picked up the mail for the unit, I noticed a manila envelope in the pile for me from LtCol Thomas A. Richards, Legion of Valor. It was a brief letter and package that he needed to be sent back to enroll me in an organization that I had never heard of, the Legion of Valor.
From the moment I sent that envelope back in, a friendship ensued immediately. Upon return to the states in California, my unit was met by Tom and he made an instant impression on all. Tom had an unmatched presence. His personal drive, discipline, knowledge, motivation and genuine aspect of being a caring individual was second to none. I used to joke with Tom all the time that he had the longest email signature line that I had ever seen listing all of the titles he has held and organizations he supported with membership. It was eye opening and jaw dropping the amount of boards, veterans organizations and groups that Tom was on or was associated with.
Tom had a can do positive attitude and approach that was admired by all. I really never heard Tom speak ill of anyone or anything the entire time I knew him and it was a trait that you really admired about him. As with most members in the Legion of Valor, you never really heard Tom reflect on his Navy Cross actions but was always a fan of everyone else’s actions. He made everyone feel special, especially young Marines. He had a genuine love for them as any good officer does.
Tom’s work as an advocate of the Stolen Valor Act is well known by you and a lot of folks. I lost count of the amount of folks that were outed by Tom or his network of folks working on his behalf along with Pam and Doug Sterner.
It was however, without question, the way Tom lived his life that I admired the most. He was a man of character, conviction and compassion. Tom was a true patriot in every sense of the word. Right down to his red, white and blue American flag tie or vest that he always wore. Tom was as well spoken in public as he was as well dressed for the occasion. He was always reaching out to folks to help in any way that he could. I have a hundred different stories about Tom but they all combine together to paint a picture of a true American Hero, both in combat and on the home front who’s shoes will be definitely hard to fill by generations who come after. To say that Tom was a mentor to me would be a great understatement, he was family and I will truly miss him very much.