In 2009, a 61-year-old man joined an annual Remembrance Day parade wearing an impressive array of medals. So impressive in fact that an expert said their awarding would have made him “world famous – and some sort of Rambo character”. After he was tracked down, the man, later named as Roger Day, claimed his medals were “pukka” but his story was denounced by military personnel and the public alike.
Day’s tale is not an unusual case. Over the last few years, more and more instances of “stolen valour” have cropped up. So much so in fact that exposing military impostors has become somewhat of a cottage industry, with verified veterans themselves identifying and exposing fraudsters.
In Britain, a dedicated team of previous and currently serving personnel have created “The Walter Mitty Hunters Club” to expose those that they claim to be fake military personnel. I spoke to a retired major who served in the UK special forces about the club. He did not wish to be named but said on the record: “Without wishing to comment on the methods employed by the ‘Walter Mitty Hunters Club’, the intent – to expose individuals who falsely claim to have served in the forces – is a public service.”
Though some may question what harm these “eccentric” types do, they actually damage the reputation and credibility of real veterans, resulting in an insidious effect on the way the public view former military personnel.
Impersonating a service member is more than just wearing a uniform to gain attention. Imposters can access financial support from military charities, secure employment, and even use the impact of deployment-related illness to gain leniency during court sentencing.
In some instances fradulent veterans with no service history have used information from real operational events in which service members have been killed to establish a credible story, and gain attention for several years before exposure. This can understandably be very upsetting for both the real service personnel involved and the families left behind.
But it is not just non-military personnel who make false claims. Some true veterans have also been found exaggerating the truth of their duty. Research from the US revealed that 41% of those in a sample seeking PTSD treatment had exaggerated their combat involvement.
Lord of the Rings and Dracula actor Christopher Lee famously encouraged the embellishment of his two-year military service during the World War II. Many believed he served in a number of elite British military units, including the SAS, but in truth he had only been attached as a RAF liaison officer. Though Lee never hid this fact, he failed to clarify his role and allowed false assumptions to be circulated.
Likewise, earlier this year it was revealed that “American Sniper” Chris Kyle had embellished his military records. He claimed to have earned two silver star and five bronze star medals, when in fact he had earned only one silver and three bronze stars.
Imposters who have never served are one thing but genuine veterans who talk up and embellish their service career are seen to be the most disappointing and frustrating. Recently retired Colonel Justin Holt who served for more than 30 years with the Royal Marines told me: “I’ve never met a veteran who isn’t modest, to the point of humility, about his or her service.
He added: "Those who embellish their stories are immediately suspect and do a disservice to themselves as everyone has a part to play in success, no matter how small. The eccentric impostors who have never served are a different matter, they deserve our pity rather than opprobrium.”
There is no doubt that anyone who has served their country deserves far more than the medals and honours they receive – but those who inflate their résumé erode their own real, legitimate heroism they showed during service.
Countries such as the US require personnel to serve a minimum period of time, and have been on at least one operational deployment to claim veteran status. Conversely, individuals only need to serve one day of basic training in the UK armed forces to qualify as a veteran – making it the most inclusive service in the world. As a result there are now an estimated 4.8m veterans in Britain, making it easy for fraudsters to go unnoticed for long periods of time.
There are big differences in how fraudsters are dealt with on either side of the Atlantic too. In the US it is a specific criminal offence to impersonate military personnel to gain money, property or other tangible benefits. In the UK, impostors are mostly charged under the 2006 Fraud Act if they are found to be claiming to have won medals for financial gain. A new British bill is in the works, however, which would go one step further than the US law. If passed it would prohibit the wearing or public display, by a person not entitled to do so, of medals or insignia awarded for valour, with the intent to deceive.
But are even these strict criminal laws enough to deter wannabe fraudsters? And what impact can amateur hunters really have? Though both certainly may deter some from so publicly announcing their false heroism, it is unlikely to cure the stolen valour epidemic entirely. For that to happen, we need to make it clear to one and all that veteran status is a right to be earned through proper service – not one that can be bought or made up.