Millions of American Men Faking It: The Phony Marine

They’re faking military service, that is.

Did you know that The Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project doesn’t verify submissions?  That’s according to William McMichael who had a fascinating and most informative article in the March 2010 issue of Military History called, “Thieves Among Honor” (34-39).  You can read the article here.  The Veterans History Project “collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”  After reading McMichael’s article, I was left wondering (sadly) how useful that information really is, since there’s a possibility that half of it could be made up.

B.G. Burkett, the author of Stolen Valor after which the 2005 Stolen Valor Act is named, believes that “there are as many American males claiming military service falsely as there are living veterans in America.”  Burkett has spent 25 years uncovering fakes and estimates that 23.6 million men falsely claim military service.  According to a 2007 VA estimate there are 23,532,000 living veterans. [To clarify: a veteran is someone who served in the military, not just those with combat experience.  Some people get confused because they’re familiar with their local VFW, which is an organization for Veterans of Foreign Wars, but the Veterans Administration, for example, supports veterans in general.  Click here for an interesting article on What is a Veteran?]

McMichael’s article caught my eye because I served in the Marines way back in the 1980s and since then have known at least two guys who lied about having served in the military.  And I’m just one person who didn’t go looking for impostures.  In one case it was a friend of a friend, a guy who told lots of sea stories about his service, but didn’t have much to say to me when we met.  It was odd since I’d heard about his great stories.  I thought maybe he wasn’t talkative because I’m a woman and some guys–more so back then–were sometimes freaky about women in the military.  Our mutual friend, who was interested in joining the Army, wanted us to meet because we’d both been in the military.  This failed meeting made a lot of sense to me a few months later when my friend called to tell me that his friend had actually lied and never served in the military.  His reason?  He thought people would like him if he were a veteran.

Some other interesting facts from McMichael’s article:

  • In 2007 Operation Stolen Valor caught eight men in the Seattle area who were getting compensation for combat injures although only one of them had served in combat and two never served in the military.  These eight men cost the VA–and tax payers–1.4 million dollars. 
  • The Stolen Valor Act makes it a federal crime to make an alteration on a DD214 and it is now a federal crime to display a medal you did not earn. 
  • Between March 1, 2008 and February 25, 2009 the VA investigated 96 cases of “stolen valor” fraud; 48 arrests were made.

    The main reason men lie about having served when they did not, according to McMichael’s findings, is low-self esteem.  Low self-esteem is the same reason why those who did serve spice up their service with little lies that sometimes morph into huge tall tales.  After a lie is told once, the guy is embolden to repeat the lie, add more lies, increase their size; sometimes to the point where the lies become reality for the guy.  Consider two examples of false military claims in the news just this week: the case of Andrew Diabo or the accidental (or intentional) misspeak of Connecticut Attorney General  Richard Blumenthal.  You can read more stories of Stolen Valor here.

    Jim Lehrer’s The Phony Marine is the only novel that I’m aware of where the hero of the book is a guy who lies about having served in the military.  He completely makes up not only having served in the Marines, but earning a Silver Star.  I remember picking up the book several times when if first came out in hardcover and then putting it down.  Why would I want to read a book about some loser who pretends to be a Marine?  I kept thinking about the book and eventually took it home.

    Hugo Marder is a fifty-year old divorced sales man who works in one of the D.C. areas most respected men’s clothing stores.  He also has an eBay addiction and bids on and wins a Silver Star which he wears to work.  The Silver Star is the third highest medal awarded for valor.  Hugo always wanted to be a Marine when he was a kid.  He also wanted to be a cartoonist, but never pursued either dream.  After he begins wearing the Silver Star, people start treating him with respect.  His self-esteem soars.  He starts working out, gets his hair buzzed, studies Marine Corps history and lore, and starts reaping the rewards of a real-life Marine Hero.

    I didn’t expect to have compassion for Hugo, but I did. At times, anyway. What was glaring to me was all the energy Hugo expends on becoming a phony Marine.  If only he’d put that much effort into his real life, maybe he’d have had more self-esteem to create the life he wanted.  But that’s the cruel nature of low self-esteem: it keeps so many people from taking even one tentative step toward their dream, a step that would help increase their self-esteem so that they could take a second, more confident step toward making their dream a reality.  Instead they do nothing and blame their parents, their circumstances, their significant other.  I know, I’ve been there.

    After Hugo transforms himself into a fake former Marine, he runs into his ex-wife, who could easily blow his cover.  Then he unexpectedly becomes a real-life hero and leaves town to avoid scrutiny, but something happens in Dallas that begins the process of Hugo attempting to untangle his lies while keeping his new found sense of self.  What happens to Hugo is that by pretending to be something he is not, he eventually becomes more of who he truly is.

    I wonder if reading a book like The Phony Marine can help some of those 23.6 million American men from feeling the need to lie about military service by motivating them to take honest action in their own lives.

    One comment

    1. What a fascinating subject. The book sounds very interesting. Low self esteem has led people to take on all sorts of crazy stories over the centuries. I love your comment that if people but as much energy into their real lives as their fantasy life, things might be different. You've given me a lot to think about. Thanks. Happy Reading!

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