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'War hero' admits lying to get government benefits

ORLANDO, Fla. — Walter Eatman of St. Cloud claimed that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after being haunted by memories of combat in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

The trouble is, none of the claims were true, federal prosecutors said.

Eatman, 68, on Thursday pleaded guilty to theft of government funds and making false statements. Prosecutors say he stole about $106,000 in government money and benefits, including mental-health counseling and medication, by lying about his service.

Eatman, whose nickname is "Sandman," is a former Marine. But he did not serve in Vietnam from August 1965 to August 1967 as he claimed.

Eatman came to the attention of prosecutors after he tried to have his Veterans Affairs benefits increased in September 2010 by claiming that was suffering from PTSD.

He originally filed for the benefits in July 2008, claiming he also had combat-related hearing loss and ringing in his ears. He altered his military-discharge papers to reflect the bogus history, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Eatman even tricked a Veterans Affairs psychologist into believing his story and obtained a letter supporting his claim that he could not work, prosecutors said.

Eatman, a longtime American Legion member who has held leadership positions in the state organization and in Post 80 in St. Cloud, faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced May 16.

In 1988, Eatman was fired from his job as an auxiliary Osceola County deputy sheriff and resigned from his position as an assistant bank vice president in Kissimmee after he admitted that he tried to start a prostitution ring to act out a fantasy, Orlando Sentinel archives show.

Eatman, who was active in civic groups and a member of two city-advisory committees at the time, was not prosecuted in that case.

sjacobson@tribune.com
 

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