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The Problem Of Military Service Imposters

Jonathan Green, Financial Times (London, England) 23 Oct. 2004

They were valorous stories, full of bravado and death, meant to make a lady swoon. And when he turned up to take her to breakfast in his white navy uniform, his chest bedecked with three tiers of medals, it was more than Katherine Bradbury could bear."I went weak at the knees the first time I saw him," she says.

Captain Roger Edwards, 45, was a naval officer with limpid brown eyes, a neatly trimmed moustache and a brazen self-confidence that could soften the most sceptical of souls. Katherine, 29, was a young, attractive blonde with a cheerful disposition, working as a cardiac nurse at St Anthony's Catholic hospital in Florida."All the girls on my unit thought he was quite the catch," she remembers."I was the only one who was single, so they were always trying to hook me up with someone. He was perfect."


On July 30 this year, after a long battle to defend his name and medals, Edwards stood in court, not in his navy whites but in an orange prison jumpsuit. He was found guilty of 11 counts of wearing unauthorised decorations. He had never worked for the CIA or as a Seal commando. Edwards was sentenced to 115 days in jail and was ordered to forfeit Dollars 7,500 pay."I stand before you a broken man," he told the judge.

As Bradbury looked back on their time together she realised that things had begun to unravel a long time before. One night, early in their relationship, a woman came to the door in a distressed state. Edwards went outside and Bradbury overhead the woman asking, in streams of tears, if Edwards would"reconsider". He later said that it was part of his work as an Episcopalian minister.

Then he began to take long absences, which he said were covert missions for the CIA. Much of the time it was to the Middle East."I was so proud of what he was doing for his country," Bradbury remembers. Yet during one of his extended absences she was at home when the telephone rang and his name came up on the caller ID with a long-distance US number. The phone went dead so she called back. After a few rings, Edwards answered. He was furious."How did you get this number?" he snapped."I'm undercover with the CIA and they are asking why I have had an incoming call on this line. They are going to interrogate me now. They could get me for treason." When Bradbury said his name had came up on caller ID he became even more furious."If two guys come to the door tonight, co-operate with them so that they don't hurt me." And with that he put the phone down.

Several months later, Edwards said he was being stationed in Japan. When she called over Christmas, Bradbury says,"an ensign in his office said he had gone to pick up his wife and children. I ran to the toilet and vomited. I felt like I had died." When she called again, Edwards finally cracked, breaking down in tears and admitting that he was still married."I think it's disgusting," she says."He is stealing the honour of those who have died in war for this country. He robbed me of the best years of my life. He fooled hundreds of people, though, he fooled everybody."

Roger Edwards' story is part of a murky phenomenon in modern-day America. An army of bogus war veterans thrives in private and not- so-private life. With patriotism at something of a premium in the post-9/11 US, those with military service have never enjoyed greater respect since the first world war. The"war on terror" and defence of the homeland have made almost anyone in uniform a hero. The advantages of having been a combat veteran from Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam are many in a society sentimental for"freedom defenders". According to campaigners who work to expose the fraudsters, the problem of imposters has reached"epidemic" proportions.

The question of military records has become an emotional issue in the presidential election campaign this year. Democrats have made much of the contrast between the heroic Vietnam war record of their candidate John Kerry, constantly flanked on the campaign trail by fellow veterans known as the"band of brothers", and the less distinguished military career of President George W. Bush. Even the White House's official accounts of the president's service in the late 1960s and early 1970s, spent in the US with the Texas Air National Guard and its Alabama sister service, have not dispelled the impression that he was absent from duty for much of the time before getting an"early out" to attend Harvard Business School. Particularly painful for Republicans was the remark by Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman, that he was looking forward to the televised debates in which"John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard".

The Republicans have also managed to get in some low blows. Kerry's war record - crucial to the Democrats' efforts to persuade America that they have the guts to defend the nation - was questioned by a group of veterans who, like him, fought on Swift Boats in the Mekong Delta. In a book called Unfit for Command and in TV advertisements, they claimed that Kerry lied about his war record and"had simply shot a wounded fleeing Viet Cong in the back". In turn, Democrats angrily lined up more veterans to refute these claims, and even Bush himself eventually called for an end to the ads as it became clear that there was no substance in the allegations against Kerry. And last month CBS News and its distinguished anchor, Dan Rather, had to apologise and admit to an embarrassing"mistake in judgment" when it based a news story about Bush's military service on documents whose authenticity turned out to be"in doubt".

Bitter battles over the details of a man's service record is one thing, but making one up when there is little or nothing there at all is quite another. While it is illegal under federal law to wear a military uniform and decorations unless you are entitled to, the problem of imposters has become so acute that some states are passing laws to halt the tide. Washington State Governor Gary Locke recently made it a crime to profit by falsely claiming to be a military veteran, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a Dollars 1,000 fine. Among the bill's targets are people wrongly seeking hiring preferences or educational benefits and conmen preying on people's sympathies. It isn't difficult to do: military discharge papers, called DD214s, can be bought on eBay for around Dollars 50.

The list of unmasked imposters is not exclusively one of pathetic misfits and marginal fantasy merchants. Wes Cooley, a US congressman from Oregon, claimed he served with special forces in Korea on countless top-secret missions. While he was indeed in the military for two years in the early 1950s, he never left the shores of the US. He lost his seat and was sentenced to two years probation, fined Dollars 7,110 and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service after being convicted in 1997 of lying on official documents. Patrick Couwenberg, a former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, claimed that he received a Purple Heart after being wounded in the groin while working as a CIA operative in Laos. He too never left the US while in the naval reserve. He was removed from the bench by the California Commission on Judicial Performance in 2001.

David Nicholson, chief of the Amelia, Ohio, Police Department, claimed he served four tours in Vietnam and was captured and held for 15 days as a prisoner of war, earning him a Distinguished Service Cross. He later admitted that he forged documents to get Veterans Administration benefits. He was sentenced to three years probation and fined Dollars 300 for unlawful use of a military discharge certificate and unauthorised wearing of military decorations.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis began to write himself into his famous historical accounts by saying he served in Vietnam. In fact he taught history at West Point Military Academy at the time."Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made," he said when caught. He was stripped of his pay for a year and suspended from his endowed chair at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. He continues to teach and write at the college. The Hollywood actor Brian Dennehy told The New York Times in 1989 that he suffered concussion and shrapnel wounds in combat and Playboy in 1993 that he served five years in Vietnam. While he did serve in the marines from 1959 to 1963, his only overseas tour was to Okinawa in Japan. He apologised for lying in 1999 after winning the Tony Award for best leading actor in Death of a Salesman.

Most serious cases of veteran deception are handled by Special Agent Cottone."Before I started this I had no idea how huge it was," he says."Of all the crimes I investigate, including bank robbery and murder, this is the one I take the most personal satisfaction in solving. It's truly disgraceful. It's sacrilege to anyone in the military. They are taking away the valour of those who served in the military, people who have been killed, lost body parts while serving honourably for our country."

Finding statistics on the phenomenon is difficult. The Department of Veterans Affairs only prosecutes those who lie to claim veterans benefits, of which they have a handful of cases a year. So a thriving cottage industry has sprung up to unmask imposters, led by outraged and doughty campaigners, in some cases from their homes. Their only weapon is public exposure of imposters. Genuine veterans write angry books with titles such as No Guts, No Glory and Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History, in which they expose phonies in outraged prose. And most sections of the military, particularly elite units, have retired soldiers who run veterans associations that play an active part in exposing phonies.