Fake Soldiers: The Issue of Stolen Valor

Stolen Valor image art by Thursday Review

Image by Thursday Review

Fake Soldiers: The Issue of Stolen Valor
| published August 4, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 (Pub. L. 113-12; H.R. 258) is a federal law, originally crafted in 2005 and 2006 (signed by then-President George W. Bush), that was retooled and passed again by Congress in 2013. The law amends the federal criminal code to make it a crime for a person to fraudulently claim having received any of a series of particular military decorations or awards with the intention of "obtaining money, property, or other tangible benefit” from convincing someone that he or she rightfully did receive that award. The bill was signed into law on June 3, 2013. The Stolen Valor law provides that those who misrepresent their military service with the intent of receiving something of value are subject to up to one year in prison. Thus, “stolen valor,” the act of falsifying or manufacturing tales of military heroism is no longer just insulting and misleading, it’s now illegal.

As of July, 2015, over 1.3 million people are serving on active duty in the armed forces of the United States. Another 851,000 serve in the various reserve components. The average age of army enlistees in 2012 was 20.9 years old. People join the armed forces for different reasons and many are motivated by family tradition, access to education benefits and technical training, or by a genuine patriotic impulse to serve their country.

Those who serve in the military adapt to a lifestyle and work environment which is often in stark contrast to civilian life. Rising very early in the morning, doing physical training regardless of weather conditions, marching in formation, and often being separated from family and long-time friends are among the many sacrifices made by soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Military personnel are people who devote a significant part of their youth—and some make it into a career—in the service of their country, and often at great personal risk.

Americans, as a society, have always held servicemen and women in high esteem, whether they are on active duty or veterans, who currently number approximately 21 million. Many people who are not veterans themselves often have friends or family members who have served in the armed forces.

As a veteran myself, I have known the privilege of wearing the uniform of the United States Army. I also take pride in being a veteran, as do millions of other former servicemen and women.

Over the last several years, there has been an upsurge in the number of people posing as either veterans or active duty service members, or manufacturing military records. The earliest known incidents of this phenomenon date back to before World War I.

One notable incident occurred in 1914 when Stanley Weyman took on the role of a Serbian embassy attachè and a U.S. Navy lieutenant. He created both identities, as it turned out, so he could use them to reference each other. Weyman was arrested and served a brief jail term, but undaunted, Weyman began posturing as a Romanian consul-general. In that guise, he was even granted a tour of a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Wisconsin. The FBI was alerted to his activities and Weyman was arrested again. After serving one year in jail for his latest antics, Weyman was released and again went back to his old game. He posed as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps but was arrested yet again after police were alerted by a military tailor. Although he was sent back to jail, Weyman never let up on impersonating military officers and on one occasion, in 1926, he appeared at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral and pretended to be the physician of Valentino’s widow, Pola Negri. During World War II, Weyman even served time in prison for giving advice to draft dodgers.

Over the course of his life, Stanley Weyman never expressed regret for his impostures and, in truth, he never attempted to defraud anyone in terms of financial gain or material benefits. Troubled perhaps, in the clinical sense, he genuinely seemed to do it for both press attention, ego satisfaction and adventure. The reading public regarded Weyman as a serial charlatan, perhaps, but also benign in his motives.

In 1952, Douglas Stringfellow won election to a congressional seat from Utah. The Cold War was underway, America was embroiled in Korea, and World War II had ended only seven years earlier. Soldiers were looked upon as heroes and admired by the public. Service in the war was also an integral part of the campaign theatrics and platform of many politicians running for office. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy both arrived in Congress the same year after including in their campaign material examples of their war records from the time they served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Stringfellow presented himself to voters as a war veteran and Silver Star recipient. He also claimed to have been an intelligence operative who was captured and tortured by the Germans after he saved a nuclear scientist from impending captivity. Stringfellow even claimed the torture left him paralyzed from the waist down. Stringfellow won the election and took a seat in Congress. His scheme was relatively short-lived—after serving only one term in Congress, Stringfellow was exposed and his political career ruined.

Stringfellow differed from Stanley Weyman in that Stringfellow had actually served in the Army Air Corps during the war and received a Purple Heart. Weyman never served in the armed forces. On the other hand, Weyman posed as a military officer as an attention-getting device. Stringfellow deliberately padded his war record and inflated stories of bravery in order to win election to a prestigious federal office, and he lied in order to do so. Stringfellow died in obscurity in 1966 at the age of 44. The irony in his situation is that he lied to win an election, was exposed as a fraud and his career was ruined. Nowadays, politicians lie to win election, they are exposed in scandals, and then they are re-elected, sometimes by wider margins.

Recently, the frequency of impostors pretending to be soldiers has increased and it is a highly visible issue in the media. This rise in visibility may be due in part to the 2013 federal law making “stolen valor” a criminal offense.

In 2012, Brian Khan—aka, Brian Camacho—of Elizabeth, New Jersey, was outed as a fraudulent U.S. Marine. Khan posed as a Marine 1st Sgt. and veteran of Afghanistan. Khan, calling himself Brian Camacho, claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He even reached out to Military Minds, an organization founded by a Canadian soldier who had served in Afghanistan and who was himself diagnosed with PTSD. Military Minds is a forum for soldiers, veterans and their spouses to talk openly with other soldiers and vets about PTSD-related issues.

Khan certainly looked the part with the USMC jacket and “high-and-tight” haircut. When Khan first reached out to the organization as Brian Camacho, he appeared so realistic they were convinced he was seriously contemplating suicide. When Kahn contacted Chris Dupee, the Canadian corporal and combat veteran of Afghanistan who founded Military Minds, the organization raised enough money through Facebook and other social media (more than $1,400 in four hours) to fly Khan to Toronto in an effort to surround him with former soldiers who would understand his plight. After meeting Khan and spending time with him, Military Minds produced an elaborate eight-minute video featuring Kahn (who is identified as Brian Camacho in the film). The video was then posted on YouTube. The short film was entitled “Soldier On: A Conversation with 1st Sgt. Brian Camacho, USMC” and was produced by Paulo Rubio, an independent filmmaker who produces film and video for Military Minds.

Within hours, however, the film arrived on the radar of various watchdog groups, as well as individuals who scan the internet and YouTube in order to expose fakers. One such group is “F’ in Boot,” a group of former Marines who don’t shy away from going after fake Marines and phony recollections of military valor. “F’ in Boot” is both thorough and relentless in its search for military fraudsters. Indeed, some suggest that the watchdogs themselves could become so zealous that they develop into internet vigilantes. However, this is not yet a problem as most of the groups and individuals appear to be sincere and not excessively diligent in their efforts to expose scammers and fakes.

In Kahn’s case, his brother, Ian Khan joined in the effort to expose Brian. Ian Khan went public and asserted that his brother had never been in the military and that Brian was always been obsessed with the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps Office of Manpower and Reserve Affairs confirmed Ian Khan’s claim by announcing that they have no record of a Brian Camacho or a Brian Khan ever serving in the USMC. Filmmaker Rubio, himself a veteran, became suspicious during some of the question and answer segments of the video. Example: when Rubio asks Camacho how many friends he lost in combat, Comacho answers with a somber “too many to count.” Rubio later said that “Marines know who they’ve lost,” and can recite their names and numbers with precision.

Rubio said the ensuing flap prompted Military Minds to adopt safeguards before creating videos featuring military members. The group now requires the member to show documentation proving that he or she really was, or is, in the armed forces.

Although Stanley Weyman was certainly a phony, he can ultimately be dismissed as a harmless crackpot. In contrast, Douglas Stringfellow blatantly lied to Utah voters about his military background in order to gain political support and win election to Congress. Brian Khan took advantage of the compassionate impulse of other people when he reached out to Military Minds. Khan’s fraud crossed a, even more dubious line when he accepted money from the group when they offered to pay his travel expenses to Toronto, and when he unhesitatingly agreed to appear in the video produced by Rubio. His deception caused Military Minds to waste resources which could have been utilized to help genuine service personnel quietly suffering from PTSD. Khan’s actions also implied disregard for the American military uniform and disdain for those who proudly wear it.

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