By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"They were going to retire me from the military," Haberman says. "I told them I did not want to get out. I love being in special operations."
Trying to find out more about the man she married, Rhoad learned that Jake had made the rounds, helping Haberman get sympathy, money and affection from a string of women. He's lied about his rank, about his role with Special Forces and about what happened to him in Iraq, where he served less than a month. Haberman claims he's been granted the Purple Heart; if so, it was for a bad fall on his butt.
But he's not just a wannabe warrior looking for respect. Haberman has preyed upon people trying to help the troops, taking advantage of their kindness.
In the wake of every war, those who fight it tell tales. Exaggerations are common, even expected, especially as the war retreats into distant memory. But some soldiers go to war and bring back tales of heroism that never happened. And sometimes people who never went pretend they are veterans who put their lives on the line for their country.
I first became aware of this phenomenon while writing Stolen Valor with co-author B.G. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran. Published in 1998, our book outlines the myths and stereotypes about soldiers who fought or served in Vietnam. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained the military records of more than 1,500 "image-makers," men who appeared in the press and often reinforced the image of the soldier who returned home traumatized by all he had seen and done in combat. More than 75 percent of the time, these image-makers were phonies. Either they had never served in Vietnam or they had wildly exaggerated their deeds and misdeeds, claiming that they were SEALS, Special Forces, covert operatives and POWs. In short: Rambo.
This is so rampant that several individuals and groups have networked together to expose the phonies, including Burkett, Captain Larry Bailey (a retired Navy SEAL), VeriSEAL.org, the Special Forces Association and POWnetwork.org (run by Chuck and Mary Schantag). They refer criminal cases to a handful of FBI agents who have experience in military investigations.
Hollywood is starting to recognize the phenomenon. This summer, a Web site promoting the movie Wedding Crashers posted a printable "Purple Heart" as part of its "crasher kit" guaranteed to help freeloaders snag gratis booze and pick up women: "To get one of these babies, some dudes have to prove their physical, mental, and spiritual strength with great feats of bravery on the battlefield. All you need to do is press the button below." An uproar from veterans prompted the promoters to pull the gag.
It has long been a federal crime to buy, sell, trade or falsely wear a Medal of Honor. In July, Representative John Salazar (D-Colorado) introduced the "Stolen Valor Act of 2005" in Congress to expand the law to certain high-level combat decorations and the Purple Heart. There's a move to extend the act to make it illegal to falsely claim any military medals or decorations.
After 9/11, the first wave of wannabe warriors claiming service in Afghanistan and Iraq started showing up:
• Thomas Larez: In December 2001, Channel 8 ran a story about this Dallas soldier, who claimed a record of heroism in Afghanistan. The newscast, based on a "Marine advisory" written by his commanding officer, said that Sergeant Larez pulled an injured soldier to safety, and then, despite his own combat wounds, killed seven Taliban soldiers. WFAA retracted the story after learning Larez had concocted the advisory himself. He'd never left the United States.
• Stephen Emmons: In the middle of an Alabama college basketball game in December 2001, the announcer introduced Navy Petty Officer Emmons, 26, as a "diver hero." Emmons claimed he disarmed underwater mines in the Arabian Sea and accompanied other divers to Afghanistan in support of a SEAL unit. After his story was printed in the Mobile Register, the SEAL community outed Emmons as a fraud. He wasn't a diver, and he'd never served in the Arabian Sea or Afghanistan. Petty Officer Emmons was a submarine sonar man.
• Andrew Isbell: During his August 2004 trial for drug possession in Rockport, Texas, Sergeant Andrew Isbell wore his Army uniform with two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. After testifying that he was home on medical leave after being wounded on patrol in Baghdad, Isbell was acquitted. Tipped by an observer who questioned the way his medals were arranged, investigators discovered Isbell was a private who served as a cook. He never saw combat and had been discharged after going AWOL. (Isbell was charged with aggravated perjury.)
• Justin McCauley: From Rosemont, California, McCauley told the Sacramento Bee he was a Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan in 2002. The Bee later retracted the story. McCauley was actually an aviation ordnance man who served on an aircraft carrier.
• Lisa Jane Phillips: Officials at Meredith College in North Carolina waived $42,178 in tuition for Captain Phillips after she returned from serving as an Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. In January 2005, Phillips wore her uniform--adorned with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart--to class and told elaborate stories of her heroism. The campus police chief, a Vietnam veteran, got suspicious because one of the medals on Phillips' uniform was from WWII. He called in federal investigators, who charged Phillips with impersonating an officer and a dozen other federal crimes. She had never served in the military.