Online groups sleuthing to call out phony military careers

A screen capture of the Guardian of Valor website.

By AMANDA DOLASINSKI | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: February 12, 2016

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — It takes a mere glance for Tim Howle to see through the nonsense.

A military uniform adorned with every award a service member can earn is a dead giveaway. He hopes he's wrong, but sometimes an impersonator is blatantly lying and receiving financial benefits based on those lies.

That's where Howle draws the line.

"It's just about righting wrong," Howle said. "We hold certain values of honesty and integrity as a basis for our being. If nobody else is going to stand up to these guys, we feel we have to do it."

Howle is among a growing group of veterans — mostly retired — in online groups that investigates tips of people impersonating or bolstering a military career. The groups have been active for years but are gaining national attention in the wake of a decision to strike down the Stolen Valor Act.

Last month, a specially convened panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment allows people to wear unearned military honors.

The decision followed the 2007 Stolen Valor Act conviction of Elven Joe Swisher of Idaho, who wore a Purple Heart on the witness stand as he testified at the 2005 trial of a man charged with soliciting the murder of a federal judge.

Swisher testified that David Roland Hinkson offered him $10,000 to kill the judge presiding over Hinkson's tax-evasion case. Swisher said Hinkson was impressed after Swisher boasted that he killed "many men" during the Korean War.

Swisher enlisted in the Marine Corps a year after the Korean War ended and was never wounded in the line of duty, according to prosecutors. Swisher was honorably discharged in 1957, and documents indicate he didn't receive any medals, according to the 9th Circuit ruling.

After the Stolen Valor Act was struck down, Congress passed a new law making it a crime to profit financially by lying about military service. President Barack Obama signed it in 2013.

After Swisher's conviction, Congress removed a provision making it illegal to wear unearned medals.

The recent decision citing freedom of speech to wear unearned medals disappointed Howle.

"It's hard," he said.

Howle enlisted in the Air Force in June 1974.

"It wasn't military enough for me," Howle said, with a smile.

He left as a staff sergeant after four years. In December 1981, he was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant and went to language school and was stationed in Germany.

He served at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and completed the advanced course for field artillery officers in 1984. The following year, he arrived at Fort Bragg as an artillery officer.

He was selected for Special Forces and served with the 10th Special Forces at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, which is now closed.

Over his career, Howle deployed to Turkey, Iraq and Africa.

"I had a great career," he said. "I loved every minute of it."

After his military career, Howle worked as a principal on Fort Bragg for about 10 years. He retired in 2011 and lives in Hope Mills with his wife.

The brotherhood he forged as a Special Forces operator has helped him stay vigilant against the frauds, he said. Because the Special Forces community is so small and tight-knit, it's easy to keep tabs on who really served, he said.

"Special Forces is really a small group," he said. "We can usually tell if a story doesn't add up and is so clearly bogus."

Over the past three years, Howle estimated, he's investigated hundreds of tips through the help of his Facebook group Green Beret Posers Exposed.

The page, which was started by a group of Special Forces operators, is not public. Only those whose service has been verified can join.

The group works with other online military investigation groups, including This Ain't Hell and Guardian of Valor.

The approach is the same.

Tips are sent to members, who post them in the group. Members chime in if the tip is unfounded.

Unlike rogue people who confront impersonators in public places and videotape the encounter, online groups request service records through the federal Freedom of Information Act to verify claims.

Even when confronted with service records, Howle said some impersonators are reluctant to confess. No one has ever explained why they do it, Howle said.

"They will cry, beg for forgiveness," he said. "It's real frustrating when you can't get these guys to own up."

When a tip is credible, someone will turn it over to police for formal investigation. Howle said he's even passed information to the FBI.

"It's sad because they don't enforce it," Howle said. "When we do find there may be some criminal or fraud things going on, and can't get law enforcement to take a hard look at it, that's sad. They think it's a victimless crime, but it's not. These benefits could go to a veteran who needs them."

For example, one person investigated by Green Beret Posers Exposed claimed to be a Special Forces colonel and received a service dog worth more than $40,000. It turned out the man spent less than a year in the Army and was discharged as a private.

Howle is hoping state laws could make a difference.

In the past few years, Howle said state-level laws similar to the federal Stolen Valor Act have gained popularity. North Carolina does not have such a law.

Last month, Anthony Anderson, who runs the popular website Guardian of Valor, testified before two committees in Maryland to discuss state-level Stolen Valor legislation.

His website works to out people who falsely claim unauthorized medals or tabs. It features a "Hall of Shame," where posers are pictured and named.

Howle is compelled to track down the phonies for more than stopping unearned benefits.

To him and other Special Forces soldiers, it's also about preserving the prestige and heroic actions of those who fought.

"We've lost so many soldiers," Howle said. "And those guys aren't looking for glory. It's all about the guys who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and been badly wounded. When you go to visit those guys recovering, and think about these guys building a life on lies, it makes you want to spit."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.


©2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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