Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on military impostors.
A military impostor is a person who makes false claims about their military service in civilian life. This includes claims by people who have never been in the military, as well as lies or embellishments by genuine veterans. Some individuals who do this also wear privately obtained uniforms or medals which were never officially issued to them.
In British military slang, such impostors are called “Walts,” based on James Thurber’s fictional character, Walter Mitty, who daydreamed of being a war hero. In the United States since the early 2000s, the term “stolen valor” has become popular slang for this kind of behavior, so named for the 1998 book of that name. Other terms include “fake warriors,” “military phonies,”, “medal cheats” and “military posers.”
Lying about military service or wearing a uniform or medals that were not earned is criminalized in some circumstances, especially if done with the goal of obtaining money or any other kind of tangible benefit, though laws vary by country.
Military impostors engage in a broad range of deceptive behaviors, all intended to garner recognition from others. An impostor may make verbal statements, written claims, or create deceptive impressions through actions, such as wearing a uniform, rank insignia, unit symbols, medals or patches.
Generally, impostors fall into two broad categories: civilians who have never been in any branch of the military and real veterans who make false claims exaggerating their experiences or accomplishments. Impostors in the latter category may claim any of the following:
• Being the recipient of awards that were not earned
• Having a longer service duration
• Having a more favorable discharge
• Holding a higher rank than one actually held
• Having served with a different branch of the military
• Having served with a different unit that is more famous
• Being a different role or occupational specialty
• Involvement in a war or specific engagement one was not present for
• Performing a brave or valorous act that never happened
• Participation in “special” or “secret” operations
• Being a prisoner of war (POW)
While many individuals outright fabricate some or all of their military service history, others employ deceitful tactics or similarly misleading language that avoids making a technically false statement, but still gives a deceptive impression.
A common example is stating one was in a branch of the military during a specific war. In many contexts, such a statement implies that the speaker was deployed to a combat zone, even if in reality never left their home country. A similar misleading statement is boasting about being a member of a branch or unit that is well known for its combat prowess and heroic achievements, when the speaker was purely in a logistical role without any combat experience. Impostors also frequently claim to be part of “classified” operations as an excuse for why they cannot provide details when confronted, or why there is no record of their actions or service.
There appear to be many motivations for individuals to become military impostors, some of which are noted below.
Historically, when military record-keeping was less accurate than it is now, some men falsely claimed to be war veterans to obtain military pensions. Such men added a few years to their ages and claimed service in obscure units. Most did not make extravagant claims, because they were seeking money, not public attention that might expose them. There were numerous U.S. media reports in the 1950s of men claiming to be Confederate veterans over 110 years old, and most articles debunked these stories, saying the men had exaggerated their ages and made fraudulent pension claims years earlier and then found themselves in the spotlight after the last genuine Civil War veterans died off. Walter Williams, noted below, is considered one of these impostors, though some people continue to believe his claim.
In the modern world, reasons for posing as a member of the military or exaggerating one’s service record vary, but the intent is almost always to gain the respect and admiration of others. Philosophy professor Verna V. Gehring describes such people as “virtue impostors,” in that they don’t necessarily adopt the identity of another person, but instead adopt a false history for themselves to impersonate virtues and characteristics. Many are only motivated by social recognition, attempting to exploit the reverence and respect for veterans in their country. These individuals often become absorbed in a fantasy of being a veteran that they attempt to live out in real life, sometimes even inserting themselves into public events or ceremonies, or volunteering for interviews with journalists about their alleged experiences. Others are motivated by more direct gains, such as impressing employers, casting directors, audiences, investors, voters in political campaigns or romantic interests.
Occasionally, impostors use their claims in an attempt to intimidate others, such as claiming to be a trained sniper or ex-special forces, or use their fabricated experiences as a pretense of authority for their opinions on political matters. False claims of military service are also used by panhandlers to increase donations, sometimes coupled with real or fake injuries that are implied to be combat-related.
There are various ways to detect and expose military impostors. Military impostors are frequently caught and exposed due to mistakes and inconsistencies in their stories or behaviors. For example, they may be too young or too old to have been in the war they say they were or too young for the rank they claim to be, might inadvertently profess to have been in two different places at once, or might state factually incorrect information about the war they allegedly were part of. Among impostors that wear uniforms, they often make mistakes about the placement of patches, insignia and medals, and may have some from the wrong branch or from old campaigns they could not possibly have taken part in. Real veterans often can spot mistakes more readily, especially if they were part of the same branch the impostor claims to have served in.
Some countries have ways of verifying military service and certain claims within it. In the United States, most real veterans that have been separated from the military for any reason has a DD Form 214 they can present — although other forms are possible, ex. DD-256, which indicates their branch, rank, unit, MOS/AFSC ((Military Occupational Specialty/Air Force Specialty Code), awards, and other information. Alternatively, requests can also be made to the National Personnel Records Center using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to verify service. Other claims can be verified against public lists, such as recipients of the Medal of Honor or the prisoner of war list from the Vietnam War. Several websites are specifically devoted to verifying the claims of alleged military impostors, and if discovered to have lied, proceed to shame the perpetrator publicly.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.