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Veterans' Web sites
Expose fake medal winners
Friday, May 06, 2005By Amy Chozick, The Wall Street Journal
From the minute FBI Special Agent Thomas A. Cottone Jr. saw Walter K. Carlson, he suspected that something wasn't quite right about the decorated war hero. The two men met at a Washington Township, N.J., funeral service for Marine Second Lt. John Thomas Wroblewski, 25 years old, killed in Iraq in last spring.
"Thousands of people were there, but when that captain walked past me wearing the Navy Cross and a chest full of medals and ribbons," Mr. Cottone says, "I whispered to my friend, something is wrong with that guy."
Mr. Cottone, whose duties at the Federal Bureau of Investigation include investigating military imposters, subsequently followed his hunch, determining, he says, that Mr. Carlson, 59 years old and a local bus dispatcher, didn't earn the medals he was wearing; in fact, Mr. Cottone says, Mr. Carlson never even served in the military. Mr. Carlson declined to comment.
It is illegal under federal law to wear an unauthorized military uniform or unearned decorations. Mr. Carlson was arrested, released on $10,000 bond and ordered to surrender all military materials. A trial was averted when he agreed to a pretrial probation program, says Mr. Cottone.
With patriotism at a high plateau of late, the U.S. military currently receives a level of respect not seen since World War II. Unlike the Vietnam War era, today even those who oppose the war in Iraq profess to be staunch supporters of the men and women who serve there. The heightened admiration has given way to a growing number of military impostors, and in turn sparked an impassioned group of crusaders determined to expose the mock heroes who festoon themselves with unearned medals.
The FBI's Mr. Cottone estimates that for every actual Navy Seal today, at least 300 people falsely claim to be one. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mount Pleasant, S.C., suspects that the number of people who falsely claim to have received a Medal of Honor is more than double the 124 living recipients.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will prosecute only those military impostors who try to register for veterans' benefits. Law enforcement lacks the resources to investigate all but the most aggravated situations; as a result, the law that led to Mr. Carlson's arrest is rarely enforced. At the same time, military discharge papers and Purple Hearts can be bought on eBay by the dozen.
Concerned with a burgeoning army of dissemblers, actual veterans and other are turning to the Internet to stop the fakers in their tracks. POWnetwork.org, HomeOfHeroes.com, AuthentiSEAL.org and VeriSEAL.org, among other Web sites, provide concerned citizens with a free investigation into a person's military status. AuthentiSEAL.org and VeriSEAL.org neither solicit nor accept funds. POWnetwork.org and HomeOfHeroes.com both have some sponsors but the vast majority of their funding comes out of their founders' own pockets. None of them make a profit from their endeavors.
Once a fibber is detected by these sites, the jig is up. The investigators have no enforcement power of their own, but they will contact employers, family members, news organizations and even the federal government about the alleged phony. In some cases the fraudsters' personal information along with a photo will be posted on the Web.
AuthentiSEAL.org, which investigates and reveals questionable Navy Seals, says it has exposed nearly 20,000 false ones since its launch in 2000 and currently receives about 20 to 50 inquiries per day; over 99.5 percent of the leads reveal an imposter, the group says. Inquirers range from a woman curious if her new boyfriend is a real Seal, to contractors in Iraq checking on a job applicant.
"As long as the military is held in high repute, people will co-opt it for their own personal gain," says former Navy Seal William S. "Moose" Robinson, author of the self-published "No Guts No Glory: Unmasking Navy SEAL Impostors."
Mr. Robinson, a 54-year-old blacksmith in Forsyth, Mo., served as a volunteer investigator for AuthentiSEAL.org, a nonprofit Web site that investigates and reveals phony Seals. "Falsely claiming to be a Seal is a direct insult to the veterans we've lost," he says.
According to Mr. Robinson a surge of phonies emerge every time Hollywood releases a big action movie about the military. This year's "The Pacifier" starring Vin Diesel as a disgraced Navy Seal turned babysitter inspired a handful of impostors, reports AuthentiSEAL.
VeriSeal.org, a similar Seal-busting service, maintains a "Hall of Shame" with photos of "phonies" -- even setting the record straight about dead ones. When Tony Maffatone, the Hollywood security expert credited with inspiring Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character, died in a 2000 scuba-diving accident, obituaries made mention of his stint as a U.S. Navy Seal. But VeriSeal.org says that he never went through Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal training, a requirement to become a Seal.
Both VeriSeal.org and AuthentiSEAL.org have been threatened with lawsuits but neither has actually been sued.
The FBI's Mr. Cottone works with several of these Web sites and says they do good work. "The worst punishment for these guys is to be exposed," he says of the fakers.
Challenges to the authenticity of a medal -- or to the event that led to the award -- can have devastating consequences. Adm. Jeremy Boorda committed suicide in 1996 after Newsweek magazine inquired about two combat decorations that were allegedly unearned.
For that reason, among others, some civilians find the zeal to unmask fake honorees disquieting; these critics compare the Web-site operators to vigilantes and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Even Pam Roach, a Washington state senator who in March 2004 spearheaded a new law that makes it a crime to profit by falsely claiming to be a military veteran, has some reservations about the Web sites. "Determining if someone served in the military is easy, but what's in the middle -- the medals and the honors -- is tough to prove," she says.
Retired Naval Cmdr. Paul Galanti, 65, has a different view. "With veterans having a difficult time getting treatment at VA facilities or, sometimes, jobs, it is infuriating to see those who freely inflate their worthless resumes with tales of heroism," he says.
Cmdr. Galanti, a member of the Swift Boat Veterans and P.O.W.s for Truth who questioned presidential candidate John Kerry's war record during last year's campaign, is a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam and is particularly interested in POWNetwork.org, a husband-and-wife-run Web site that exposes people who falsely claim to have been prisoners of war; he says the site fills a major void that should be occupied by several federal agencies.
But other federal organizations say the operators of these Web sites need to readjust their priorities. Neither the Military Officers Association of America in Washington, D.C., nor the Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif., endorses the sites.
"We've got hot issues burning every day -- a lot bigger than some guy claiming to be a Seal," says Cmdr. Jeff Bender, public-affairs officer for the Coronado Seals headquarters.
© 2005, by Wall Street Journal
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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