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As the image of the Vietnam veteran has achieved a startling transformation from pariah to status symbol over the past fifteen years, the number of frauds and wannabes claiming to have served in Southeast Asia - in "special ops" and "clandestine activities" - has proliferated.
"They’re an epidemic," says Mary Schantag who, with her husband Chuck has run pownetwork.org, one of the premier sites on the Internet that documents the legitimate and damns the liars, since 1989.
Although frauds are not unique to the war in Vietnam, says Mary, "we get far fewer reports of questionable credentials about World War II, Korea, and Gulf War veterans." Their Web site now lists the names of some 700 phonies who maintain they have been POWs in Southeast Asia.
Thousands claim to have served, to have participated in clandestine operations, to have received the highest military decorations including the Medal of Honor, to have endured inhuman treatment as prisoners of war, to have made miraculous escapes from captivity. Their falsehoods are often supported by their spouses, who know the truth but embrace the lie to comfort the kids and explain if not excuse daddy’s descent into the bottle.
If the claims of all those who "served" were true, Mary Schantag agrees, Army Special Forces and the Navy SEALs would have to have been just about the largest units in Vietnam.
Chuck, a Marine veteran who was wounded by a Chicom grenade in 1968, and Mary, who had been an activist for a true accounting of American prisoners of war and missing in action in Vietnam, now are self-described historians and researchers. They bring passion to their calling, and are proud to be numbered among a coterie of fraud fighters who have an almost visceral need to set the record straight, to shine a spotlight on the "phonies and the pretenders and the imposters who dishonor those who served" by confabulating exploits that never happened, by claiming medals they never earned.
Some of these men - and there are more then a few women in their ranks - did in fact serve in the military. They have, however, taken the liberty of padding their service records: few clerks stationed on Okinawa were afforded the opportunity to shine in combat, but with a few taps on the keys of a typewriter a cook who spent a year in Korea can claim to have been sent on some secret operation for which he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.
Then there are those who never served and, oh so secure in their belief as to how well they would have performed under fire, simply invent heroic histories for themselves.
"Serving in the military was the one chance to test your manhood," says Mary from her home in rural Skidmore, Missouri. And if they missed the opportunity, by design or by chance, they create a lie and live that lie until they are caught. Many are not, and they spread their deception speaking in schools, at memorial services, at ceremonies honoring those who served and those who died.
This outrages Mary. "It’s one thing to brag about fictional exploits in bars," she says, her voice rising. "But to tell these stories in schools is simply insane."
Lt. Gen. Martin Steele, who now runs the Intrepid Museum in New York City, recounts an incident at a cocktail party. One fellow, rather full of himself, regaled those gathered around him with the story of his gallantry in action for which he received a Bronze Star. It was when he mentioned the unit to which he had been assigned that Marty Steele knew he was listening to a lie: that unit was never even in Vietnam.
When the general pulled the wannabe over to the side and gently confronted him, the wannabe at first insisted that his story was righteous. When the general told him that he had spent 35 years in the Corps, the wannabe finally broke down and admitted his lie - which he had been telling, and had come to believe, for 20 years. Get help, the general advised him. Oh, I will, I will, the wannabe promised. Marty Steele doubts that that will happen.
Developing the Database
Armed with their research and a sense of righteous indignation, their only clout is the power of ostracism and public humiliation. Chuck and Mary and their small band of brethren - legitimate SEALs and Rangers, helicopter pilots and Medal of Honor recipients; perhaps the best-known is "Jug" Burkett, who authored the surprisingly well-received volume, Stolen Valor - spend hundreds of hours a month documenting these frauds. They have accumulated boxes and boxes of documents that Chuck, the techie of the duo, enters into a computer database that now numbers some 13,000 files.
Mary claims that pownetwork.org is one of the largest sites of its kind on the Web, one that attracts heavy usage from journalists - and from members of the active-duty military. Their site features more than 3,600 bios of legitimate prisoners of war - and the apologies of several wannabes who have come, however grudgingly, to "see the error of their ways."
"Please accept my utmost apology [sic] for previously made comments and only can hope over time that I can be forgiven for trying to represent someone that I wasn’t," writes one Dennis B. Roach.
Another imposter, Jon C. Drolshagen, writes, "I hereby renounce my claim . . . I was not a SOG operative, a MANCHU, a POW, nor was I ever wounded. I wish to apologize to any/all military personnel who I may have unjustly harmed by so stating. I will never again suggest to anyone that I am anything other than that which I am."
‘So, So Sad’
For Chuck and Mary, their Sisyphean undertaking is not without triumph. In addition to the public apologies they run on their Web site, Mary notes that the American Ex-POW Association investigated and booted 18 of its top membership who claimed to be former prisoners of war and weren’t. Yet no other veterans’ service organization, Mary says, has bothered to check the records to eliminate the liars.
"Unless it’s a situation in which someone claims to be a recipient of the Medal of Honor," Mary says, "the legal system never takes action.
"We can’t even get the VA to clean out its system," she says. She believes that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of fraudulent claims -- for disability compensation, for service-connected wounds - "based on fraudulent records that are costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Why is investigating poseurs "the biggest part of our lives," as Mary puts it? Because "you cannot meet a man whose son has not come home, or meet real ex-prisoners of war, and not be moved," she says. "They are so special, and those who inflate themselves do so at the expense of real heroes."
Are their findings ever challenged by those they expose? "We cannot afford to be wrong," Mary says. "We can prove that the frauds and the wannabes are lying. They can’t prove they’re telling the truth."
Chuck and Mary - she reports that she is at the computer from sunup to sundown - are operating in a growth industry. It is one in which they are likely to thrive, unfortunately, for a very long time.
Link to http://www.pownetwork.org