There I was, one Monday night, watching NCIS: Los Angeles – the drama that combines elements of the military and police procedural genres. The specific episode was SEAL Hunter , where Sam – a former SEAL turned NCIS agent – was accused of murder. Anyway, during the show a familiar name popped up – that of Don Shipley. And that sat in the back of the mind for awhile… until that ramblin’ mood struck me again after reading a couple recent news articles about Military Fakers (the last one being from Canada’s Remembrance Day ceremony).
For those unfamiliar with the name, Don Shipley is a former SEAL himself. But what he seems most known for these days is his work in calling out phony Navy SEALs and other military impostors and frauds.
Over the years, with them in the news from the beginning of the Iraq War and the public's increased wartime reverence for valor, SEAL has become a “popular” title to fake. Shipley has been quoted as estimating that “there are over 300 SEAL Impostors for every living Navy SEAL.” But faking military service is not a modern phenomenon – military fakers can be cited as far back as the Civil War (if not further – I imagine there were some Loyalists that later claimed to have been Patriots after the Revolutionary War).
Mr. Shipley is not alone in his work - there are various sites dedicated to exposing fakers. Guardian of Valor features many of Shipley’s “busts”, their mission statement is “Outting people who falsely claim Military service and/or claim unauthorized medals or tabs.” This Ain’t Hell is another internet presence that features some of Shipley’s work (while it is primarily a military/veterans blog, it has a section dedicated to Stolen Valor).
Other sites include VeriSEAL (which started with the initial mission of providing confirmation of SEAL and other SOF credentials) and Fake Warriors. And there are others…
But as mentioned, SEALs aren’t the only military types to attract fakers - Ranger, Green Beret, Special Warfare are others. But some fakers don’t go aim for Special Forces, but simply pretend that they were in the military with various awards.
Stolen Valor was such a concern that it was made into law, first with the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-437, struck down by United States v. Alvarez on June 28, 2012), and later with the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 (Public Law 113-12, 18 U.S. Code § 704 - Military medals or decorations).
And not all fakers are civilians – sadly, there are some militia personnel (both active duty and discharged) that have been exposed for claiming awards for which that they were not entitled. For example, a man from Warren, Ohio, was arrested and jailed accused of forging his discharge papers to get Purple Heart license plates.
It is somewhat disturbing how easy it is to misrepresent one’s military service on “Mainstreet USA”. One would think – in this day and age or readily available internet access – that fakers would not exaggerate so much. But sadly, it seems that few civilians have the inclination to scrutinize someone else's service record - perhaps thinking, “I must never question a veteran’s experience! He was there, I was not.”
It isn’t that difficult to verify something like being a SEAL. For example, while some SEAL missions may be classified, BUD/S, (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School) is an “Unclassified” Navy School and much like any other school in the Military.
It is not any kind of secret where BUD/S is located and it’s no big secret what is taught there. Meaning that if someone says he was a SEAL, but his class number is classified – he’s lying.
As well, when a man graduates BUD/S Training in the Navy, or even begins it and fails, he is listed in an unclassified database – this database (also known as the “SEAL Database”, a product of the Naval Special Warfare Archives) is often be used (by Shipley and others) to verify the claims of being a SEAL. It is an alphabetical listing of EVERY man who ever graduated any form of training for Navy Combat Demolition Units, Underwater Demolition Teams, Scouts and Raiders and SEAL Training and dates back to 1943, the inception during WWII. It is stated that without exception, every man is listed there (as yet, I am unable to discover a similar database for Rangers, Green Berets, and the like).
You and I may not have access to the database, but we can e-mail Mr. Shipley via his website or Facebook presence.
Or, perhaps the individual is simply claiming to have been a Prisoner of War – even easier, the names of all US military personnel who have ever been held as a Prisoner of War are a matter of public record, and the POW Network (www.pownetwork.org) can quickly and accurately verify or deny ANY claims of POW status. A gimme, though – if an individual claims to be a SEAL and a POW – well, to my understanding, there have NEVER been any UDT Frogmen or SEALs captured, detained, or held as prisoners of war.
Another database that can be used to out certain fakers is the Medal of Honor database. The Military Times has put together Hall of Valor, which contains valor award citations for awards above the Bronze Star. And the Pentagon launched a public database for checking claims of military honors back in 2012 covering the Top 3 Valor Awards. Keep in mind that both of the latter are still works in progress.
For that matter, it’s possible to make a Freedom of Information Act request to see if an individual has been in the military at all - the public has access to certain military service information without that veteran's authorization (or that of the next-of-kin of deceased veterans). A list of examples of the information which may be available can be viewed at the National Archives at St. Louis page Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) & The Privacy Act.
Not only is this not a modern phenomenon, it’s not even solely an American phenomenon. There are sites dedicated to exposing fakers in other countries – for example, there’s ANZMI Australasian and New Zealand Military Impostors) and the Walter Mitty Hunters Club.