Stolen Valor, Lies and Exaggerations: How They Harm You and Your Group

In light of Brian Williams of NBC News embellishing his involvement with the US Army in Iraq we are going to offer some tips and conversational strategies for identifying those who claim to be something they are not.

When Brian Williams claimed to be in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq he was originally questioned, but the controversy gave way to more pressing matters such as the actual war that was happening. Eventually the crew that was actually shot down got enough attention that people began to listen. Brian Williams was apparently never in the Chinook helicopter that went down, nor was he in the next one in the flight. His crew popped in for a photo op and moved on to a new location at a firebase. He claimed that he was looking down the tube of the RPG that struck his bird. None of this was true. He was never in danger, his flight landed after the area was secure with tanks and Bradley Fighting vehicles according to the last story I read. The problem here was not just this lapse of memory but also a series of lies and exaggerations that spans years of reporting the news. Why is this of any concern to us? When someone who is in a position of trust fabricates a new reality, those of us who follow along are misled and may make decisions based on these falsifications. In a survival group such lies can have dangerous consequences to our loved ones and ourselves. Follow along as we layout some clues and strategies for revealing lies and exaggerations by those people who claim to “have been there.”

Most people who embellish or make up a history of service in the military have a tendency to choose a Hollywood job such as Airborne Ranger, Special Forces, Navy Seal or Delta. Rarely do you see someone claim to be a cook, mechanic or in some sort of support role.

A more crafty liar may attempt to lessen any real scrutiny by flying under the radar claiming to have been something more difficult to verify, such as a translator or interrogator, or a more secretive job such as military contractor or agency ghost. I have personally experienced this with someone. No true vet wants to insult a brother’s story but sometimes, there are enough inconsistencies that bring the whole story into question.

When someone who is interested in joining the group claims to have military service it would be wise to have a true veteran feel them out through conversation. This will be helpful in two ways. First, it will help to expose a faker or at least find out if the person was embellishing his or her record. Second, this method will also serve to relax a true veteran by showing that there are others like him in the group that understand what he may be going through.

Veterans are a different breed of people who may have difficulty relating to civilians, this is especially true if the veteran has seen combat or been in service for a long time. They may come off as rough around the edges or impatient with civilians, only someone who has been there can truly relate at their level and establish a good dialogue.

It is also preferential to identify if a veteran was truly trained in a combat arms role or a support role. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the other group members may look at anyone with military service as the answer to all tactical problems, as most civilians only know about military operations from movies and TV shows. However, this is simply not the case.  There are a multitude of support and administrative jobs in the military, and these service members, though they have put the time in and have some tactical training, are simply not prepared the same way that the tactical combat units are prepared.  This is not to diminish their time in the service, but simply to point out that just wearing the uniform doesn’t make you the next Mykel Hawke. This is a problem and it may lead to a false sense of security in the group, which may only be revealed when an emergency tactical situation arises. Such a case could lead to disastrous results.  Imagine if your family had befriended an alleged military veteran who claimed to have experience in tactical and life or death situations and such a scenario actually presents itself. You might make decisions based on this misinformation. The truth is that no matter how much a person wants to believe that he or she would hold up in combat, there is no way to know until it happens. Some people want to belong so badly that they will embellish their own history just to be accepted.

Second, you will also want to know if this person has actually seen combat and how long has it been since he has seen any action or training. Many of the skills we are trained in as combat troops are known as perishable skills. If we don’t practice reading map and compass or tactical shooting we grow rusty.

Another angle that is regrettably all to common these days due to our country being on a war footing for so long is the problem of PTSD. Some people have experienced horrors so terrible that they don’t cope well back on the block at home. If a member of your group is experiencing PTSD how will he operate in a tactical environment? Will he swing into action appropriately or avoid loud noises altogether? Chances are these guys are avoiding the idea of joining a survival group that plans a more tactical footing but it is good information to know when interviewing new members.

The main reason to know if a support soldier embellishes his or her record and claims to be something they are not is the trust factor. If a person feels the need to role-play for attention and or respect, his character should come into question.

Unfortunately not everyone who dons a uniform is a hero and only the true veteran can spot the lie. A certain amount of discretion must be applied as these days many people who were actually deployed down range regardless of duty or MOS (Military occupation Specialty) have seen combat or been exposed to action. If possible use a combat vet as your interviewer as opposed to a support vet.

Suggested Strategies and Talking Points

There are a few simple strategies one can use to ferret out the truth. The quickest way is to lull the person into a position of comfort and feed into his story to get him talking. Save the direct challenges at first to loosen him up. Here are some conversational tips:

  • Use some jargon and see if they understand and respond in kind. If they claim to be in the Air Force and had an MOS, they weren’t there. The Air Force uses an AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code)
  • Ask them where they were stationed, specifically, which base or post. If a Ranger doesn’t know where Ft. Lewis is, or an Infantryman is unaware of Ft. Benning, or if an Airman doesn’t know where Nellis AFB is located, those are clues. If a Marine thinks Camp Lejeune is in SOUTH Carolina, also an indicator that they were never in the service.
  • Often the phony will claim to be so special that he never had to clean while in service. That is a huge clue! Everyone becomes very intimate with cleaning supplies and barracks inspection regardless of service.
  • Often the phony doesn’t take the time to learn his charade in depth. Once you start asking specific technical questions or misleading questions that they can’t discuss that is a clue.
  • If you ask someone what they did in the service and they keep saying that they were so secret that they can’t discuss it, the country or unit, it may be a ruse.
  • If a person is out in public in uniform such as at a parade, protest or at a mall for example and there is not a military post anywhere in the area, this should raise questions. The same should be noted if a person shows up to interview with the group while in uniform. Usually these people have no understanding of proper medal, rank or patch placement. They also are not familiar with the rank structure within their chosen service.

UPDATE: New regulations have began to prohibit the wearing of uniform outside of base or post due to terrorism threats.

  • Equipment is also a trip up for the phony. Everyone who served knows what an FM or a TM is as well as hand receipts and other physical equipment or paperwork.
  • Every soldier also has a load of humorous or service specific stories related to buddies or places served. As you chat you may stumble onto something they say that you are familiar with. That is your opportunity to drop a phony question to see if they blindly agree.
  • If the person claims to no longer be in service ask him for the form number of his discharge. It is either a DD-214 or NGB-22 If he is still in service he will hold an approved ID card
  • It usually takes only moments to out a phony and there are plenty of resources to report such an imposter. Keep in mind that some people don’t want to talk about their service but if they bring it up and claim to be a veteran, they will also likely desire to back up their story. If an imposter is revealed, he should never be trusted or allowed to join your group.


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