05 November 2009


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 06 November 2009

Today's Commentary was triggered by an impromptu encounter in Monterey, CA, a couple of weeks ago. More on that shortly.

A Marine knows, in short order, when someone is "masquerading" as a Marine; "costume"--that is, uniform-- notwithstanding.

Several years ago Gregg Zoroya, a reporter for USA TODAY, wrote about a guy in New Jersey who attended a Marine Corps Birthday Ball wearing a Marine field grade officer's uniform. His ribbons included the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star with "V" ( all combat heroism awards). Though the guy initially came across as legitimate, a retired Marine sitting nearby noticed his Combat Action Ribbon was backward and he used jargon Marines do not use. Suspicious, the retiree casually snapped a photograph or two and reported him to the FBI. Turns out he was an imposter--a plumbing specialist less-than-honorably discharged from the Air Force 30 years earlier. He was charged, found guilty, and awarded a hefty fine and placed on probation. And shamed. What an idiot.

There's nothing wrong with wearing Marine T-shirts, polo shirts, hats, jackets, and the like or sporting a decal or bumper sticker on a vehicle. In fact, there is all sorts of Marine clothing and accessories worn by family members and friends of the Corps. Such demonstrates pride in what another family member or friend has achieved, is patriotic, and is good "advertising"--recruiting--for the Corps. Visit a Marine Corps recruit depot or Officer Candidates School on graduation day--many visitors are wearing newly purchased USMC apparel or carrying some around in a bag (itching to wear it).

But, it is wrong to claim the title "Marine" if you have not earned it. And it's illegal to wear a military uniform and decorations to which not entitled--such violates federal law and is punishable by fines and prison. In 1994 Colonel Mitchell Paige, USMC (Retired) (1918–2003), awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism on Guadalcanal in 1942 while serving as a platoon sergeant, successfully lobbied Congress to enact law making it illegal to sell or falsely wear the rare medal (there are only 3,448 recipients--94 living). The penalty--up to a year in prison and a $100,000.00 fine. Is there anything more distasteful than falsely claiming military service to country? As the "costs" for service can be enormous, so should the costs for faking service. The law(s) still have a ways to go.

There are countless tales of folks claiming they were or are Marines, donning a uniform bedecked with ribbons, medals, and badges, and appearing at community events--especially patriotic or veteran-related--and speaking on behalf of the Corps. Some proactive imposter hunters believe every community in America, no matter how large or small, has someone living the lie. Why do they do it? A few reasons come to mind: satisfies an ego; makes up for one's own failures in life; tangible personal gain; and to impress, influence, and maybe manipulate others. Regardless, imposters are losers--big time. Zeroes.

Though I do not recall all the particulars, a couple more amusing, albeit sickening, incidents come to mind.

There was a case in California years ago when an older gent, cited for a traffic violation--I think a DUI, appeared in court wearing the Dress Blue uniform of a senior Marine officer. He later admitted his thinking was the uniform would bring leniency and most likely result in a dismissal. To the contrary, it did not take long for the court to determine he was a fraud and pursue piling on additional charges--after he was convicted of the DUI. Turns out the miscreant had purchased his uniform at an Army-Navy surplus store and had been "living the dream" for years. He finally picked the wrong venue to parade. As I recall, the judge--a Marine--said the defendant did not wear the uniform well nor carry himself like a Marine--at all.

In rural Tennessee a "general"--a long-standing, well-known, and respected citizen in his community--was invited to speak at a summer community patriotic event. He was invited because he had passed himself off as a combat hero and retired Marine brigadier general. As he did at patriotic events past, he appeared in the Service "C" uniform--green trousers, short-sleeve khaki shirt with rank insignia (a single five-point silver star on each collar) and row upon row of decorations over the left breast pocket. As usual, he mingled and enthralled all with his "war stories."

Up to this particular gathering no one had ever questioned the "general's" patriotism and service. But this year was different. It just so happened a couple of Marines in attendance noticed something peculiar about the "general's" uniform--specifically his decorations. Despite a chest full, there was not a single device attached to a ribbon--not one. No stars, no palms, no oak leaf clusters, no numerals, no "Vs" (for combat valor), no nothing. That is just not very likely--in fact, practically impossible. And to make matters worse the decorations were not in the proper arrangement. A big mistake when around Marines. [As testament to how seriously Marines take decorations, older Marines reading may recall when Senator James Webb (D, VA), a highly decorated (Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts) Marine from his service in Viet Nam while serving with 1st Battalion/5th Marines, was Secretary of the Navy and held up the promotions of Navy Admirals until official photographs with improperly worn decorations were corrected. The Secretary ruffled some feathers but made his point--if you are going to wear them, wear them right.]

Anyway, back to the story...
So, the Marines approached the "general"--Marines tend to gravitate toward each other in a crowd--and began a small-talk conversation. When the "general" could not credibly answer the simplest of questions as to units he had served with or where, specifically, he had fought, the Marines suspicions were confirmed and they reported him--the FBI takes great interest in military service imposters; especially those posing as senior officers. Soon thereafter the "general's" charade fell apart. Facing federal charges, he admitted his concocted story and offered that he had gotten himself in so deep lying he had no idea how to get out. So, he continued playing the part--for years. His shenanigans cost him.

Throughout my career I, as all Marines surely have, ran into folks who said, "Well, I was going to join the Corps but never got around to it." or, "I was going to join the Corps but couldn't..." because of some congenital health issue or an injury incurred during childhood or some other improbable excuse. Granted, some of those "explanations" may have been valid. Maybe--the rare one. But most just nonsense bar talk. Marines know these folks lack(ed) the guts, the courage, to take that big scary step forward and are mere talkers.

Two weeks ago my wife and I traveled north for a visit--a few days in San Francisco and a couple in Monterey. Walking to the car on the morning of departure from Monterey, I noticed a gentleman--ten or so years my senior--standing on the sidewalk in front of the car next to ours. I think he had a small cigar or maybe a cigarette in his hand. As I approached, unlocking the car with the remote, he, having noticed the base access decal on my windshield, casually remarked, "Twentynine Palms, huh? I spent some time there--with the big guns."

My first thought was, well, a fellow Marine so I politely responded, "Good Morning" followed by the typical first exchange between Marines, "When did you serve, what units, and what years were you at Twentynine Palms?" He awkwardly replied, "Oh, it was years ago...I don't remember." To which I replied, "Have a nice day." opened the car door, got in, buckled up, and drove away while commenting to my wife the guy was full of himself.

He was not a Marine. He knew just enough to get himself in trouble talking to a Marine. And with my one simple question, he knew I knew--embarrassment was written all over his face. He then avoided eye contact and he tried to change the subject--I was not interested. I hope he felt miserable as I backed out and left him standing eyeball-deep in his line of crap--but I doubt he did.

It's pretty simple--Marines do not forget their years of service , what units they were with, and when and where they served. And that goes for anyone who has served in the military--Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

In my younger days I used to be more forward confronting the frauds--in an effort to get them to end their facade. Now older and wiser and never knowing just exactly who you are going to run into and what they may do, I ask the simple questions. It takes less than a minute to determine whether Marine or not. If not, no time for them. As I did with the gent in Monterey, extend a pleasantry and move on.

In the Fall of 1995 Jonathan Green wrote an online article for the Military Officers Association of America titled, "Fake Heroes." In his article Green cited several high-profile cases where Thomas Cottone--a senior FBI agent, in his spare time, exposed dirtbags wearing military uniforms and combat decorations they had not earned. Not surprisingly, some of the con men had never served in the military much less left the United States.

And Green discovered it's not only the 'average guys' looking for attention who impersonate. But visible public figures--including elected officials, police chiefs/officers, award-winning professionals, and movie stars--who either falsely claim military service or exaggerate their time in uniform. One actor who stretched the truth just a bit was Brian Dennehy who, during separate interviews spanning a handful of years, claimed a concussion and combat shrapnel wounds and serving a five year stint in Viet Nam. Unfortunately for Dennehy, military service records do not lie--he served in the Corps from 1959 to 1963 and never in Viet Nam. He spent time in Okinawa, Japan. Dennehy later apologized--and rightfully so--for lying. He was a Marine--good enough. So, a good actor stained himself with a serious credibility problem. What in the world was he thinking?

Our country has been at war nearly this entire decade. With the active and reserve components of our military seeing plenty of service abroad--from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. These folks are heroes--especially those who joined after 9/11 knowing war was in their future. And still today there is ample opportunity for others to serve in either component--just visit a recruiter. But believe it or not, as I write, there is no shortage of imposters touting not only military service but battlefield heroics. And sadly, there are some legitimately in uniform, who, like Dennehy, are not content and have embellished their service for personal gain. Sooner or later the truth comes out--it always does. And these days it seems to be sooner and sooner.

Granted, imposters are not unique to the Corps. Special Forces of all branches of the services--with Navy SEALs being at the top of the list, and others claiming the Medal of Honor, are favored targets by phonies. Thanks to technology and the Internet there are numerous credible organizations creating and maintaining easily searched databases to discredit imposters. As such, it's getting more and more difficult, even for those clever enough to forge "official" documents, to get away with their despicable masquerade.

For an accurate list of Medal of Honor recipients visit: http://www.cmohs.org/. Medal of Honor recipients as well as those who have been awarded the Army Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal--all branches to include Coast Guard, and the Silver Star can be found at: http://www.homeofheroes.com/. Finally, the website: http://www.pownetwork.org/ is a good source to discredit suspected military imposters of any flavor.

Zeroes aside, "Bravo" for heroes...

On Tuesday, 10 November 2009, the Marine Corps celebrates its illustrious 234th Birthday! It's a big deal. It's tradition. It's a day when all Marines, past and present,--worldwide and wherever they may be--pause to celebrate and to reflect, recognize, and honor the sacrifices--in training and in battle--of Marines in defense of freedom and our beloved country. And, it's a day when the oldest Marines share a ceremonial piece of cake with the youngest Marines--a symbolic time-binding gesture and reinforcing act of brotherhood--of camaraderie--and entrusting responsibility. The ties that bind--on and off battlefields--those known as "Leathernecks" are many. Only Marines completely understand. Marine families get it. And the Corps marches on.

Take a moment on Tuesday to extend a heartfelt "Happy Birthday, Marine!" to Marines you know. And even if you don't know a Marine but should happen to cross paths with one extend a birthday greeting. Rest assured your gesture will be genuinely appreciated.

Happy Birthday, Marines! Here's to you, and to our Corps!

Post Script
Relax for the next 13 minutes and 44 seconds and first watch an ageless video about Marines titled, "Such as Regiments Hand Down Forever"--then, the annual Birthday address delivered by the current Commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. Both videos are moving "messages"--time well spent that will leave you feeling inspired and intolerant of imposters.
http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&VideoID=7707796 (4 min/36 sec)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7Bicfc9dp0 (9 min/08 sec)

Note: And, in honor of the Corps 234th, I will send a hand-numbered and signed (and, if desired, with a personal inscription) limited edition copy from the dwindling supply of "MAKING MARINES" to the first reader who sends me an email mentioning this Commentary and offer: andyweddington@roadrunner.com


Stephanie said...

Simply amazed at the audacity of the perpetration and the length's that such would dare go...and even yet, in uniform!

BRAVO Andy! for enlightening us.. and the video...truly inspiring.

And, I might add, an early...
Happy Birthday, Marines! Here's to you, and to our Corps!

Kevin said...

I thought of your column early this AM as I watched the vote of the US congress (opposite of US progress) last evening. I recalled one of the most egregious Marine frauds; former congressman Traficant from OH who when he was removed from congress wore a Marine lapel pin through out the hearings. Never a Marine (at least Dan Rather and Riddick Bowe almost made it through boot camp), no Marine history, and certainly no apparent characteristics associated with being a Marine.

I believe he may have been the prototype for today's congress person.

Keep those cards and letters coming; and an early Happy Birthday Marine.