#70 Stolen Valor

July 14, 2016

PJ dives into the world of military impostors and the vigilantes who hunt them. Plus, a dispatch from Dallas.

Show transcript

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

[Clip from Stolen Valor YouTube video: Sounds of mall on Black Friday]

RYAN BERK: [to child] Come here. Come here.

PJ: This is a video shot by a guy named Ryan Burke. He shot it at the mall on Black Friday. And as it starts, Ryan is walking up to this guy in an Army uniform. The man in the army uniform ’s walking out of a shoe store holding a bag, and Ryan asks the guy, “Hey! Would you mind just meeting my 10-year-old kid?”

[Audio from Stolen Valor YouTube video]

RYAN: Hey sir? Hey, my son ‘d like to meet you. He really, uh, admires guys in the Army.

SEAN YETMAN: Hey buddy! I’m Sean.

RYAN: What, uh, what unit were you in?

SEAN: I’m with the 2nd Battalion Rangers.

RYAN: 75th?

SEAN: 2nd. We’re with …

[Clip continues under PJ’s narration]

PJ: Sean, the guy in the uniform, is looking at the kid, but Ryan just starts peppering him with questions.

RYAN: Where’d you get your, uh, three CIBs at?

SEAN: Afghanistan.

RYAN: All three?

SEAN: All three.

RYAN: You know you need to be in three different campaigns to get three, uh, three CIBs, right?

SEAN: [indistinct, clip continues underneath]

PJ: Ryan is fact-checking this guy. He doesn’t believe him. He’s convinced this stranger at the mall … is a fake soldier.

RYAN: Where’s your combat patch at?

SEAN: Uh … I gave it to a little kid [indistinct].

RYAN: Alright, why’s your flag so low on your shoulder? It should be up here.

SEAN: … got me on that one, bud.

[Clip continues underneath]

PJ: Sean, the guy in the uniform is starting to look scared. For some reason, he keeps answering Ryan’s questions … but behind his glasses, his face is just starting to freeze.

RYAN: St. Louis? Is that where the Rangers are?

SEAN: That’s where we’re stationed.

RYAN: How come, uh, where’s your shirt–underneath? (Your tan t-shirt?)

[Clip continues underneath]

PJ: And finally, in this very obvious, very desperate dodge, Sean picks up his phone and acts like he’s getting a phone call from his Staff Sergeant.

RYAN: Why is calling a staff sergeant “staff sergeant” if he’s already a staff sergeant? That doesn’t make any sense.

[Clip continues underneath]

PJ: Sean starts trying to walk away from Ryan, but Ryan follows him and starts yelling.

RYAN: This is illegal! What you’re doing right now is illegal! ‘Cause, you know what? I’ve worn that fuckin’ uniform and I’ve had friends get killed In Afghanistan wearing that fucking uniform–

SEAN: So have I.

RYAN: No you haven’t–

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let’s go.

RYAN: –you’re full of shit.

SEAN: I’ve had 12 years in.

RYAN: Stolen Valor.

SEAN: Stolen Valor …

RYAN: Right here. STOLEN VALOR!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please! Let’s go!

RYAN: He’s full of shit … wearing a United States Army uniform … claims to be a United States Army Ranger …

[clip ends]

PJ: So this video is a Stolen Valor video and there is a whole world of videos like this. There are frauds out there who pretend to be in the military–either because they want the discounts and benefits that veterans get or just because they want people to respect them. And there are people who are in the military, or have been, who are very angry about it and who try to film those people and humiliate them. I’ve been watching them for a year now.

[VOICES, EACH FROM DIFFERENT STOLEN VALOR VIDEOS]

MAN 1: See, If you were a sergeant major you wouldn’t be backing out, walking away.

MAN 2: [indistinct] fucking calling you out for, fucking, having a bullshit-ass uniform on.

MAN 3: I ain’t fake.

MAN 4: You take the goddamn cap off.

MAN 5: Just take MY uniform off!

WOMAN: You should be ashamed of yourself.

MAN 6: I ain’t faking this shit.

MAN 7: [indistinct] brothers who died with this god-damn tab on their arm. And he’s wearing it. And you never earned that motherfucker!

PJ: The clips end up getting posted to websites like MilitaryPhony.com, FakeWarriors.org. On Pinterest, there’s a board that’s just “Stolen Valor stooges.” There’s even one guy who only posts videos to YouTube about fake Navy SEALs.

When I watch the videos, I don’t feel mad. I’m a civilian, like, I’m not the intended audience for this. But I keep watching them because it feels important to understand why the people who find them outrageous FIND them so outrageous. And so, I’ve talked to veterans, I’ve talked to active Servicemembers–and they’ve been very patient with me. And they’ve explained what, to them, feels obvious–that someone impersonating them is deeply offensive.

Which I get, but I still feel like there’s a scale to this anger that feels big and that I want to know. I finally found somebody who was able to help me start to get it. This guy that put it in terms that I could understand.

PJ: First of all can you (laughing) say your name?

NATE BETHEA: Yeah, my name is Nate Bethea.

PJ: And, I guess, like, identify like …

NATE: Sure. My b- my background. I [indistinct]–

PJ: Yeah.

NATE: Yeah. OK. I was an Army–an infantry officer in the Army for, um, for seven years. Um, in 2009, I deployed to Afghanistan with the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. I spent a little over a year there. And then also, I got stationed in South Korea.

PJ: Nate’s out of the Army now, he lives in New York. He’s a writer, he actually has a podcast called Task and Purpose Radio. And Nate said that if I wanted to understand why people were so upset about Stolen Valor, I needed to understand what it’s like to come back to civilian life after serving. When he got back, things felt different.

NATE: I – I just remember being surprised by things. Being made uncomfortable by the sort-of … lack of control of things? That, for example, um, things that were unfamiliar were – were–were very, very intimidating.

PJ: Like what?

NATE: Like, I used to volunteer at a bike co-op. And I went to … I went to the new location of the bike co-op and it was – it was completely new place. It was really crowded, it was really hot inside this room. And I – I fel- I felt so unbelievably uncomfortable that I had to just get out and leave.

What would normally be a … a – a feeling of unfamiliarity for most people was a feeling of potential threats for me. It took me a while to get used to the civilian world.

PJ: Nate said the thing that happened in the bike shop, that was PTSD. But he said that even if you don’t have PTSD, one of the things that’s weird about being home is when … details from military life just pop up out of nowhere. Like, he had this one day where he was paging through The New York Times and he sees a picture of a medevac. A medevac is a medical helicopter used by the military. It’s the helicopter that comes out if somebody has died or if they’ve been badly wounded. You don’t want to see a medevac.

NATE: Just seeing the photos and seeing that again after two months of living in … y’know, sort of, civilian fantasy-world … was–was very discomforting. It was – it was … it – it–it kind of made me sweat, almost. The intensity of that–when you see somebody wearing a uniform that may have things upon it that are familiar to you–that are tied to certain experiences–I could see how that could – that could upset somebody.

You have to kind of, kind of multiply the intensity of that, because, for a lot of people, th- it’s … their identification with their military service, with their unit, is something that’s very, very serious. It’s likely, I’m not going to speak for everyone, but it’s likely the most … significant, certainly the most intense thing, they’ve experienced in their lives.

PJ: So, Nate helped me understand the psychology behind this. Why Stolen Valor makes people so mad. But these videos don’t get viral by accident. They don’t just get viral because of people’s anger. There’s actually a pretty sophisticated, pretty organized system by which they end up out on the military internet.

I talked to this guy Anthony Anderson who runs a Stolen Valor website called guardianofvalor.com. And, that video from the beginning, of the guy in the mall–

[Clip from Stolen Valor YouTube video]

RYAN: –uniform and I’ve had friends get killed In Afghanistan wearing that fucking uniform–

SEAN: So have I. Stolen Valor …

RYAN: Right here. STOLEN VALOR!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please!

PJ: Ryan, who filmed it, sent it to Anthony, and Anthony’s the guy who made that famous.

ANTHONY: When he sent me the video, I immediate knew the video w- was gonna be a hit. Um … and between the website and the Facebook, we probably get two-to-three thousand tips a week. And our website right now gets close to five million hits a month.

PJ: Anthony doesn’t just post these videos, he actually investigates the people in them. He tries to find out if, like, they actually could have earned the medals that they’re wearing. Or he looks to see if there are military records that substantiate their claims. He thinks Stolen Valor is dangerous. He thinks it’s bad for civilians to have people who are walking around pretending to be soldiers. And so, for him, he doesn’t just want to post videos that rile people up. He actually wants his website to serve a larger purpose.

PJ: What’s the thinking behind these videos of people being confronted? Like, what does that accomplish that … you know, just, like, having the information about them without a video wouldn’t accomplish?

Anthony: Well, what the videos accomplish (sighs) is it educates people in more of a way, because–I use this word and – an- and I tell people I hate using it, is–there’s entertainment value behind the video. We posted the video, And … after this video, um, went viral like it did .. it – it actually caused … representatives, lawmakers to get involved with the Stolen Valor movement. And that one video has, so far, caused five new Stolen Valor laws to be passed in five different states.

PJ: That–

ANTHONY: Just that one video.

PJ: How do you know that that video has done it?

ANTHONY: Because, uh, because I’ve been involved in five different interviews for those states and all the lawmakers that have contacted me said that video is what prompted them to push these new laws. And I hate to say it that way, but without all that attention that’s been – that has been given to it, I don’t think the lawmakers would’ve given it … you know, the attention they have given it so far.

PJ: It actually used to be a federal law that if you impersonate a soldier, you could go to jail. That was repealed in 2012 because the Supreme Court said it violated freedom of speech. And the law that replaced it is a lot weaker. So Anthony wants the states to just pass their own Stolen Valor laws that are stricter. His plan is that the videos go viral, they make a lot of people mad, and then state legislators hear from angry people and reform happens.

But there’s this side effect. Which is that a lot of people have seen Anthony’s videos … and they’ve just decided to make their own. Not because of their interest in local law reform, but because they want to humiliate people. And because it makes them feel like heroes to do it.

PJ: Do you ever feel like you’ve opened up a Pandora’s Box a little bit?

ANTHONY: We have. Um … I – I do. I’ve seen people post videos and there’s one website that does it, and I’ve contacted the website several times and asked them not to post videos like that. Um, they posted a video a while back of a guy that was mentally … you could tell he was mentally unstable.

PJ: Ugh.

ANTHONY: Um … and he … he was basically wearing the uniform because it–to him it was more of a … (sighs) he looked up to … guys in the military. And you could tell that. The guy — you could tell the guy was just mentally … you know, he was just mentally not there. And, you know, I contacted the website and asked them, you know, “Hey,” you know, “Please take this down. This is – this is no way–in any shape or form–Stolen Valor. It’s far from it. This – this is not right, you’re making fun of this guy. And it ma- it makes it look bad for, you know, the Stolen Valor movement altogether.” And, ‘course they wouldn’t remove the video, but. Um …

PJ: What was their defense?

ANTHONY: They never responded.

PJ: The other things about the copycats is that they’re a lot sloppier than Anthony. I talked to this man named Bob Ford. Bob was a Marine from 1958 to 1964. And then he had a full civilian career and retired. But he says the thing he’s still most proud of in his life is his service. He actually still wears his uniform.

BOB FORD: When you get to be 75, the – the fact that you can just put the uniform on is a good feeling.

PJ: (laughs)

BOB: A- b- an- you know, and there you are, you’re – you’re 20 years old again. This is what you wore. I – I–I really look forward to it. I enjoy that.

PJ: Bob’s one of those veterans who plays “Taps” at the funerals for other veterans. He also wears the uniform at this Memorial Day ceremony that happens in Harrisburg. He goes every year and he has a ritual. First, he goes to the cemetery where his dad and his grandfather are buried, and then goes to the ceremony itself, they all lay a wreath, and then afterwards, he stops by this arts and crafts fair that’s nearby and he finds a present for his granddaughter.

This year, while he was shopping, these two guys accosted him.

BOB: And he said, Where did you go to boot camp?” And I said, “What is your problem?” And he said, “I want to know where you went to bootcamp!” And I said, … “Get,” you know, basically, I told him to, “Get out of my face.” He jumped back and he started … hollering, “Stolen Valor!” and pointing at me. He said, “He doesn’t know where he went to boot camp! He’s a fake!”

So, this other kid starts in. And he starts hollering. And they’re both pointing at me and (clears throat) now, all this crowd is gathering.
And … And I started through the crowd and these two guys kept–one on either side–kept harassing me the whole–and I kept … telling them to get away from me. But they wouldn’t. And – and … this went on for almost two blocks.

PJ: One of the men was a cop, and Bob says the cop kept reaching for his gun, like his hand was hovering over the holster. Which scared Bob because in the Marines, he was taught that you go for your gun if you’re gonna use it.

BOB: I was … just really, I – I was so humiliating. It was it’s – it’s undescribable. It was like a nightmare. I – I thought I was gonna have a heart attack on the spot.

PJ: You really thought you might die?

BOB: Oh, yes, I had just suffered a heart attack … at Christmas, last Christmas. Right before Christmas, so.

PJ: Have you worn your uniform since then?

BOB: No. … No, I haven’t.

PJ: How come?

BOB: I … well, I just, uh … I – I–I just haven’t been able to, be honest with ya. Uh. The whole thing has just left a, like a, uh, an empty void in … (starts crying) … Yeah, it’s like they take your whole life and th- and throw it in the trash can.

PJ: It’s hard not to wonder how many people like Bob there are out there. People who’ve been falsely accused of Stolen Valor.

Nate, the veteran I talked to at the podcast, he said he’s heard a lot of stories of mistaken Stolen Valor cases that ended up a lot worse.

NATE: It was like a guy in a bar. It was a Vietnam veteran, and some active-duty Air Force guys basically beat him up because they said he was Stolen Valor and – and he had been in the — he’d been like a medic in Vietnam. And it seemed like it was a performance, like was trying to make all the bystanders think this person was a faker more than it was about correcting this purported fakery.

PJ: How did you get that feeling? Like was it…

NATE: I – I – I (sighs) … I think–this is just my – my personal opinion–but I get that feeling because of the extent to which this is always public. The assessment of the person and the determination that they’re faking is not meant to be a conversation between those two people, it’s meant to be a spectacle to correct the record. So, maybe the reason why people are so angry is not that it’s that the people are faking but it’s that people around them are fooled

PJ: This had never occurred to me. The whole time I was watching these videos, I felt like I was eavesdropping. I didn’t realize that civilians like me were supposed to be part of the audience. Because it’s not like veterans are gonna be fooled by phony veterans. Part of their anger is–is about us. It’s about civilians who … can’t tell the difference between somebody who’s fake, and somebody who’s real.

Nate tries not to get too upset about Stolen Valor. But what bothers him about it is that he sees it as a symptom of this larger gap. This gap between civilians and servicemembers.

We know so little about what they do, and Stolen Valor is, like, the most extreme example of that. To Nate, the solution is not calling out frauds, it’s just for people in the military and civilians to talk more. For all of us to try to have conversations that go beyond, Thank you for the service.”

NATE: I wish people had a basic understanding of what the military was so that it didn’t necessarily become this–this thing that is … approximated and that provokes an emotional response. The people who wear uniforms are still people. Because it’s weird when people are treating you like a symbol and you’re trying to say, “Hey man, talk to me, I’m a person. Like, talk to me as a human being not – not as th- the symbolic representation of what you think the uniform I’m wearing means.”

PJ: I asked Nate how we would even being to start a conversation that feels that big. And he rattled off a bunch of questions. Questions that were familiar to anybody who’s ever made small-talk.

“Where are you from?” “What’d you do over there?” “What do you do all day?”

BREAK

PJ: OK. … It felt really weird making a show about the internet this week. The whole world watched videos of two black men being killed by police, and then a sniper killing five police officers in Dallas. Over here, we all feel overwhelmed. We don’t feel like we have anything smart or insightful to say about this, it also felt really dishonest to just do a show and pretend like this big, horrible thing isn’t there.

So, I found myself doing what I do whenever something doesn’t make sense to me, which is just staring at the internet. And the internet was … horrible. The conversation that was happening online around Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas … there were no new answers in that conversation for anybody. But. On Sunday morning, I was looking at Twitter and I saw a bunch of tweets by Sam Sanders. He’s an NPR reporter who was in Dallas covering the aftermath of the shooting. And he said something which really surprised me, which was that the conversations that he was hearing and the things he was seeing, like, down on the ground in Dallas. There were things he was seeing there that were not reflected on the internet. There was a conversation there that was like … different. And I really wanted to know what he meant by that. So we called him. He said he first heard about Dallas like a lot of people did, in the middle of the night, on Twitter.

SAM SANDERS: So, I was getting ready to go to bed and I start seeing these tweets. And before I know it, I am engrossed in these tweets about Dallas and it’s just awful, awful, awful. I end up outside, like, on the porch, chain smoking, reading tweets for three hours. And it’s just … it’s even worse than what the videos felt like just because it seemed like online, people were already going into their corners and already being hateful and critical and mean and–I couldn’t even fall asleep that night. I – I – I–I just remember being up in my bed. And I think, at one point, I tweeted, basically like, “I have to log off now,” and I still couldn’t log off. ‘Cause it was just dragging me so far down.

PJ: Sam flew to Dallas the next day to cover the aftermath of the shooting. And he felt like he knew what he was gonna see when he got there, because he’d seen the conversation that was happening on the internet, and also because he’d reported on the aftermath of so many shootings before.

PJ: In cities you’ve been after events that are like this, like –what does it usually feel like? Just, like, tense cops and angry protesters?

SAM: It feels like a script. It feels like everyone knows what they need to say.

PJ: And what’s the script?

SAM: Like, without fail, people will say, um, “x people are a resilient people.” “The people of Aurora are so resilient.” “The people of Sandy Hook are so resilient.” “The people of Santa Barbara are so resilient.” So th- they say that. Then there’s a vigil. And then, there is the singing of the “Amazing Grace.” And you got to make sure you gotta record the “Amazing Grace.” And then there’s the candles and then there is the homemade sign. Like, like it’s a script. Like, it’s – it’s–it’s disaster Mad Libs. All of these things are there, right? But this, for whatever reason, just–it was different. It was something else. It was something else.

PJ: Sam’s first day in Dallas, the first place he went was the vigil. But nobody was really at the vigil, and so he went across town to the place where the actual crime scene was. And he said that’s where things started to feel weird.

SAM: I get to the crime scene and you see there’s like 20 city blocks cordoned off. Like blockades, caution tape, cops, squad cars, lights. So you get there and you know, you’re like, “Oh, this is a crime scene.” So I stop and I look. And th- and then as soon as I see all that, I – I like look around and there’s people just sitting … and standing … and pacing … near the caution tape. On any given block, there’d be like five to ten people either walking around or just standing near or across the street from the caution tape. And so, because the crime scene was 20 blocks, you saw, y- y–you saw it all around the perimeter. P- it was like … ugh, what is an apt compar… it was like disaster zombies.

PJ: Like a crowd of people just quietly, aimlessly shuffling.

SAM: It was really, really creepy.

PJ: Are you looking at the internet … while – while this is happening or no, have you turned it off?

SAM: No, I was mad at the internet, I was like I just … I was mad at the internet. And I- Twitter had pissed me off and I was like, “No, I’m going to just be in this moment and be in this space.” So there were these people that were walking around, that were there, but they obviously had nowhere to be and nowhere to go and they just were there.

So I finally corner one woman, a- a teacher. She teaches music for, like, k through six, and I’m like, What’s–what’s going on here? What’s the deal?” And she was like, “You know … I just needed to be here to reflect. And I said, “Well, wh- what are you thinking about?” She’s like, “I don’t know.” And then she goes, “I don’t have a reason to stay … but I don’t have a reason to leave either.”

PJ: He said he kept seeing that. Moments that were quiet … with people who either weren’t making up their minds or just had thoughts that were too complicated to put into a sound bite.

SAM: Th- that’s the thing. The internet is not the larger conversation, the internet is the smaller conversation. I, like, had this realization. I was checking into a hotel room Sunday night in Dallas, and this woman asked me what I’m doing, what I’m in town for, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m a journalist,” and she’s like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I – I said, “I work for NPR, I’m covering this shooting.” And she’s like, “Oh, my god.” So we start talking about the shooting and her interactions with police and–we have a long conversation–and finally she says to me, “You know, I see both sides. I see Black Lives Matter point, I see the police officer’s point. I see both sides, but whenever you say that you see one side, everyone thinks that you hate the other side, so I just stay quiet.”

PJ: That’s it. That’s what he saw. And I know how small that is. I know how … meagre it is to find hope in the fact that people are quietly thinking about something. But I think Sam’s right. Like, even though we know that we’re ruder and louder and more argumentative on the internet, I think that we forget that the other thing the internet doesn’t show us is quiet. The moments that we’re all having where we’re sitting there turning this stuff over, trying to make sense of it. It can feel like nobody else is doing that.

Sam Sanders. You can follow him on Twitter or, if you want to hear more of Sam, you should check out the NPR Politics Podcast. Sam’s one of the hosts. It’s great. Later this month, they’re gonna go to both the Democratic and Republican Party Conventions. And they’re going to tape episodes every night, post them the morning after. Check it out.

Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard and our editor is Peter Clowney.

Production assistance from Thom Cote. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks this week to Marie Cusick, Cooper McKim, Gary Brenner, and Elizabeth Kulas.

Nate Bethea teaches a writing workshop for veterans called Voices from War. If you’re interested, you can find information at voicesfromwar.org.

AND … our friends over at the Gimlet podcast Surprisingly Awesome–which looks at things that people think are boring and discovers their secret awesomeness–is working on an episode about weddings. If you are having a wedding in September and you would like to help them prove that weddings are NOT boring–that they’re awesome–and you’d like to let them record your wedding, then get in touch! Go to the website salistener.com.

Matt Lieber is a summer night where you somehow get the ratio of thin sheet to heavy sheet and air conditioner to window to finally line up and you are not too hot and you are not too cold and you actually sleep.

Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes of the show at itunes.com/replyall. OR on Google Play. Or, wherever you get podcasts–we’re not judging your podcast source.

Our website is replyall.soy. Thank you for listening, we will see you in two weeks.

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