Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on military impostors.
There are often false accusations against actual military veterans. Accusations do occasionally backfire, with real veterans accused of being imposters. Doug Sterner, a Vietnam War veteran who catalogs military awards, and Stolen Valor author B.G. Burkett, note that some modern veterans have become hypersensitive to imposters, leading to vigilantism or even turning detection into a “hunting game.”
A common error is placing too much emphasis on the neatness of a uniform or certain quirks about how it’s worn, which is not necessarily compelling when a veteran is older and has been out of the service for several decades. Another is making too many inferences based on older regulations, such as gender restrictions that were in place in the past. Even FOIA requests to the National Personnel Records Center, considered the most thorough type of verification for U.S. veterans, are not perfect and sometimes fail to find a record even if the veteran is genuine.
Sterner states, “There’s some people that feel good about confronting people, and making themselves look big by trying to take them down. But when they do that, they’re going to make mistakes.”
Unfortunately, there are many military imposters. Here is a list of some notable American military imposters:
• Joseph A. Cafasso – American con artist and former Fox News military analyst who claimed to have been a highly decorated Special Forces soldier and Vietnam War veteran. He actually served in the U.S. Army for only 44 days in 1976.
• Wes Cooley – Former U.S. congressman from Oregon who claimed to have fought in the Korean War. He served in the U.S. Army for two years, but was never in Korea. Convicted of lying in an official document.
• Brian Dennehy – American actor who claimed to have fought and been wounded in the Vietnam War. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1959 to 1963. He was not wounded and did not serve in Vietnam.
• Frank Dux – American martial artist, fight choreographer, and author who claims he was on covert missions to Southeast Asia while serving with the United States Marine Corps and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He also claimed he was a CIA field officer. Dux served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve from 1975 to 1981, but he was never sent overseas, never received the Medal of Honor, and was never recruited by the CIA.
• Joseph Ellis – American professor and historian who claimed a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He had a graduate student deferral of service until 1969 and then taught history at West Point until 1972. He issued a public apology in August 2001.
• Jonathan Idema – American con artist who claimed to be a U.S. government-sponsored special forces operative in Afghanistan, and he had 12 years of Special Forces service, 22 years of combat training, and 18 years of covert operations experience. In actuality, he served in the U.S. Army from 1975 to 1984 primarily in the U.S. Army Reserve and while he did serve with the 11th Special Forces Group, it was purely as logistical support. He never saw combat and was never sent overseas. Convicted of fraud in 1994 and later convicted in 2004 by an Afghan court of capturing and torturing citizens he believed were terrorists.
• M. Larry Lawrence – American real estate developer and later United States ambassador to Switzerland who claimed to be a seaman, first class in the Merchant Marine during World War II and a veteran of the Arctic convoys. Upon his death, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a eulogy delivered by President Bill Clinton. A year later, his claims of service were exposed as fraudulent and his remains disinterred.
• Jesse Macbeth – Anti-war activist who claimed to be an Army Ranger and veteran of the Iraq War. In reality, he was discharged from the Army after only 44 days for being “unfit for duty.” Confessed in federal court after being charged with possessing a forged or altered military discharge certificate and making false statements in seeking benefits from the Veterans Administration.
• William Northrop – American military historian, investigator, and writer who claimed to be a U.S. Army Special Forces officer for three years in the Vietnam War, including being badly wounded at the Battle of Lang Vei, an event at which only 24 Americans were present. An extensive search of US military records and a check with the FBI revealed he never served in any branch of the US military.
• Douglas R. Stringfellow – Former U.S. congressman from Utah who claimed to be an OSS agent in World War II, that he was a recipient of a Silver Star, and that he was tortured by the Germans at Belsen Prison, which left him with a mobility impairment that left him unable to walk, requiring the use of a wheelchair. In reality, he was a private in the Army Air Forces, never worked for the OSS, did not receive the Silver Star, and was capable of walking with a cane. Made a public confession after he was exposed by his political opponents.
• Delmart Vreeland – American con artist and sex offender who claimed to be to a U.S. spy and naval intelligence officer where he allegedly learned of the September 11 attacks before they happened. U.S. Navy records revealed he enlisted in 1986 but was discharged before completing basic training due to poor behavior.
• Micah Wright – Author and anti-war activist who claimed to be an Army Ranger involved in the United States invasion of Panama and several other special operations. He was an ROTC student in college, but he neither earned a commission nor served in the military. Confessed and apologized online after learning an exposé was being written.
• Walter Williams – He was thought to be the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War upon his death in 1959. Evidence later surfaced that he was not born the year he claimed and was still a young child when the war ended.
In literature there are also instances of military imposters. Here is one example of one such imposter:
• Cyrus Trask, a character in John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden,” loses his leg in the first and only action he saw during the U.S. Civil War. He subsequently creates an entire military career, encompassing nearly every battle of the war, and stating that he was a personal advisor to President Lincoln.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.