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‘He hurt the heroes’: The Iraq War veteran who lied his way to a Purple Heart and $750,000

Darryl Lee Wright leaves a courtroom at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday. (Gene Johnson/AP)
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The rocket exploded under the Army Humvee and launched the vehicle into the air.

It was August 2005, two years into Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Darryl Lee Wright was on patrol with the Idaho National Guard in Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq.

Wright recalled later that he was “violently thrown and knocked unconscious from the percussion of the rocket’s impact.”

The blast, he would say, was massive: “Rubble and debris from the impact showered the sky for scores of meters.”

The attack left Wright with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury, he told federal agencies. As a result, he would lie in the fetal position in his bed most days, unable to hold down a job, cook meals or button his shirt.

But the story, prosecutors say, was a lie.

Wright did serve in Iraq as a first lieutenant with the Idaho National Guard, court documents say, and he was patrolling in Kirkuk at the time of an August 2005 attack.

But the rocket aimed at his Humvee missed by more than 300 feet, according to an official Army report. No one was injured by the small explosion, the Army concluded.

The military’s report included statements from Wright, who “made no mention of sustaining injury or otherwise suffering any effects from the explosion.”

“As far as anyone on our team getting hurt, no, that didn’t happen,” then-Capt. Mark Moeckli told the Associated Press earlier this year.

Prosecutors say Wright ramped up the drama in his retelling of the event to various federal agencies to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in disability payments.

To give his lie some heft, court documents say, Wright persuaded military officials to award him a Purple Heart and a Combat Action Badge.

In his application for one honor, he included a picture of a charred military vehicle that investigators later determined had nothing to do with the not-so-near-miss in Kirkuk.

“Darryl Lee Wright built an entire myth system on these two awards, relying on them to obtain every possible benefit that might be available to a wounded veteran,” assistant U.S. attorneys David Reese Jennings and Gregory Gruber wrote in a sentencing memo, according to the Associated Press. “Every time he won or qualified for a benefit, Darryl Lee Wright used the new benefit to bolster his claims for yet another undeserved benefit.”

The war story helped Wright bilk the federal government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in disability benefits — at one point receiving more than $10,000 a month.

Following an investigation that involved no fewer than 10 federal and state agencies, Wright was indicted in what the Justice Department described as an “extensive benefits fraud scheme.” Federal prosecutors initially said Wright bilked the government out of $250,000; the government now says the figure is more than $750,000.

Wright pleaded guilty in February to two counts of wire fraud and faces up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Although the other charges were dismissed as part of the plea deal, Wright and his attorney still agreed to all the facts in the indictment, according to Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the western district of Washington state.

The 49-year-old Wright had a sentencing hearing Thursday in federal court in Tacoma, Wash. But before his sentence is determined, U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle wants a psychiatrist who has interviewed Wright to testify, and that didn’t happen Thursday, Langlie told The Post.

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Wright’s sister, Karen Bevens, who also pleaded guilty in the scheme, was paid to be his primary caretaker.

Court documents say the siblings crafted a fiction starring a mostly bedridden veteran who was unable to care for himself.

According to the indictment, Wright “represented that he was so severely disabled by PTSD symptoms that he spent two-to-five days a week in bed, in a fetal position; he had a caregiver, a house cleaner, and yard worker; he could not prepare his own meals; he could not take public transportation or be in crowds; he could walk only fifty meters; and his attention span was only five to ten seconds.”

It continued: “In support of his continued receipt of disability payments, [Wright falsely reported] that Karen Bevens was his ‘In Home Care Attendant’ spending over 40 hours per week caring for him; he was unable to function without Bevens or someone else’s assistance; he could not tie or fasten shoes/belts/buttons; he could not prepare meals; he rarely drove; he could walk only 20 yards; he could not pay attention; and he could not follow spoken instructions.”

In fact, Wright led a very active life “unencumbered by any disability or infirmity,” the indictment said.

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He played in a recreational basketball league and coached a high school team. He was a member of an emergency response team that responded to fires and conducted searches and rescues in Snoqualmie, about 30 miles east of Seattle. He had a “sport” membership at a local country club. Wright was also a board member for a hospital foundation and ran unsuccessfully for political office.

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A photo snapped outside his home by an investigator and included in his federal court file showed Wright pushing a lawn mower.

The AP reported that some court filings “suggest that Wright continues to suffer PTSD from his deployment — even if he did exaggerate the circumstances of a rocket attack in which he claimed to have been injured.” Wright’s attorney, Christopher Black, is seeking a sentence of one year and said Wright was entitled to most of the benefits he received, according to the AP. The news service noted that Black filed his sentencing recommendation under seal, “saying it contained sensitive personal information.”

In their sentencing memo, Jennings and Gruber, the federal prosecutors, were unequivocal in their opinion about Wright.

“Darryl Wright has engaged in a long-lasting, persistent, epic offense,” they wrote, according to the AP. “He sullied the reputations of people, institutions, and agencies.

“Worst of all, he hurt the heroes who fully deserve recognition, respect, and honor.”

The AP reported Thursday that the sentencing hearing mostly focused on restitution.

But the judge indicated another issue needed exploration: that a mental health expert hired by the defense had suggested that Wright suffers from a condition in which he concocts his own reality and believes it is acceptable to lie or falsify documents to match that reality.
Jennings said he was concerned because that sounded much like an insanity defense, where the defendant is incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. The judge agreed, saying it could call into question the validity of Wright’s guilty plea.
Maj. T. Scott Burch, an Army psychologist who examined Wright in 2012, disagreed with the defense expert’s finding. Burch testified that Wright had a history of exaggerating or minimizing his symptoms based on what he stood to gain. He presented as psychologically healthy during an exam for a security clearance, but he showed severe PTSD-related symptoms when it might lead to financial benefits or a reduction in work responsibilities, Burch said.

As it turned out, it wasn’t just state and federal investigators who doubted Wright’s injured-vet story in the years before his indictment.

Cristina Jackson, a Seattle-based administrative director with the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, grew suspicious of Wright when his job absences mounted, according to the AP.

Wright worked at the agency from 2009 until 2012 and told his superiors that he was dealing with PTSD stemming from his service in Iraq. He later asked to convert missed work into paid leave for “emergency National Guard duty.”

But the documents Wright produced were bogus.

According to a memo produced by a federal investigator, “Wright purposely falsified Washington Military Department orders to defraud his civilian employer … to receive benefit of pay and leave allowances.”

The investigator recommended that Wright be disciplined and that his security clearance be suspended.

Wright went on the offensive, according to the indictment:

Wright, when confronted with apparent inconsistencies between his professed injuries and associated limitations and his active lifestyle choices, responded with threats, litigation, discrimination claims, and claims for failure to accommodate, all undertaken in an effort to discourage anyone from challenging or exposing his scheme.

Wright accused Jackson of violating the Privacy Act by informing the National Guard of his PTSD, according to the AP. The Commerce Department settled with Wright, allowing him to convert more than a month of missed time and requiring Jackson and others to take a training class about PTSD.

After Jackson learned of the settlement, the AP reported, “she filed a complaint with the Commerce Department’s inspector general, who in 2011 recommended Wright be disciplined ‘based on the gravity of his misconduct.’ ”

Shortly afterward, those findings made their way to federal prosecutors.

A federal grand jury eventually indicted Wright on multiple counts of wire fraud and mail fraud, and making false statements to the Army and others.

“I made several poor decisions that adversely affected my family,” Wright said in a statement sent to the Snoqualmie Valley Record in March, after he pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud. “I have been a burden to them, but without their continued support and combined VA care, I would be much worse off. The plea agreement represents my accountability for two of the 14 counts filed against me, and reflects the poor decisions I made.”

Wright’s Purple Heart has not been rescinded.

The post, originally published on Aug. 25, has been updated.

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