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Nathan Phillips, man at center of standoff with Covington teens, misrepresented his military history

“I’m bummed. I’m definitely disappointed,” said a man who had advocated for Phillips.

Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Nathan Phillips, the military veteran whose standoff with high school students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial captured viral attention online, has often discussed his military past.

The Native American activist, seen on video beating a drum Friday as teens from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky surrounded and mocked him, has referred to himself as a “Vietnam-times” veteran. He described in interviews getting spit on and called a baby killer by a “hippie girl” and told the Detroit Free Press on Saturday that “I’m a Marine Corps veteran, and I know what that mob mentality can be like.”

The sight of him surrounded by a group of teens wearing red baseball hats emblazoned with President Trump’s “Make America great again” campaign slogan and the shifting narratives about the incident afterward have prompted political outcry from conservatives and liberals alike.

But the incident also has led to scrutiny of Phillips’s service record after an organization representing him, the Lakota People’s Law Project, described him as a Vietnam veteran in a news release and numerous media reports identified him as one afterward. Several, including The Washington Post, have since issued corrections.

In reality, Phillips served from June 1972 to May 1976 in the Marine Corps Reserve, a service spokeswoman, Yvonne Carlock, said Wednesday. He spent much of his enlistment in California, did not deploy and left the service as a private after disciplinary issues. From October 1972 to February 1973, he was classified as an antitank missileman, a kind of infantryman, Carlock said. He then became a refrigerator technician for the majority of his service.

Daniel Paul Nelson, a leader in the Lakota People’s Law Project, said in an interview Tuesday that his group made the error and that Phillips never told him that he served in Vietnam. The group, Nelson said, “trusted what we had seen” in previous stories about Phillips, some of which also referred to him erroneously as a Vietnam veteran.

“We were trying to do the advocacy work that we do,” Nelson said.

But Phillips’s past descriptions of his military career are not all accurate. In a Jan. 3, 2018, video posted on a Facebook page for the Native Youth Alliance, an organization Phillips led, he misrepresented himself as being a veteran of the Vietnam War. The video began circulating widely on social media Wednesday night and was still online Thursday morning.

“I’m a Vietnam vet . . . I got an honorable discharge, and one of the boxes in there shows whether it is peacetime or what my box says is that I was in theater,” he said. “I don’t talk much about my Vietnam times. I usually say I don’t recollect. I don’t recall those years.”

Phillips, who turns 64 next month, is not old enough to have deployed to Vietnam as a Marine infantryman. His lack of deployments mean that he was never “in theater."

Nelson, who advocated on Phillips’s behalf, said Thursday morning that he had seen the Facebook video in recent hours. He was not aware of it previously, he said. “I’m bummed,” he said. “I’m definitely disappointed.”

Attempts to reach Phillips on Thursday morning were unsuccessful, but he denied in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show that he ever represented himself as a Vietnam veteran.

“The Vietnam War was still going on,” he said. “What I’ve always said is that I never stepped foot in South Vietnam, and I don’t know how much clearer that can be.”

The military will typically provide basic details about a person’s military service within a day, but the situation with Phillips took longer because he enlisted under another name associated with a family that raised him, Nelson said. He provided Phillips’s full Social Security number to The Post with Phillips’s permission to help clear up the confusion.

Scrutiny of Phillips expanded Tuesday night after Donald Shipley, a Navy SEAL veteran who investigates military service records, published a video in which he showed excerpts of Phillips’s service record. “This is all going into that Native American guy that everybody keeps labeling as a Vietnam vet, and he is not,” Shipley said in the video. “A lot of these news outlets are using that claim of ‘Vietnam vet’ to kind of beef that story up a little bit and make it look even worse, him being a Vietnam vet and getting harassed."

Shipley, who did not respond to an interview request, noted that Phillips enlisted under another name and spent the majority of his time in the military as a refrigerator technician. He questioned how that squares with an April report by Vogue magazine in which Phillips is quoted saying that he was a “recon ranger,” a position that does not exist in the military.

“I have a relative here who said he’d lead the way and scout ahead for us,” Phillips said in the article, which describes a protest at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. “You know, I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger. That was my role. So I thank you for taking that point position for me.”

Nelson said Wednesday that Phillips’s comments at Standing Rock were taken out of context and that Phillips actually was referring to the work they were doing at the time on the reservation.

In other interviews, Phillips has consistently described being a veteran of “Vietnam times.” In 2000, he told The Post that he was a patriot who had served as “a Marine Corps infantryman” in the 1970s. He did not claim to have served in Vietnam and did not mention leaving the infantry after a few months to become a refrigerator technician.

In 2015, he described himself in a video interview with MLive as “a Vietnam veteran times” and stated that he served from 1972 to 1976.

Nelson said he did not know Phillips before the uproar but has “incrementally learned about this man’s integrity, and I have not been disappointed.” That came before the Facebook video began circulating Wednesday night.

This story was originally published at 3:11 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 23, and updated with a new headline and additional reporting Jan. 24 after a Facebook video emerged showing Phillips calling himself a “Vietnam vet.”

Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.