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A fabricated military history should raise all kinds of reporting red flags

A fabricated military history should raise all kinds of reporting red flags

Picture of William Heisel
The list of politicians who have been forced to correct false claims about their military record includes Sen. Richard Blumentha
The list of politicians who have been forced to correct false claims about their military record includes Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), shown here at a 2010 press conference held to address the issue. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

I still can remember that defensive feeling that welled up in me when my editor doubted me.

It was Craig Troainello, one of the best editors I have ever worked for, and he doubted one fact in a story that I never would have thought really mattered. I had written a feature story about kids in the economically depressed part of the Yakima Valley, many of them from the Yakama Nation, who were playing in a new soccer league. It was supposed to be about introducing sports to young kids who, in some cases, came from troubled homes or had troubles themselves. The coach of the team mentioned to me that he had served in Vietnam, and I put that in the story as a bit of color to underscore what I perceived as a no-nonsense, military-style demeanor, interwoven with his real kindness and concern for the kids.

Craig said something like, “How do you know he served in Vietnam?”

I said, “Because he told me he did.”

Craig said, “People say they did all kinds of things, and, for whatever reason, they tend to say they served in the military — particularly Vietnam — when they really didn’t.”

That thought literally had never occurred to me. I had grown up in a home where lying was an offense met with a belt to the behind. My dad would rather we broke something and took full responsibility than broke something and lied. The thought of lying about something like serving in Vietnam seemed too impossibly brazen. Wouldn’t some four-star general find this guy and correct the record, belt in hand?

So I called a few numbers I could find for contacts at the U.S. Army. I couldn’t find any record of the coach’s service. Everyone I talked to was quick to say that if I had more information they would be better able to track him down. Did I know what unit he was in? Did I know the dates of his service? Did I know where he was stationed? I ended up with the Military Personnel Records Division in St. Louis, Mo. But they were no help either. He had a fairly common name, and I didn’t know anything else about him.

I thought of calling him up and asking him for a bunch of details, but then I looked at my story. How much did his service in Vietnam — or lack thereof — matter to this piece? I was writing about a bunch of kids joining a new soccer league, not this coach’s personal story. The photos that went with the piece were all about capturing the kids in action.

So I cut it out. But ever since then, every time I have seen military service listed as part of someone’s bio or resume, I check it out. Most of the time, it turns out to be exactly as stated, but not always.

My editor, Ryan White, contacted Craig about my post. He said: 

Over the years we've encountered several instances of men who either outright lied about serving in Vietnam or grossly exaggerated their service. One especially notable case involved a former service member who regularly spoke to school classes and civic groups about his experiences as a Navy Seal. He had, in fact, served in Vietnam, sort of. He had been a barber on a naval ship stationed offshore. 

In fact, there has grown to be a culture of military-record hawks, people watching for any sort of fib or flub in statements about military service. This has ensnared numerous politicians, who seem particularly prone to puffing up their military histories.

Perhaps the best description of enhanced military heroics can be found in Robert Caro’s “Means of Ascent,” about the then-Rep. Lyndon Johnson creating a narrative around being in combat when, at best, he was in some rough military plane rides. “Though his wartime experiences were somewhat exaggerated, the telling was tremendously effective — particularly when he tied the experiences in with his pleas for ‘preparedness’.”

The list of politicians found with misinformation in their military records includes: Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn; Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif.; Rep. Wes Cooley, R-Ore.; and Rep. Douglas Stringfellow, R-Utah.

But it’s not just politicians looking to showcase their patriotism with a few dramatic stories. It’s also just regular people. It’s common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page for “military imposter.”

So what do you do as a reporter?

You’re writing a piece and someone says they served in the military. You might act intrigued and ask to see any of their commendations or metals. You will learn from that Wikipedia page that one of the common themes of a military imposter is the buying of military medals and uniforms, so that they can more easily misrepresent their history.

I think the most important thing for you to ask is whether the military history is relevant. If you cannot easily verify it by calling the relevant branch of the military, you should ask yourself whether you need to put it into the story at all. If it’s relevant, you should ask to see some documentation or to talk with others who would know about the service firsthand.

The second question is whether the claim of military service itself calls into question other aspects of the story. For example, it seems one of the other themes of military imposters is that the person served not only in the military but they also were in the “Army Special Forces” or were a “Navy SEAL.” That desire to not only have been in the military but to have served in an elite division is not that much different than people saying they had a perfect grade point average or graduated “summa cum laude.”

When they hit that higher bar of lying, it should make you skeptical of other things you have jotted down in your notebook. If they are trying really hard to persuade you that they had a stunning military career, what other things are they trying to obscure?

In the end, you may just be doing a feature story about kids playing soccer. And, in which case, you will want to just stick to the things that you can observe for yourself. Grass. Kids. Soccer balls. Nets.

**

Related Posts

Island of Doubt: Don’t let your great reporting be undermined by one source

Island of Doubt: Why you should distrust — but not dismiss — your sources

Island of Doubt: Check those references to deflate a source’s puffed-up resume

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