Questions about the phenomenon of impostors claiming phony military heroics

Spend some time browsing the archives at POW Network and you’ll see there’s a truly scary number of people out there who are making insane claims about their military service.

The most common claim seems to be that the person was a Navy SEAL, or as many of them seem to incorrectly write, “Navy Seal.” Others claim they were Army Airborne Rangers, Marine Recon or Snipers, or (more rarely) fighter pilots. It’s always some outrageous claim like that, never anything modest or believable. Many boast of service in Vietnam, though more and more seem to be saying Desert Storm, Iraq or Afghanistan.

A sizable number of them, possibly the majority, actually did serve in the military in some capacity, though often in other branches of the service than the one they claim. Usually they were low ranking.

Lots of them say that they were involved in “top secret” or “classified” stuff and that “the records are all sealed” or whatever, if someone asks about the specifics or to see a DD214 (discharge papers.)

A startling number of these people, as you will see if you browse the POW Network archives and look at their actual claims, have atrocious grammar and spelling and seem to display the IQs of young children or animals. And of course, many are outright criminals who have rap sheets ranging from fraud to sexual offenses.

Now, some questions about these individuals…

  1. How recent is this phenomenon? Did it exist half a century ago?

  2. Most of these people, in the cases of those who have served in the military, were associated with ROTC or JROTC or even Reserve programs when they were busted for their fraudulent claims. How can these people go for so long without being detected, IN the military? It’s one thing for civilians to get away with these claims but how can someone who’s actually in the military’s system do it?

  3. Can anyone offer some speculation as to why and how this phenomenon became so widespread? Does it have something to do with the internet? I want to say it does, but so many of these people’s deception went way beyond online stuff and involved convincing the people around them.

  4. Has anyone here actually encountered one of these people?

Twice - back in the mid-late 80s some lunatic showed up at my local bar for a while with these kinds of stories. I didn’t believe a word of it, but he didn’t seem the sort of person I’d want to engage in anything. I guess I was not the only one, because he disappeared as fast as he arrived.

The other time was a colleague who apparently attended USNA in Annapolis. His stories were of training, not action. I presume he was an officer during his time in the Navy, he had much better people skills than the first guy. And he was not a large hulk of a guy either, roughly my height, 5’8 and athletic.

I’m sure it dates back to whenever fighting in a war was first deemed glamorous (“I was Thermopylae”). It impresses people.

And, if your goal is to impress people, you don’t say, “I was company clerk for three years.” You make it as glamorous as possible.

I knew a girl who’s dad was in the SEABEES while he was in the Army.

Hel I used to live with one of those idiots, and I write it Seal or just seal …

And I keep running into the fakers of military service of diverse branches IRL and online, when you play with a lot of PVP gamers, they like to make macho and claim all sorts of shit.

I tend to believe many of my euro buddies when they say they were in the military, they tended to claim basic infantry, supply clerk and mess crank as MOS, and many countries have universal service.

One seriously messed up guy in Norfolk back in the mid/late 80s used to claim he had been a seal, and periodically got beat up for it. Never live in a city that houses a whole bunch of seals and claim to be one unless you actually are one. Guy never seemed to learn his lesson.

I met this guy at my father’s Vietnam War era Marine Corps battalion reunion events. The second photo was taken at a reunion event at Parris Island I was attending with my parents. His “phony promotion certificate” bears a forgery of my father’s signature. He NEVER signed without his middle initial.

This phony (was an actual Marine at one point) was over the top gung ho. He gave interview to newspapers about what the unit had gone through, but nobody else remembered anything he said. To say his name around this veterans group now bring up very bad things.

The phenomenon is surely as old as military service itself. I know that post-Civil War there were many people who avoided service through exemptions or who served but never saw action who claimed glamorous military pasts. For something like 30 years post Civil War, Union veterans who ran for offices as Republicans used their service record to great political effect against Democrats. (The Republican party was very effective at blaming the Democrats for the Civil War “waving the bloody shirt” and even when used against Northern Democrat politicians who were staunch Union supporters or even veterans it was still relatively effective.) Given the rewards of having an illustrious service record, the motivation to fake it in that era was high, and the means of catching frauds were less effective than today.

Certainly not if you were a Spartan. Two men were sent home by Leonidas - Aristodemus and Eurytus. Both were stricken with eye infections and couldn’t see. On the way home Eurytus turned back and fought in the battle and died, nearly blind led around by his slave. Aristodemus returned to Sparta and was shunned, dubbed “Aristodemus the Coward”. Technically, there was one other survivor but he was never actually present at Thermopylae. He had been sent to Thessaly, didn’t return to Thermopylae in time for the battle, returned to Sparta finding similar disgrace as Aristodemus and hanged himself.

I think the first fake story was, “There were actually 301 of us at Thermopyle. I was spared to tell the story.” Which is pretty much the plot of the recent movie.

Why it’s not detected? AFAIK there are no agencies dedicated to investigating false claims of military service. If someone becomes a public person by running for office or taking a highly visible/important job, there’s a better chance that a reporter will do some background checking and find out whether some claims are true or not. Or perhaps someone hearing a claim of a political candidate will know it’s not true and pipe up about it.

But otherwise – do you bother to investigate whether some improbable sounding story you hear in a bar is true?

OK, something else I have noticed which I think is worth mentioning is that a lot of the people who claim false military heroics also claim false Native American ancestry.

Onk with Og and Thag at Big Rock. Onk kill lots Cro-magnon scum!

I had a friend I knew for 6 years before he told me he had a Silver Star and 3 Bronze Stars.

Guys who brag to strangers about being in combat are highly suspicious.

Human beings have been bragging about their exploits forever. Tall tales weren’t invented in the 21st century.

I worked with a guy who was a contract accountant who made claims about being a sniper in Vietnam. He said he couldn’t say what government agency he worked for (although he implied that it was the CIA, as part of the Phoenix Program), but he would entertain our summer intern with detailed stories about where he’d been and who he’d taken out. I recognized that:
[li]Many of his geographic and chronological details were clearly bogus[/li][li]Many of his techincal details about weapons and sniper techique were egregiously wrong,[/li][li]Many of his stories were clearly derived from a particular biography of Carlos Hathcock, albeit with details modified and amplified for dramatic effect[/li][li]In general, the guy was full of shit about pretty much any topic.[/li][/ol]

I mostly ignore such people unless they are being particularly asshatted about their claims, except that I default to assuming that such people are not only pathological bullshitters but are also cowards who are not only too fearful to place themselves in the kind of position where they could actually perform some of these supposed heroic tasks, but also to scared to admit that they have this limitation. I don’t trust such people with anything more valuable than a half-empty can of flat soda.


I once knew a guy in high school who was a pathological liar. Although some of the things he spoke about were likely, many others seemed a bit too much. He had a very convincing manner, but after checking a few stories out, we came to the conclusion that we should view ANYTHING he said with suspicion and check out EVERYTHING before accepting it.

I ran across him a few years later, in his chosen profession, a cop. I could only think, God help us all.

Looking back, I wonder if the uniform and car was fake?

Such people can lie about other professions, such as sports. Once in a bar I met a guy (about 35) who said he was once in the Red Sox system. His body made Ron Cey look like Carl Crawford.

Much like George Costanza was in the Yankees “system”?

Turns out that my half-brother the sociopath had been regaling his shrink with all these stories about how his problems stem from PTSD after his years of overseas military service in, say, Granada. We just howled with laughter and told her that he would have to have been commuting every day to Granada from LaGrange, GA.

I spend time on running message boards, and there have been about a dozen people outed for making bogus claims about being in the Olympics or other such exploits. One sad part is that the claim is often made in a newspaper article and the reporter didn’t even spend two minutes to verify the claim.

Hey, give him his due. Where would the Red Sox be without their season ticket holders?