Why lie? Military phonies on the increase, watchdogs say
SPRINGFIELD - With the nation at war and military service held in the highest esteem in at least a generation, a disturbing trend of service embellishments and inaccuracies continues, embarrassing candidates and causing increased consternation among those who've worn the uniform.
Suburban Republican Congressman Mark Kirk's recent episode of "misremembering" events about his military career is merely the latest high profile example to make headlines. Kirk is running for the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.
Just weeks before Kirk's issues surfaced, it was revealed that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's claims of serving in Vietnam were inaccurate. Blumenthal, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, was a reservist who never left the United States.
Before them there has been a long history of such inaccuracies of varying degrees exposed by media and military scrutiny.
The obvious question would seem to be why someone would ever dare exaggerate, let alone outright lie, about their military service given the risk of a career-killing public backlash.
"First of all, it's not easy to get caught," said military historian Doug Sterner, considered one of the nation's foremost experts on debunking military service phonies. "People do this because they can. That is the simple answer to the question. Your chances of hitting the lottery are better than being exposed as a phony."
Sterner, a Vietnam veteran now living in Virginia, cranks out a steady stream of Freedom of Information Act requests in order to maintain what's considered the most official database of military valor awards. He's helped write federal laws targeting military frauds and is a sought-after authority on the topic by the media and law enforcement.
The controversy over Kirk's military record took off when he acknowledged that, contrary to his many statements over the years, he hadn't won the Navy's award for intelligence officer of the year. He'd also exaggerated the extent of his intelligence duties in the Pentagon war room and had mistakenly said he'd served "in" 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom when his duties kept him stateside.
Kirk has since apologized, and had the mistakes scrubbed from his resume and websites. He told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I simply misremembered it wrong."
But while politicians and candidates might undergo scrutiny, those tasked with debunking false military claims say the typical person who stretches the truth or misstates military service on a job application or resume can easily escape detection. And despite the possibility of public shame or criminal prosecution, they say such falsehoods are becoming more prevalent.
"It's horrible. It's all day, every day, 365 days a year," said Mary Schantag, a researcher and founding board member of the POW Network, a Missouri-based group originally founded to educate the public about prisoners of war but that now finds itself daily chasing down military phonies, whom it tracks on its website, pownetwork.org.
"I post something every day. I've got 75 web edits to do right now to our phonies list. I'm not kidding when I say it's an everyday occurrence," she said.
Schantag said as the economy has soured, reports of military phonies have increased as people seek to capitalize on the employment preference, financial incentives and benefits afforded veterans, frequently with little background checking.
"People are getting desperate and doing everything they can to get a couple dollars," Schantag said.
She said most veterans don't brag and the grander the claim, the bigger the red flag it raises. "You never hear a guy say, 'I was a cook in Vietnam.'"
Former FBI agent Thomas Cottone, whose work involved investigating military impostors, recently told The Associated Press that his caseload roughly doubled following the Sept. 11 attacks as reverence for military service intensified.
"Some of it is guilt," Cottone, who retired in 2007, told the AP. "They regretted they didn't serve in Vietnam. They just felt they missed that opportunity to be a warrior."
In an attempt to crack down on such behavior, Illinois was among the first to pass a state law to criminalize false military claims. The push came after Marengo Alderman Werner "Jack" Genot was caught in 2005 lying that he was a prisoner of war in the Korean War.
Angered that Genot had falsely obtained special state license plates reserved for POWs and Purple Heart recipients, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, a former military paratrooper, spurred lawmakers to make it illegal to falsify military service in seeking such license plates. Those found guilty could face up to a year in jail and $2,500 in fines. The law took effect in 2008. As of last week, however, White's staff was unaware of anyone being prosecuted.
Genot isn't the only suburban official to get caught. In Kane County, Circuit Judge Michael O'Brien for years claimed a Medal of Honor before the truth came out in 1995 that he did not.
In 2006, Congress made it illegal to fraudulently claim to have received military awards regardless of whether the person actually benefited from the claim. That law has been challenged in court on First Amendment grounds.
Sterner, who helped write the law, said the real tragedy is that this litany of military falsehoods makes the general public skeptical of any claims of military service and valor at a time when men and women are putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It's understandable that people would think that way, but it's tragic that these phonies have placed that microscope of suspicion on the real veterans and heroes," he said.