The very first time I was on a naval base (Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, CT for the curious), visiting my brother who was then newly enlisted, we had occasion to stop by the uniform shop for some of his necessary accoutrements, and I was surprised to find that right there, along side the racks of uniforms, in neat plastic bags, were Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Navy Crosses, and all the rest.
The naivety of a civilian, I’m sure, but I had imagined at some unconscious level that these were closely guarded totems, as difficult to procure as they were to receive. But no, there they were, resplendent in their translucent packaging, just waiting for someone to come along and put down good money to buy them. And it stands to reason; a sailor can have as many as 6 or 7 different uniforms for different occasions, and all of them must be properly dressed. Further, a naval base will have several thousand sailors needing the facilities at any given time, all with more pressing business than negotiating their way toward their proper regalia, and so the Navy makes it easy. But I was even more surprised to find that I, a civilian with no more claim to a Purple Heart than to the Danish throne, could have had any of them that I wished, with no questions asked.
But it wasn’t just the medals. It was uniforms, hats, belts, socks, shoes, everything. I could actually buy the very same warfare device that it had just taken my brother 7 months to earn. In our correspondence during that time, I had become acquainted with the concept through his reverence, his desire, and his determination for it; he had explained that “warfare device” was the proper term for the insignia that sits above one’s row of medals, and that declares one’s role within the service. As a submariner, his was a pair of dolphins facing a striding ship, and the vision of that symbol had seen him through the petty gruel of boot camp, the further months of Non-Qual Puke-dom, the extra time spent helping out at the Submarine Veteran’s Club, and all the extra little bits of bullshit that you might imagine go along with that process. And there it was, available to me.
I didn’t buy one– I’m not a monster (I got a belt, because theirs are damned hard-wearing). We went back to beer and pizza, and family, and I didn’t give it another thought until I came across a series of videos on YouTube.
“Buds131” is the YouTube channel of Senior Chief Don Shipley, a retired Navy SEAL who spends his days running a preparatory training camp designed to give would-be hardballs a chance to experience what they would be in for if they took a run at the most difficult military training in the world. In the spare time afforded to a man in his position, however, he’s undertaken a crusade to name, shame, and personally confront the representatives of a bizarre and disturbing phenomenon: the Navy SEAL imposter.
Here is a series of typical encounters:
If you’ve ever met a “SEAL”, chances are you were actually talking to one of these guys. And it’s easy enough for Don to check. There have only ever been about 10,000 SEALs in the force’s 72-year history, and all of them are in a confidential database that he helps maintain. Of those, only about 7,000 are living today, which makes your chances of running into a living, breathing SEAL very slim indeed.
And yet they’re everywhere. They pepper America’s used car lots, real estate brokerages, concealed carry classes, and martial arts dojos. They speak to church congregations, graduating classes, and people in need of “motivation”. They talk to the press on Memorial Day, or Veteran’s Day. They make up a surprising segment of the homeless population. And most of them are completely full of shit.
Shipley started uploading his “Phony Navy SEAL” videos in 2009, beginning with this extended diatribe [part 2, part 3] and these days he’s got nearly 70, taking down hundreds of fakes and frauds in the process. In fact, he says he investigates much more than he posts, on the order of 15 or 20 per day. In this video, he and wife Denise (also retired Navy) discuss some of the most common trends:
Most of the time he busts them on their “BUD/S class number”, the number of their group in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, home of the legendary Hell Week and the final qualification for would-be SEALs. Shipley remembers “shouting [his class number] every day for six months”, and he says that forgetting that would be like forgetting the name of one’s mother. When he asks, some falter, some rattle off digits, but few manage an even close guess.
And that’s not all they get wrong. Some guys will volunteer the name of a Sergeant or a Master Sergeant that they trained with at BUD/S (for the unacquainted, the equivalent rank [E5] in the Navy is Petty Officer Second Class). Some claim to have attended BUD/S at the wrong base (odd-numbered SEAL Teams train in San Diego, CA, even-numbered in Norfolk, VA– one man, Bernard, even claimed to have done Navy SEAL training in Colorado Springs which, if memory serves, suffers from an almost complete dearth of ocean). Every once in a while, they’ll claim to have been part of SEAL Team 9, which for future reference, plain doesn’t exist.
A lot of them make a big show of themselves in public life, in the way that real SEALs specifically don’t. They wear the hats, the shirts, and the belt buckles, they put bumper stickers, decals, and emblems all over their cars or motorcycles. They tattoo themselves with SEAL Tridents. And when duty calls, they dress themselves up in costume.
If you have a little money, it’s easy to look the part. With the sole apparent exception of the Congressional Medal of Honor (the unauthorized wearing, manufacturing, or sale of that hallowed honor is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to 1 year), all of the ribbons and medals awarded to United States servicemen, along with uniforms to pin them on, can be bought online from Vanguard Industries Inc., the same genuine articles, as available to anyone the world over as they were to me when I first stepped into the uniform shop on base. Their prices?
- Navy Cross – $85.65
- Air Force Cross – $85.65
- Army Distinguished Service Cross – a bargain at $31.90
- Silver Star – $40.00
- Purple Heart – $56.35
The world’s most coveted insignia, the famous Navy SEAL Trident, can be bought for just $12.
And hey, when you can just buy ’em, before long you can get a really impressive rack of chest candy. One man, Walter Phillip Holt, wore 54 decorations, despite receiving just 3. Still, even with all that misdirection, some people are bound to ask questions. That’s why many of them will produce a DD-214, the Department of Defense form issued to each member of the military upon dismissal (for any reason). The form details a serviceman’s record, including where, when, and for how long they served, which ranks they attained, and to which parts of the service they were assigned. These, however, are either doctored or complete fabrications.
But that’s just the beginning of their distinctly un-flattering form of imitation. Some steal the identities and plagiarize the service records of real SEALs. Many claim to have had seniority during the training of heroes like Chris Kyle (U.S. history’s most lethal sniper, portrayed in the upcoming film American Sniper) and Marcus Luttrell (of Operation Red Wings, on whom the recent film Lone Survivor was based). In a truly cringe-worthy display you can watch one, James Hoskins, do this to Luttrell directly over the phone.
So, clearly, the charade runs pretty deep. But why? Why go through all this trouble and money and nonsense? What, really, do they stand to gain?
For most, it’s simply an edge. In getting a job (many come to Shipley’s attention because of their LinkedIn profiles or résumés), in attracting the attention of women, in attracting customers to one’s business, in running for public office, the phrase “Navy SEAL” carries a lot of weight and promotes a lot of confidence. Some develop this manipulation into big league cons, using their incontestable image to bilk the trusting out of small to enormous sums of cash. In probably the most extreme example, Phony SEAL Arthur James “A. J.” Dicken parlayed his fake credentials into both ties with the UN and a part in a $300 million security contract with the government of Burundi, but that was only after selling the rights to his fabricated life story for over $50,000, and defrauding investors in the project to the tune of $750,000. Dicken was arrested in 2014. He has never served a day in any branch of the military.
A lot like to get themselves perks, like military discounts or free seats at concerts and sporting events. For the real bastards, though, it’s programs and benefits that are meant to go to real veterans. A lot of the phonies are endlessly traumatized by things that, I’ll remind you, they’ve never seen or done. They drown in a combined parody of The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now!, and Platoon, speaking about the horrors of war, claiming combat-induced PTSD, and snatching up service dogs and other forms of aid. Now, I’d be the last one to fault a sufferer of mental illness for seeking care, but taking it away from vets who may have lived the things they dream is really low.
Some revel in the prestige; they love the looks they get, they love the pats on the back, and they love talking to the press or to audiences. What goes along with all of it though, is the self-delusion, and here’s where it gets truly beyond the pale. Witness Nikko Kaha De’Lozada:
I’ve watched all of Don’s Phony SEAL videos, and De’Lozada’s is by far the most insane. This guy, in his scant 49 years, has been (at least if you’re as gullible as his mark), not only a SEAL, but a Marine, a policeman, a firefighter, a medic, a prisoner of war, a whistleblower, a dolphin-impersonator, a gunshot/stabbing/torture/burn victim, a paraplegic, a lawyer, an Olympic athlete (gold-medal-winning of course), a screenwriter, a fight choreographer, a Jedi, an Academy Award winner, a bodyguard to Al Pacino, the godson of James Caan, and a rescue worker. He’s Rambo, he’s Serpico, he’s Kurt Russel in Backdraft, he’s Steven Seagal, he’s Jean-Claude Van Damme. Oh, and he’s just a little down on his luck right now.
But here’s the point: this guy is not just the most extreme example of the delusional SEAL imposter– he’s the prototype. He’s the dream. He’s the poorly written character in a cheesy movie, he’s the endlessly dramatic plot twists of a soap opera, he’s the guy who shows just the right socially-understood impression of what it’s all really like. Absolute cartoonish cliché from top to bottom.
Though the SEALs are the most frequently targeted for this kind of fakery, sadly they’re not alone. The Army Rangers, Army Special Forces (Green Berets), the Marine Corps in general, jet and attack helicopter pilots, and snipers of any persuasion have all been affected.
It had gotten so bad by 2005 that Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, which established fines and jail time for imposters, including any non-deserving person who claimed, wore, bought, sold, bartered, traded, or manufactured “any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States, or any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces.” That law was struck down in 2012 by the Supreme Court (in a 6 to 3 decision) on the grounds that it impinged upon free speech, but a new version, which was limited to claiming to have received medals in order to obtain a tangible benefit, was signed into law in 2013.
So these days the frauds have more to worry about than just a tough phone call from Shipley, and he’s not fighting alone. A non-profit organization called The Fake Warrior Project, which calls itself “part of the Supreme Court’s answer to fake warriors,” maintains a website with a report form for suspected frauds, as well as monthly news updates and other educational materials.
And the internet has made it easier to find out for yourself. The Department of Defense maintains a list of all the recipients for all three of the three highest awards in 4 out of 5 of its branches (the Coast Guard is excluded), and all of the names are there for the searching. Further, the service records of all members of the military are available from the Department of Personnel Records Center under the Freedom of Information Act.
So the next time you meet someone whose bragging and incredible stories seem a bit too good to be true, check ’em out, especially if you’re thinking of buying something from them or giving them a job. There’s a good chance your gratitude and respect are better spent on someone who deserves it.
A playlist of all the videos referred to in this article can be viewed on YouTube here.