She spotted her blind date right away: the clean-cut guy in the black T-shirt that said Special Forces.
Kristen Rhoad had first come into contact with Phil Haberman on Match.com in December 2003. One screen name he favored was 19thSFguy--an allusion to his role in Army Special Forces. A self-described adrenaline junkie who loved everything from "skydiving to swimming with sharks," Haberman listed his income as $50,000 to $75,000 a year and claimed he didn't party, smoke or drink.
He sounded honorable, manly, stable.
Everything that Rhoad, 38 and between jobs, was looking for--and everything that had eluded her so far in serious relationships. Rhoad worked as a legal secretary in Las Vegas to support herself and her 13-year-old daughter Heather. When times were lean, though, like they were now, Rhoad resorted to waiting tables or dancing as "Sedona" at a strip club.
Soon after they met in a casino restaurant, Rhoad and Haberman were chatting like best friends. Haberman, born and raised in Dallas, said he rarely talked to his family "because they didn't believe anything he said." His new home was Key West.
Haberman said he'd joined the Marines in 1989 but had been forced to leave in 1998 after a diving accident almost cost him his life. After his recovery, Haberman said, he'd joined Army Special Forces and was now a sniper and a crypto-linguist, trained in technology to decipher foreign languages.
Listening to his military exploits, Rhoad felt drawn to Haberman, then 31. Short, with big brown eyes and crew-cut brown hair, the soldier had a teddy-bearish quality but carried himself with confidence.
"He asked me what I wanted to do with my life--what my living situation was with my daughter, how long I had been divorced," Rhoad says. Haberman didn't ask her income, but quizzed her about other things: Did she own a house? Was it well-furnished? What about a boat?
When Rhoad said that she lived in a townhouse in a gated community and had two dogs, Haberman's eyes turned pleading. He'd volunteered to go to Iraq, and his dog Jake, a rare Dogo Argentino, needed a place to live while he was gone. "I'd be willing to pay you," Haberman said. Rhoad agreed to take Jake. It was the least she could do for a soldier going to war.
Days later, both Jake and Haberman had moved into her townhouse.
After about a month, an excited Haberman announced he had orders to report to Fort Bragg for training and deployment to Iraq. "He said, 'Let's get married,'" Rhoad says. He'd send her money for rent, plus she'd get military spouse benefits.
"I thought I was in love with him," Rhoad says. "He made me believe everything was perfect, he was going to take care of me."
Hours after they exchanged vows on January 10, 2004, at the Las Vegas courthouse, Haberman piled his belongings into his car. Rhoad was terrified for her new husband, but Haberman viewed it as his job to personally exterminate all the terrorists. As he headed off to North Carolina, Haberman promised to send her dead Iraqis' ears on a string.
Their hasty marriage, however, quickly hit the rocks. By March, when Haberman shipped out to Iraq, they were constantly fighting. Then in April, Rhoad got a call from Haberman, at a hospital in Germany. He said he'd gotten "blown up" by a rocket-propelled grenade while riding in a convoy. His leg and intestines were "messed up bad." Rhoad had been ready to end the marriage but felt she had to stand beside him.
For more than a year now, Haberman has been at Womack Medical Center at Fort Bragg on "medical hold" while undergoing treatment. He sports a Purple Heart "Combat Wounded" ribbon on the bumper of his car. In May 2004, WFAA-Channel 8 aired a story about wounded Special Forces soldier Haberman visiting the journalism class at his alma mater, Richardson High School. He'd written a series of stories about the war for the paper, which inspired the class to collect items to send to troops in Iraq.
Rhoad now believes Haberman married her to get increased benefits as a married soldier, though he kept most of the money for himself. Then Rhoad began to wonder: Was Haberman really in Special Forces? Was he really wounded in Iraq?
Because of privacy laws, confirming that a soldier was wounded in combat is difficult. When the Dallas Observer asked Haberman for permission to obtain his full military record, he refused. "I'm not going to have any feeling in my abdomen or in my left foot for the rest of my life!" Haberman snapped. "I didn't pay the ultimate price, but there are guys in my unit who did pay the ultimate price. This is an insult to them!"
A high-ranking officer who'd befriended Haberman called to defend him. "This is a witch hunt," said the officer, who asked not to be identified. A month later he was calling Haberman "full of half-truths."
Haberman, enraged that anyone would question his military credentials, nonetheless agreed to an interview on base at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Army Special Operations Command. Now seeking an annulment of their marriage, Haberman claims Rhoad is an "ID card chaser"--a woman who marries a soldier just for benefits--out to ruin his military career. He insists his job now is to "heal up" so he can return to fight in Iraq.
"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.
Sarah Kenney: A woman in Grand Junction, Colorado, called a radio station in August 2004 using the name Amber Kenney, saying she was a National Guard soldier leaving for basic training and that her husband Jonathan was already fighting in Iraq. Kenney called in frequently with many details about their lives. In February 2005, Kenney contacted the media to say that her husband had been killed leaping in front of a bullet to save an Iraqi child. After an organization called Hometown Heroes sent a fax confirming the death, news outlets ran the story. But an investigation by a local newspaper revealed that Kenney's name was Sarah, not Amber. She'd never served in the National Guard, nor had her husband Michael, who was alive and managing a fast-food restaurant. Confronted, Kenney said, "I feel like an ass." She pleaded guilty to criminal impersonation and received probation.
James D. Johnson: For years, North Carolina resident Johnson, now 49, told of his exploits as a Navy SEAL. After 9/11, Johnson told one woman who'd known him for 26 years that he'd been called to active duty in Iraq and asked her to marry him when he returned from combat. According to The Charlotte Observer, Johnson paid her a surprise visit in 2003 wearing camouflage and dusty combat boots, saying he was on leave from Iraq. Then the girlfriend discovered Johnson was romancing other women with his tales of derring-do. The newspaper found that Johnson was an insurance adjuster who had served in the Navy during the '70s as a petty officer; he'd never been a SEAL.
Some wannabes use their status as veterans to garner sympathy, to get ahead in their careers or to manipulate their loved ones. Other phonies go to extremes such as forging documents to lay claim to combat decorations and veterans' benefits they haven't earned.
The Observer found that Phil Haberman's military claims are just one facet of a life lived in fantasy and deception.
Love Me, Love My Dog
Rhoad wonders if she would have been as supportive of Haberman if it weren't for Jake. Rhoad loved dogs; she owned purebred Akitas.
After their first lunch, Haberman explained that a friend had given him a fresh-caught tuna and invited himself over to cook dinner for Rhoad and her daughter. But after the meal, Haberman got a phone call that Rhoad could tell was from an angry female. He explained that she'd been keeping Jake but was fed up with the dog and had taken him to the pound.
The next morning Rhoad went with Haberman to rescue Jake. Seeing cuts and scrapes on the animal, Haberman "totally freaked out," Rhoad says. Though he didn't have proof of immunizations, Haberman insisted Jake was a military dog and threatened to sue the shelter because the animal was injured. The shelter released the dog and apologized to Haberman.
Within days, Haberman had shifted gear--dog, duffel bag and white Mustang convertible--to Rhoad's townhouse. He seemed like a career soldier. Most of his clothes were military issue or shirts that said Special Forces. He sported a large tattoo of a Marine bulldog on his right arm. Other screen names he used included ForceReconMarine and usmcdog4u. She later found out he was an E-4 (Specialist, a grade higher than Private First Class).
Haberman never seemed to have any money, because the military "had messed up his pay," but he had dreams. A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Haberman had walk-on roles in the TV show JAG and movies such as High Crimes and Scorpion King. His résumé listed "11 years Marine reconnaissance" and experience as a "combat tactical expert," "in-water trauma medic" and "weapons specialist."
Another undertaking was more outrageous: woodyreview.com, where a clothed Haberman, sporting an erection, posed as "Woody Hunter"--promoting reviews of porn sites. (Haberman says "Woody Hunter" was just a photo gig.)
Haberman's biggest project, however, was going to make him a fortune. He'd redesigned a Gentex oxygen mask/helmet for Special Operations paratroopers who did "high-altitude/low opening" jumps. Already, one branch of the military had placed orders for 10,000 of the masks, and Haberman would make 3 percent profit on sales.
One day Haberman and Rhoad drove to the naval base at China Lake, California, where he presented the mask to some highly skilled jumpers. That night, the military personnel took Haberman and Rhoad out for dinner. She was impressed, though Haberman insisted anyone he married would have to sign a prenuptial agreement that any profits were his separate property.
Rhoad had hoped Haberman would be a positive influence for Heather, whose father hadn't been involved in her life. But Heather hated the soldier, who thought she was an undisciplined brat. At Haberman's insistence, Rhoad sent Heather to a girls' camp, then to a relative's home. She wanted to give the relationship with Haberman a chance.
Everything seemed to be going well until their wedding day, when he left for several months of training at Fort Bragg. "I gave him $300 from my unemployment, packed him a lunch, and he was gone," Rhoad says.
He called 24 hours later to say he was staying in Texas with a female friend--and could she send him more money? That's when Rhoad started having second thoughts. She'd found his communications with other women on her computer. When she flew to Fort Bragg to get her military dependent's ID card on January 17, Haberman's birthday, they fought over her suspicions that he was already cheating on her.
Rhoad was surprised when Haberman gave her address as Key West on the military documents. Haberman insisted that since it was his home of record, it was hers as well. Rhoad later discovered Haberman had at least a half-dozen addresses. His car was registered in Texas, but he also had addresses in California and North Carolina. She learned that the Army's basic housing allowance (BAH) for Key West was one of the highest in the country.
By marrying Rhoad, Haberman would receive about $550 extra each month in BAH plus $250 "separation pay" each month while he lived away from home. But Rhoad says Haberman wasn't sending her much money.
Haberman told her he'd had prostate cancer and was unable to father children, so Rhoad was shocked to learn in February that she was pregnant. He insisted she take an herbal potion to trigger an abortion; Rhoad refused, but a few weeks later she miscarried. "I was relieved," she says.
After the miscarriage, Haberman flew to Las Vegas on emergency leave. They made a stab at marriage counseling. "I was nonstop crying," Rhoad says. But the session ended in disaster, Rhoad says, after Haberman told the therapist that he'd served on Secret Service detail in the Clinton White House. When the counselor challenged him, Rhoad says, Haberman erupted in anger.
Though Rhoad had stayed on base with Haberman in a hotel at Fort Bragg, she began wondering if he was really in the military and confronted him. Haberman's teddy-bear look gave way to fury. He insisted that he was an Army Special Forces staff sergeant. "It was scary," Rhoad says.
Later in February, the couple got into a fight that turned physical. Rhoad took several Xanax and went to sleep, only to wake up in the emergency room.
Haberman had told the doctors she tried to commit suicide because he was going to Iraq and insisted that she be committed involuntarily. Rhoad admits she was depressed but says she hadn't tried to kill herself. Released three days later, Rhoad discovered that Jake had trashed her house, defecating everywhere. Several months later, in June, she filed a series of complaints with the Henderson, Nevada, police against Haberman alleging "sexual assault, battery and coercion." An investigator talked to Haberman, who said the sex was consensual and that she was just trying to get him in trouble. No action was taken.
As their relationship disintegrated, Rhoad filed repeated complaints with Haberman's commanding officer. Estimating the relationship had cost her more than $20,000, she went after the BAH payments with a vengeance.
Beware the pissed-off female with paralegal skills.
Haberman fought back, alleging that Rhoad had committed unemployment fraud and was determined to ruin his military career.
Even amidst the bitterness, though, they continued to communicate by e-mail after Haberman was deployed to Iraq.
When he heard about the Channel 8 news story on his adoptive brother Phil that ran in May 2004, Adam Haberman was dismayed. The story centered on "Sergeant Phil Haberman, a Special Forces soldier" who'd served in Iraq and had been "badly hurt during a rocket attack." Phil was featured returning to Richardson High School, where he'd graduated in 1990. For several months, he'd been writing letters to the journalism class about training at Fort Bragg and "the war, the loneliness and helping the Iraqi people." The letters, published in the school newspaper, had inspired the class to gather "Stuff for Soldiers." They had three dozen boxes ready to be shipped to Iraq.
Adam didn't believe a word of it and called reporter Bill Brown to say he'd been scammed.
Now a researcher at UT Southwestern Medical School, Adam says that from the time he was a hyperactive child, Phil had told wild stories. "He was always lying to get attention," Adam says. "He shows no remorse [about the lies] and doesn't remember his stories six months later."
Richardson High School held enormous significance for Phil. As a youngster, he'd struggled with learning difficulties and was always in trouble. But at RHS he blossomed, Adam says, getting in shape by biking and becoming known as a photographer for the school yearbook.
Phil and his father took scuba diving classes together and got certified. As with everything he did, Phil became obsessed with the ocean. "I don't know how many Jacques Cousteau shows we watched," Adam says. "When something interests him, he puts a lot of attention to it."
To the family's surprise, Phil joined the Marines as soon as he graduated from high school. His family went to San Diego for his graduation from boot camp. Adam says Phil graduated a week later than his class. "He was a 'sick bay' soldier," Adam says, "always in the infirmary. But he got a lot of respect as a Marine."
When Adam heard about Channel 8's story, he flashed back to the time of Desert Storm, when Phil was in the Marines. "We got a staticky call from him, and he said he was in Iraq," Adam says. "I believed it. He came home after the war, and he was full of stories about Iraq. He was the center of attention when he went to school to talk about it." The family later learned that during the first Gulf War, Phil was training as a flight mechanic, hadn't left the United States and had been disciplined for going AWOL.
According to his Marine record, Haberman served from June 19, 1990, to October 2, 1991, receiving a general, "other than honorable" discharge as a private after 15 months of service. A note in the record says that he was released for misconduct and minor disciplinary actions and that his problems stemmed from "gross immaturity in dealing with the realities of adult situations." ("I was an immature punk," Haberman says. Since then, he adds, he's "grown up.") Haberman had no special operations training during his stint in the Marines.
Long after his time in the Marines ended, Haberman continued to sport the uniform, even wearing it on a TV game show. (His current head shot for acting gigs shows Haberman in a Marine uniform adorned with awards he didn't receive.) Haberman hopped around the country but rarely seemed to have a full-time job. He began telling his family he worked undercover for the DEA, but they viewed his stories with increasing skepticism.
"I've felt like since Desert Storm, the lies have gotten more and more ridiculous," Adam says. After Phil began telling people that he'd been abused as a child, the family wanted less and less to do with him. Adam denies Phil was ever a victim of child abuse. "My parents did everything for him." Adam, however, says he's tried to keep communications with Phil open because he believes his brother needs psychological help.
In 2000 or 2001, Adam was living in Baltimore, pursuing a Ph.D. in cell biology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, when he got a call from his brother. Phil was getting married in Colorado in a few weeks and wanted Adam to attend the wedding. His fiancée was a flight attendant and could get Adam a free ticket.
Adam agreed to go, but the next week Phil called again to say his fiancée had died of cancer. In succeeding calls the story grew even more outlandish: His fiancée wasn't dead after all; one of his relatives had lied to him. She'd inherited $665 million, but he needed money to fly to see her because she was being prevented from spending any of her inheritance.
The last time he saw Phil in person, Adam says, was two or three years ago in Baltimore. Phil brought out a picture of himself with about 100 Army troops and said he'd joined the Army Reserve.
Because of his "other than honorable" discharge from the Marines, Haberman had to obtain a waiver to join the Army Reserve. He served in the Nevada National Guard from August 12 to October 8, 2002, and then apparently transferred to the California guard.
"He said he was on medical leave because he got slapped upside a helicopter," Adam says. "But he looked perfectly fine. He didn't complain about any injuries." (Phil says he sustained a concussion.) At some point, he transferred to the Utah National Guard, where there was a Special Forces unit. A source with the UNG said that Phil started but didn't finish their Special Forces Qualification training.
Though he rarely saw his family, Haberman often returned to RHS to visit his old journalism teacher. After she retired, he formed a friendship in 2000 with the new teacher, Robin Johnson, dropping by at least once a year. Johnson, who no longer works for RHS, couldn't be reached for comment, but in an e-mail to Rhoad, she described her experience with Haberman.
In January 2004, Haberman stopped by, explained he was shipping off to Iraq and proposed sending back photos and letters so they could publish them in the school newspaper. The stories he sent from March through May are well-written but florid and self-aggrandizing.
During this period Haberman would sometimes call Johnson three or four times a day. In April, he asked the class to collect items for him and "the guys" in Iraq. Soon the whole school was involved, with teachers giving extra credit to kids who participated.
In early May, Haberman returned and told the class about his injury under fire. On a second trip, without asking the teacher's or school's permission, he called Channel 8 News to come to the school. He told reporter Bill Brown he was with Special Forces but didn't want that in the story "for security reasons."
Though he loves his brother, Adam thought the students deserved the truth. So he called Brown and told him he didn't believe Phil was in the Army Special Forces or that he'd been injured in Iraq. (The interview never aired; Brown left WFAA without being able to finish his research into Haberman's military record.)
Adam was surprised to learn that Phil really had joined the reserve, then had been called to active duty and deployed to Iraq. As a Marine during the first Gulf War, Phil got respect as a warrior. After 9/11, he went looking for that same respect in the Army Reserve, jumping from guard unit to guard unit, determined to get to the war. But in volunteering for Iraq, Phil got more than he bargained for.
On March 7, 2004, Haberman sent his first story to the school newspaper about "Validation" training at Fort Bragg. He described himself as a member of the 19th Special Forces Group with the U.S. Army, attached to the 30th Enhanced Separate Brigade, a support group out of the North Carolina National Guard, on a 12- to 16-month rotation "into the heart of Iraq and the Sunni Triangle."
"I traded in my now familiar Special Forces arrowhead with Airborne tab for the 30th ESB patch," he said about donning his new desert fatigues.
Haberman outlines his military jobs as "weapons specialist, communications specialist, infantry soldier, and Airborne Paratrooper," but concedes "the job I do is not glamorous. It is required...I volunteered for combat duty knowing full well the inherent risks associated with it. I love what I do and would not trade it for the world." But privately he complained to Rhoad that he was loading pallets, a job he considered far below his qualifications. Then his unit deployed without him.
On March 16, he e-mailed Rhoad that he was in Frankfurt waiting for a flight to Kuwait. His next missive to the high school came from Iraq. Reading between the lines of his stories, it is clear Haberman was a marginal soldier at best. While his unit deployed to Balad, he was left behind for five days to palletize gear. Haberman turned that into an asset.
"This was the one time that knowing how to pack a flight cargo load to USAF standards was paying off," Haberman wrote. "Out of the 264 of us there, I was the only one that knew how to do it."
Five days later he finally reached FOB (Forward Operating Base) Caldwell in Northern Iraq. He described sleeping in a tent with a wooden floor and no running water in the 120-degree heat. They had no laundry facilities, and everyone stank. All of them were required to be in body armor and Kevlar helmets everywhere they went--a reminder that all American troops, no matter what their jobs, are at risk in Iraq.
"This place SUCKS!!!!!!!" Haberman e-mailed Rhoad on March 23. "No one wants me in their units. NO one wanted me to even come here. So they are making life as miserable for me as possible until they can find something to do with me...We don't have power here, a chow hall, exchange, running water, and only 10 port a johns for 1,300 people. I hate it here for now."
A few days later, Haberman e-mailed Rhoad, "I'm getting fucked over so badly here it isn't even funny. They took my ammo from me and put me with the cooks. I'm desperately trying to get out of the 120th and go to the 113th. Someone shattered my box top [his personal trunk] and poured dirt and rocks into the box...So life is sucking HARD for me..."
He blamed Rhoad's complaints for his being unable to take leave--though he'd only been there a few days. Still, he kept up the correspondence. "I need Gatorade powder BADLY here," he e-mailed Rhoad. "I had to go to Medical yesterday to get fluids via IV. I had a 22 hour work day yesterday on KP. I put in transfer requests with other units and am waiting to hear back today who will take me."
Haberman called Rhoad four times from Iraq, complaining that they wouldn't let him do "his job" as a sniper and had lost his scuba gear, which he needed to work as a "body dredger" in the Tigris River. One call came from a tent where a webcam was set up so families could see their soldiers as they talked. "He looked scared to death," Rhoad says. "He said he was sleeping in dirt, dug-out holes in the ground." Haberman said he was sick of MREs; nothing in Iraq was as he expected.
Haberman's last epistle to the paper was an elaborate story about his combat injury, which occurred on April 9, 2004. "As I sit here in my hospital bed reflecting on everything that has happened over the last few months, I have to say one thing...WAR SUCKS!!!"
He described boarding a convoy that was to take him three hours away to LSA Anaconda "for a routine doctor's appointment" for a "prior diagnosed issue." (A lump in his testicle, Haberman says. A source from the North Carolina National Guard says Haberman was on his way to a psychiatric evaluation.)
"Almost to Camp Anaconda, I heard 'LOOK OUT!!!!!!!' All I know is we hit a pothole or something in the road avoiding what I was told was a rocket propelled grenade that had been launched at us. We hit that bump and I was launched up in the air and came down log style straddling a sandbag between my legs." As his body armor crunched into him, "the pain was immediate and pronounced."
Haberman provided the Observer an affidavit from "Staff Sergeant R.S. Smith" which he obtained a year later in support of his request for a Purple Heart. "Because [rank redacted] Haberman was in so much pain, we made our way to the CSH [the hospital] to have him looked at...When I was outside the tent I saw Haberman coming back from the toilets...he said he was bleeding rectally pretty badly. The next morning Haberman and I were taken to the CSH along with a couple of other soldiers. Haberman was in the ER a lot that day and he told me that they were sending him to Germany to get medical help."
Not included in the affidavit was Haberman's explanation of what happened while he was in the ER in Iraq and casualties started pouring in from the field.
"I forgot about the pain and asked them if there was anything I could do to help them since I was a medic back home," Haberman wrote in a letter to RHS. "My first job was to help unload casualties from the ambulances when they came in. My life was never going to be the same again." He said he worked all day in the ER and gives graphic descriptions of men's wounds, claiming he conferred with the docs to figure out what had caused one man's wounds.
Hours later, Haberman boarded a C-141 transport plane for the flight to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany with other wounded troops. "These 43 other men with me all shared something that very few of us ever will share," Haberman wrote. "We shared an understanding of what we had just been through. What we had been through was hell."
After what appear to be 24 days in the Middle East, Haberman got a ticket home from suffering a fall on his tush. During that period, 106 American troops died in Iraq.
For almost 17 months, Haberman has been on "medical hold" with Delta Company at Womack Army Medical Center, a beautiful new facility at Fort Bragg. He claims he still suffers from injuries to his abdomen, knee and foot. He says he's had nine surgeries and more are scheduled.
As Haberman walks around the hospital, occasionally grimacing in pain, he is careful to refer to himself as serving in "Special Operations," a term that can encompass support units as well as Special Forces. (Haberman later admitted he wasn't "Special Forces qualified," meaning he hadn't completed the extremely rigorous training required to be a part of these elite units. His unit was simply attached to a Special Forces unit.)
To prove his expertise as a paratrooper, from a duffel bag Haberman pulls out the Gentex high-altitude parachuting mask and explains that he has been working on modifications to the mask for seven years with a government contractor, which he refuses to name. (A Gentex spokesman says Haberman has never been an employee, was not involved in modifications and is not authorized to represent or sell the masks.)
To prove she is out to ruin him, Haberman holds up a tape recorder and plays phone messages from Rhoad, who now lives in San Diego. Rhoad sounds increasingly histrionic, like an angry woman screeching into a vacuum because Haberman has blocked her calls and e-mails. "How can I divorce your stupid ass if I don't know where you are at?" she complains at one point.
Their marriage erupted in nuclear warfare when Haberman returned to Fort Bragg; he filed for an annulment in July 2004. None of Rhoad's accusations against Haberman resulted in criminal charges, but her constant complaints to his commanding officer prompted disciplinary actions. As a result, according to one military source, Haberman was demoted one rank for impersonating a higher-ranking officer.
Rhoad didn't believe he'd been seriously hurt in Iraq. In an e-mail to Rhoad soon after he left Iraq, Haberman complained "they are so infinite in their wisdom that they are saying pre-existing and no Purple Heart for me...But to be honest with you, after seeing everything that I have in the past week, I don't deserve it based on my minor injuries. The guy I saw cut in half deserves it and a lot more. I never thought...that it would be as bad as it is."
His injuries weren't slowing Haberman down. After arriving in Germany, he'd e-mailed Rhoad that he was going to Switzerland and Belgium on a hospital-organized sightseeing tour for the wounded. In May he went to Texas. That June, Rhoad was surprised to get an e-mail from a cousin in Massachusetts saying that Haberman had visited her while he was near Boston for some treatment. They'd gone to a karaoke bar together, and "They gave him a big round of applause and thanked him for what he did in Iraq," her cousin wrote.
While researching her husband's past, Rhoad discovered that despite Haberman's claims that he made $50,000 to $70,000, he'd never reported to the IRS earning more than about $12,000 a year. She found a trail of women who had agreed to help him because he was a soldier. Some took care of his dog Jake or did other favors. Several women had good experiences with him and thought Rhoad was being selfish and demanding. Others felt used and abused by Haberman.
"I don't even know you and I went and spent $200 to get your damn dog out and you haven't even so much as said thank you," one woman told him by instant message.
A female officer at Fort Bragg e-mailed Rhoad that after she agreed to take care of Jake, the dog bit a child and Haberman wouldn't reimburse her for expenses. "I hope you can do something about Phil, he is definitely poison...Phil is a liar and thinks the world revolves around him...Phil is to check into the hospital this evening...for a torn prostate or so he says. He is under the impression that they are sending him back to Iraq...someone needs to know of his instability..."
Haberman finagled $400 out of a group called Soldier's Angels by complaining that the group's volunteers had run up his cell phone bill. "Between the $400 and the lies, oh my gosh," says Viktoria Carter, Soldier's Angels' former national director, who is married to a Special Forces soldier. Then Haberman turned abusive toward her. "It got to the point where we went and bought me a gun," Carter says.
Other women met Haberman through Match.com or other dating sites. After his return, he updated his "OceanLuvnGuy" profile on Militarysingles.com, checking "single; never been married" and adding: "I was wounded in Iraq and have a lot of free time on my hands now. I'm healing up from my wounds...and am currently with Army Special Forces."
That's how Bonny Bentley met him. "He was complaining, 'no one's come to see me, my family has disowned me,'" says Bentley, a successful 42-year-old woman who lives in Atlanta. Feeling sorry for him, Bentley flew to Fort Bragg in October 2004 for the weekend.
When Haberman picked her up at the airport, he was limping and looked pitiful. "He was very wounded abdominally," Bentley said. "His prostate was torn. He was in bad shape."
But his wounds didn't preclude romance. Bentley ruefully admits she had sex with him.
Though he had a billet in a hotel on base, Haberman lived in a nice house with a pool that he and a female roommate rented in Fayetteville. "He didn't want the military to know he wasn't living on base," Bentley says. As the weekend progressed, Haberman told her he was going through a horrible annulment and was being prosecuted for AWOL because his wife had complained to his commander. Could he borrow $5,000 for attorney's fees?
"I felt sorry for him," Bentley says. "Here's this poor soldier wounded in Iraq, and the military was doing him a great injustice." She wired him the money the next week.
But when Bentley e-mailed Haberman a request to sign a statement saying he would pay the money back, he turned on her in anger, saying she was "just like all the rest." He ended all contact, Bentley says. In early August, Bentley filed a lawsuit against Haberman for fraud. Bentley says, "I can't believe I fell for this shit."
A Purple Heart and More
On operationwoundedsoldier.org, donors can click Paypal and for $30 send a soldier a care package. Based at Fort Stewart, Georgia, the site says more than 2,700 "frontline" soldiers have signed up to be adopted, but Haberman's account of his combat injury is the only personal story posted.
Service members' medical records cannot be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Haberman provided the affidavit from Staff Sergeant R.S. Smith, who described the rocket-propelled grenade being fired at the convoy, the truck swerving and Haberman landing on the sandbags. But he refused to provide the sergeant's full name and location so that the document could be independently verified, or to provide the name of his commanding officer in Iraq. Captain Kevin Clark, his current commanding officer, did not return phone calls.
But doctors' notes Haberman submitted in annulment proceedings indicate his diagnosis was a hernia, anal pain and rectal bleeding. He also complains of damage to his foot and knee. Haberman underwent surgery to correct the hernia on June 19, 2004. A document signed by Dr. Marjory Cannon determines that Haberman's injury was incurred in the line of duty and likely to result in a claim against the government for future medical care.
"As you saw in those documents, the government has determined I'm going to have a permanent partial disability," Haberman says. He claims he was offered medical retirement, giving him a service-connected disability rating of "at least" 30 percent (allowing him to receive 30 percent of his pay for the rest of his life.) But Haberman says he turned it down to stay in the military because "I love what I do."
As he discusses the intricacies of the military disability compensation system, it is clear that there's another reason he's stayed in the military. If Haberman starts the medical board proceedings now, he can't stop them. But the longer he waits, the more disabled he becomes. "Now they have to remove the nerve from my foot," Haberman says. "I could get 50 percent. They could say I'm not going to get anything. I'm not going to take that chance."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Haberman also says he's been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for all the carnage he witnessed in Iraq. "No one knows how long that takes to go away," Haberman says. That diagnosis might jack his disability rating well over 50 percent.
Haberman says he will soon be leaving medical hold at Fort Bragg to be released to the Inactive Reserve; his enlistment is up in January 2006. He's going to have to get a job. But Haberman still fantasizes about being a warrior. By e-mail, he asked the Observer not to print a story about him, because the publicity and printing of his photo would render him unable to serve in Special Operations in the future.
"What you don't understand is that any American that can pick up that paper and read it, the same goes for a 'Haaji' [Iraqi] that is looking to further his cause and to try to kill Americans," Haberman says. "And Hamas has a large following in Dallas, and al Qaeda has an operations center in Arlington, if you didn't already know that."
Maybe Haberman should have considered that before posting his picture and his story on the Internet.