A military imposter is a person who makes false claims about his or her military service in civilian life. This includes claims by people that 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 imposters 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 achieve 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 Military 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 equivocation 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. Imposters also frequently claim to be part of "classified" operations as an excuse for why they cannot provide details or, when confronted, why there is no record of their actions or service.
Reasons for posing as a member of the military or exaggerating one's service record vary, but the intent is almost always about gaining the respect and admiration of others. Philosophy professor Verna V. Gehring describes such people as "virtue imposters," 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 imposters 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 their take, sometimes coupled with real or fake injuries that are implied to be combat-related.
Military imposters are frequently caught and exposed due to mistakes and inconsistencies in their story or behavior. 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 claim to have been in two different places at once, or might state factually incorrect information about the war they allegedly were part of. Among imposters 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 been in. Real veterans often can spot mistakes more readily, especially if they were part of the same branch the imposter claims to have been in.
Some countries have ways of verifying military service and certain claims within it. In the United States, any real veteran that has been separated from the military for any reason has a DD Form 214 they can present, which indicates their branch, rank, unit, MOS, awards, and other information. Alternatively, requests can also be made to the National Personnel Records Center using the Freedom of Information Act 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 imposters, and if discovered to have lied, proceed to shame the perpetrator publicly.
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 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 US 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."
Laws vary between countries regarding false statements about military service and/or wearing of uniforms or medals.
In the United States, the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it a federal offense to falsely claim to have received any of several major military awards with the intention of obtaining money, property, or other tangible benefits. There are additional laws criminalizing the altering or forging of discharge documents, and attempting to obtain veteran's benefits from the government.
In the United Kingdom, it was an offense under the Army Act 1955 to wear real or replica military decorations with intent to deceive. However, this law was superseded by the Armed Forces Act 2006, which lacks this prohibition.
It is still a crime in the UK for a civilian to wear a uniform of the armed forces without authorization under the Uniforms Act 1894, and false claims of military service used to obtain money or other enrichment are prosecuted under the general crime of fraud. In November 2016, the Defence Select Committee recommended making the wearing of unearned medals a criminal offence punishable by up to six months imprisonment.
Under the Australia's Defence Act, 1903, as amended, it is a federal crime to falsely claim to be a returned soldier, sailor or airman. It is also a crime to wear any service decoration one has not earned.
In Canada, section 419 of the Criminal Code makes it a crime to wear a uniform from the Canadian Forces without authority as well as any awards or marks not earned. It additionally makes it a crime to possess any fraudulent discharge papers, commissions, warrants or military ID, including those that are forged, altered or belong to someone else.
Notable 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. While he served in the United States Marine Corps from 1959–1963, he was never in Vietnam.
- George Dupre – Canadian who claimed that he worked for the SOE and the French Resistance during World War II. Dupre served in World War II, but he was never in France or with the SOE. Was the subject of a best-selling book about his fabricated experiences. Confessed after being interviewed by a reporter who tricked him by dropping false names.
- 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, and that he was also a CIA agent. Dux served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve from 1975 to 1981, but was never sent overseas, never received the Medal of Honor, and never was recruited by the CIA.
- Joseph Ellis – American professor and historian who claimed a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. His actual military record consisted of obtaining a graduate student deferral of service until 1969 and then teaching history at West Point until 1972. 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 that 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 army from 1975–1984 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 then-President Bill Clinton. A year later, his claims of service were exposed as fraudulent and his body was disinterred.
- Jack Livesey – British historian, military advisor on film productions, and author who claimed to have a distinguished twenty-year career in the Parachute Regiment. He actually served as a cook in the Army Catering Corps for three years.
- 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.
- Alan Mcilwraith – Call centre worker from Glasgow who, among other things, claimed that he was a decorated captain in the British Army. Mcilwraith had never served in the military.
- William Northrop - American military historian, investigator and writer who claimed to be a US Army Special Forces officer for three years in the Vietnam War, including being badly wounded at the Battle of Lang Vei, an event only 24 Americans were present at. An extensive search of US military records and a check with the FBI revealed he never served in any branch of the US military.
- James Shortt – British martial artist and purported security consultant who falsely claimed service with the SAS and Parachute Regiment. In reality he was trained as a medic in the Territorial Army and had left within months of joining.
- 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 wheelchair-bound. 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.
- Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt – German impostor who masqueraded as a Prussian military officer in 1906 and became famous as "The Captain of Köpenick"
- Delmart Vreeland – American con artist and child sex offender who claimed to be to a US 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 never took a commission and never served in the military. Confessed and apologized online after learning an exposé was being written.
- Walter Williams – 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.
- Mitchell Paige, Medal of Honor recipient who later tracked imposters
- Don Shipley, retired Navy SEAL who exposes fraudulent claims of military service.
- The Army Rumour Service aka ARRSE, a British site run by ex service members, who among other things seek out and identify "Walts".
- Swiftboating, slang for an unfair or untrue political attack, which sometimes takes the form of falsely accusing a candidate of dishonesty about military service.
- Seenan, Gerard (12 April 2006). "Captain Sir Alan KBE - call-centre worker". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
- Henry Mark Holzer (August 9, 2012). Fake Warriors: Identifying, Exposing, and Punishing Those Who Falsify Their Military Service. Madison Press. ISBN 978-0985243784.
- Sterner, Doug; Sterner, Pam (February 4, 2014). Restoring Valor: One Couple's Mission to Expose Fraudulent War Heroes and Protect America's Military Awards System. Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated. ISBN 978-1626365513.
- "Fake War Stories Exposed". cbsnews.com. 11 November 2005. Retrieved 2015-04-07.
- Green Chris (30 January 2015). "Homeless Veterans appeal: UK needs new law to stop 'Walter Mittys' posing as war heroes". The Independent. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- Bernard Gary Burkett (1 January 1998). Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Verity Press. ISBN 978-0-9667036-0-3.
- Henry Mark Holzer, Erika Holzer. "The Fake WarriorsS Project". fakewarriors.org. Retrieved 2015-04-03.
- Gehring, Verna V. (2003). "Phonies, Fakes, and Frauds - and the Social Harms They Cause". Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly. 23 (1/2). Retrieved 2015-05-21.
- "Australian & New Zealand Military Imposters (ANZMI)". anzmi.net. Retrieved 2015-04-29.
- "Guardian Of Valor". Guardian Of Valor. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
- "Is it illegal to wear medals you weren't awarded?". BBC News. 13 January 2010. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- "AP: More POW claimants than actual POWs". msnbc.com. Retrieved 2015-04-07.
- Erik Larsen (13 February 2015). "Stafford mayor's 'stolen valor' problem". Asbury Park Press. Retrieved 2015-04-03.
He told people, including reporters, that he had been sent on secret missions as a self-described "spook," and that his true service record remained classified 40 years after the war. When asked how he could acknowledge being a spy if his service record was still classified, he simply stopped talking about the matter.
- "Fantasist wore haul of fake medals on Remembrance Day march 'to impress his young wife'". Daily Mail. 13 January 2010. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
- Brian Ross and Vic Walter (September 21, 2007). "Anti-War YouTube 'Vet' Admits He Is Faker". ABC News. Retrieved 2007-09-22.
- "Army veteran confronts Florida panhandler for posing in military uniform". ABC7 Los Angeles. Retrieved 2015-04-03.
- "US Attorney's Office - Eastern District of NC". justice.gov. Archived from the original on 2014-01-15. Retrieved 2015-05-06.
The indictment alleges that the Air Force uniform that PHILLIPS wore was decorated with the following military medals and ribbons:...European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
- "Stolen valor? Man confronts "soldier" in uniform whom he believes is an impersonator". FOX6Now.com. Retrieved 2015-04-07.
- "Guardian Of Valor". Guardian Of Valor. Retrieved 2017-07-08.
- Jonn Lilyea. "Stolen Valor". This ain't Hell, but you can see it from here. Retrieved 2015-04-03.
- Shute, Joe (21 February 2015). "The Walter Mitty Hunters exposing fake veterans". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
- "Stolen Valour Canada". stolenvalour.ca. Retrieved 2015-04-29.
- "Sacramento Marine Vet Says He Was Beaten Over Mistaken Case Of Stolen Valor". CBS Sacramento. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
- Vendel, Christine (June 5, 2015). "Harrisburg police officer wrongly accuses veteran, 75, of 'stolen valor'". The Patriot-News. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- Larimer, Sarah (June 5, 2015). "The problem with calling out 'stolen valor': What if you're wrong?". The Washington Post. Retrieved 15 December 2015.
- ""Prissy Holly", CPT Lyndsay Lowery Accused Of Stolen Valor For Saying She Was Platoon Leader Of An Infantry Platoon". Guardian Of Valor. Retrieved 2015-12-15.
- Pfankuch, Thomas B. (September 15, 2002). "Duval man struggling to reclaim military valor". jacksonville.com. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
- "18 U.S. Code § 704 - Military medals or decorations | LII / Legal Information Institute". law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
- "18 U.S. Code § 498 - Military or naval discharge certificates | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute". law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
- UK Parliament. Uniforms Act as amended (see also enacted form), from legislation.gov.uk.
- Bingham, John (22 November 2016). "MPs back new 'Walter Mitty' medals law to criminalise 'military imposters'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
- "Criminal Code - 419 Unlawful use of military uniforms or certificates". laws.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved 2015-05-19.