The latest case of stolen valor to hit the news was self-acclaimed Green Beret war hero, Papotia Reginald Wright, who had created a group called the “8th Special Forces Regiment New York Honor Guard.” He claimed to have earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other awards he was never actually awarded. Though he was in the Army for eight years, he never served in a Special Forces capacity (or any combat capacity for that matter), and never rose past the rank of E-4 (specialist). Wright claimed 25 years of service and the rank of Command Sergeant Major.
Congress passed the “Stolen Valor Act of 2013,” and it serves to penalize people like Wright the second they stand to make some kind of financial benefit from their lies. First, it is important to understand that it is NOT a crime to simply claim an award or claim military service when there was none — these are protected by the first amendment, the freedom of speech, and is the reason why the original Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was replaced.
However, the revamped 2013 act tackled the issue under a new pretext — if someone claims medal or service for monetary gain (or some other measurable, tangible profit), it can be considered fraud. Some of these medals include the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, CIB, CAB, CMB and more.
But that just describes what is technically illegal, and just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s moral, and also doesn’t mean people can’t do anything about it. There are still plenty of organizations out there to expose and shame those who claim awards and ranks they never earned.
Here are some of the notable attempts at stolen valor in recent American history, chosen by their differences in personalities to demonstrate the broad scope of compulsive liars:
Idema did not have a clean record to start out with: in 1994 he was charged with 58 counts of wire fraud, and had suffered multiple lawsuits against him. His real military service included some time in the Army, and even in Special Forces — however, his performance was deemed so poor that he was denied re-enlistment, though he was allowed to join the Army Reserve 11th Special Forces group, and there he helped with logistics. Still, he continued with his poor performance and was told to leave, getting an honorable discharge in 1981 after a total of six years served.
During his military service, he physically attacked an officer, was caught keeping illegal private weapons, and consistently displayed a “failure to obey orders.” The FBI’s file on him even mentions that he claimed to have “completed the U.S. Navy’s Seals training.” An officer said that Idema was “without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known … He is an extremely undisciplined individual who possesses the potential but refuses to even attempt to meet minimal requirements. This man’s performance is continuously one step above punitive disciplinary action.”
However, Idema claimed a much longer and more virtuous service record: according to the Dallas Morning News, “Mr. Idema claimed in writing to have had 12 years’ experience in the Special Forces, 22 years in combat training and 18 years in covert military Special Operations.” On paper, he said that he had “operated in and trained forces in dozens of foreign countries in the pursuit of American interests,” and claimed “extensive awards, decorations and commendations as a result … in the nation’s most elite and decorated fighting force known as the Green Berets.”
In 2004, he was caught running his own prison in Afghanistan and torturing the prisoners there. He claimed he was sponsored by the U.S. government, but such claims were denied. Idema would later die of AIDS in Mexico in 2012, which he had also given his girlfriend while knowing he had the disease.
This guy’s life was controversy after controversy, lie after lie — it would seem that, like many stolen valor cases, the lies about military service are just a symptom of some serious, lifelong behavioral issues.
He became somewhat of an internet sensation when PepperSpray Productions uploaded the video of former Army Ranger Jesse Macbeth, who had apparently served on a 16 month deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army Rangers, 3rd Ranger Battalion. He said that he was stabbed multiple times, took shrapnel to his leg and was shot in the back. He claimed to have earned a Purple Heart.
Macbeth claimed that they were told to “strike fear into the heart of the Iraqis” during an official Ranger debriefing (that they somehow received before a deployment). He claims that they were encouraged to “do whatever it takes” to those means, perpetuating his agenda with the Iraq Veterans Against the War movement. He speaks of executions of men, women and children.
PepperSpray Productions retracted the video later, issuing an apology. The reporter who created the video said he had no idea — a clear example of the dangers of men and women who falsely claim military service. After all, how would the average person know better? Small media groups don’t have the resources to look up the service records of random individuals off the street, but their videos now have the potential to go viral. When an alleged combat-wounded veteran has his voice heard in a political sphere, this can have a real effect on the American populace.
Oh and in reality, Jesse Macbeth was in the Army for 44 days and was dismissed having failed basic training.
Robert A. Livingston
Lakeland, Minnesota is a small town with a population of approximately 1,800 people. Their former mayor, Robert Livingston, had run his campaign on the foundation of his “military service as a field grade officer.”
Livingston makes the list, not just because he ran a successful campaign and became the mayor of the small town. He actually forged multiple documents, to include his DD-214, went to the VA, and began to collect his benefits. In total, he is reported to have taken $110, 566.21 in medical care from the VA, and $27,198.66 in tax-free disability.
This is an astute reminder that the these lies can and often do escape the public’s eye. “There’s no way he’d actually have the audacity to lie about that, they would’ve found out by now” is apparently an invalid excuse, as Livingston made it all the way through his (albeit small) political career and navigated the inner workings of the VA under the banner of this successful lie. It also serves as proof to the real, financial damage it can cause. That money doesn’t come from an infinite pool of cash somewhere in the clouds, it’s real money meant for real veterans who earned it.
This successful actor has actually earned several legitimate accolades, to include a Golden Globe, two Tony Awards and he has been nominated for Emmy Awards six times. Dennehy played in movies like the first Rambo “First Blood,” and “Romeo + Juliet, and TV Shows like “The West Wing,” “The 4400,” “The Blacklist” and “30 Rock.”
He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1958 to 1963 in Okinawa. Wondering why you haven’t heard him listed in the articles favoring veterans in Hollywood? Probably because he lied about his service, claiming to have experienced horrifying combat in Vietnam, when in fact, he never set foot in Vietnam — not as a Marine anyway. Later, he publicly admitted to his deceit and apologized:
I lied about serving in Vietnam and I’m sorry. I did not mean to take away from the actions and the sacrifices of the ones who did really serve there … I did steal valor. That was very wrong of me. There is no real excuse for that. I was a peace-time Marine, and I got out in 1963 without ever serving in Vietnam … I started the story that I had been in ‘Nam, and I got stuck with it. Then I didn’t know how to set the record straight.”
This seems to be the alternate story for those who steal valor — not the Idema-lifestyle where lies could be uncovered around every corner, but the more regular people who perhaps exaggerate their stories minutely, then finds themselves treading water and telling more lies to cover the first.
This often happens with veterans telling war or military stories, and “leaving out” certain truths, like letting someone assume they deployed or assume they were in firefights just because they were overseas. That lie can easily develop into small exaggerations or false tidbits, but no outright lies. That continues to evolve until you have lie piled on top of lie — and they’re treading water.
And like many towers built of lies, it all eventually comes crashing down on their heads.
Featured image courtesy of YouTube.