By Christian Davenport and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 9, 2008
He wore a short-sleeve Navy summer white uniform, crisp and pressed. Had the black and gold shoulder boards of a rear admiral and a chest full of ribbons and carried himself with the confidence such a high rank bestows. He said he was a veteran who had served all over the world, in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq.
Last year, at a ceremony in Falls Church to commemorate the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Day, Trung Huan Nguyen took the stage and addressed a crowd of about 100 Vietnamese Americans.
Although he certainly seemed like the real thing, there was something that wasn't quite right about the man in white. No matter how perfect his uniform, or how plentiful his service and personal decoration ribbons, some attendees were suspicious. They checked him out. And yesterday, Nguyen pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to impersonating a Navy rear admiral.
In truth, Nguyen, of Middletown, Del., was an enlisted man and had been out of the Navy for 13 years.
Prosecutors said Nguyen's deceit went far beyond merely playing the part of a highly ranked officer at the event, held at the Eden Center in June 2007. They said that he kept a profile on military.com that claimed he was commissioned into the Navy as a medical doctor in 1985 and received special warfare training. In his online biography, he played up his combat experience and said he had served in the Persian Gulf War, the global war on terrorism and the Iraq war.
The reality, prosecutors said, was that he was an E-4, a petty officer third class, the equivalent of an Army corporal. He served aboard the USS Missouri and the USS Constellation and at the Naval Air Station at North Island San Diego. His Navy career lasted just four years and ended with an honorable discharge.
Lawyer David Hubbard said his client told the judge that he perpetrated the fraud because he had always wanted to be a naval officer and could never get over the disappointment of not realizing his dream.
"I think that he very much wanted to be in the officer corps and that despite his best efforts, he was disappointed that he never made it,'' Hubbard said. "That was just sort of his goal, in the sense that maybe someone becomes a doctor and they really want to specialize in pediatrics. He wanted to go into the Navy and be an officer.''
Hubbard could not say why the military rejected Nguyen's request but said he was honorably discharged. He said Nguyen, who is in his early 40s, came to the United States from Vietnam and "joined the military as a way to fit in in society, to find a place in America.''
He added that Nguyen apologized to the judge and is "very sorry for what he has done.''
When Nguyen showed up at the Eden Center last year, he spun a tale that raised some eyebrows.
"Nguyen's charade collapsed when several of those in attendance checked out his claim and determined it to be false," according to a news release issued by prosecutors.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigated the case, and Nguyen is facing a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was released on a personal recognizance bond. As part of his plea, he agreed to turn over any uniforms, insignias and decorations he is not entitled to. He is also required to send in a "mental health evaluation and treatment and waive all confidentiality," according to court documents.
A Navy spokeswoman declined to comment last night, as did prosecutors.
Nguyen's case follows that of a Louisiana man who never served in the military but wore a full-dress captain's uniform complete with a Navy Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart to his wedding in an effort to impress his wife. That man was sentenced to a year of home confinement after pleading guilty a week ago.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.