FAKE SEALs and PHONY FROGS

(July 1995 issue of SOF)

by Capt. Larry Bailey

Most of us, military and civilian alike, have encountered individuals who enjoy the company of those who represent something that is unfilled in their own lives, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. (I suspect that if we're honest, most of us would admit to harboring secret desires of our own regarding what we might have been.) However, an astounding number of these "wannabes" cross over the line and claim to be things they're not, and the SEAL community has certainly seen its share of these foolish impostors. In my 27 years as a SEAL officer I have seen literally dozens of cases of guys claiming to be SEALs, with many of those claiming to have been highly decorated in Vietnam.

Larval SEAL

My first encounter with a guy falsely claiming to be a SEAL was in 1965, when a SEAL buddy, Bill Garnett, and I were flying space-available on a Navy flight from Dallas to Norfolk. On the same plane was a young and slightly overweight sailor, a Seaman Arceneaux from Louisiana, who was wearing the old UDT-SEAL parachute insignia on his jumper. (This was before the introduction of today's SEAL breast insignia.) Thinking he was probably a West Coast frog unknown to me, an East Coaster, I asked him which UDT or SEAL team he was assigned to. When he answered, "Underwater Demolition Team 21," I knew I had a ringer, because I knew every member of that team.

Gaylord Stevens

The classic phony vet scam was when Gaylord Stevens, shown here with museum display, and Kenneth Bonner convinced each other that one was a SEAL...and the other was former Special Forces. Both were frauds, but they got together and built one of the better Vietnam War museums, in San Antonio. Not surprising, Stevens had an earlier run-in with the law on counterfeiting charges. Stevens resurfaced again in Houston, calling himself a "Vietnam-era" vet (he had been in the Coast Guard, Stateside), trying to organize another Vietnam War museum. Photo:SOF files

The kid didn't know who I was (at the time a lieutenant assigned to SEAL Team Two), because I was traveling in civilian clothes. I took advantage of his ignorance and started to ask him some dumb questions, such as, "Who is CO of Team 21 now?" His answer to that was Lieutenant Blais." Chief Petty Officer Tom Blais, the toughest CPO in the UDT training unit, was a great leader, but he wasn't CO of UDT-21. Bill and I peppered Seaman Arceneaux with numerous question about life in the teams, parachuting and UDT training, and, to our great amusement, he was more than forthcoming in sharing his insider's knowledge.

Have been handed an opportunity for practical joke, I convinced the plane's crew chief, a friend of ours, to confide in Arceneaux that Bill and I were claiming to be SEALs and ask him to help expose us two phonies. He did this, adding that he knew Arceneaux was authentic because he was wearing the UDT-SEAL jump wings. The poor guy turned 14 shades of purple during this conversation, and it was with obvious reluctance that he returned to his seat just forward of ours. Turning to face us, Arceneaux asked if we were really SEALs; confirming that we were, I told him to remove the jump wings and never put them on again until he earned them.

It turned out that the good seaman was en route to re-enter UDT training at Little Creek Amphibious Base (near Norfolk); he had quit training several months earlier.

Naturally, I felt compelled to inform my good friend Chief Blais about my chance encounter with one of his soon-to-be charges, and he in turn felt compelled to arrange a "welcome back" occasion for Arceneaux. With all this personal attention and hospitality, I never did understand why Arceneaux quit training again within 24 hours. It could be that facing 4,000 squat jumps was more than he could contemplate at the beginning of training.

Fantasy SEAL

The Arceneaux case was a mild one compared with others I have encountered through the years; after all, he was just a 20-year-old kid trying to pump up his self-esteem. I remember another incident that occurred in October 1979, when I was strolling down the midway of the Cape Fear Regional Fair in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was hailed by a guy working as a shill on the arcade. Seeing the SEAL belt buckle I was wearing, he informed me that he had been a SEAL in Vietnam and proceeded to describe how he had been shot up while under his parachute canopy during a free-fall combat jump. I didn't have the heart to tell him that there was never a SEAL combat jump during all the Vietnam years, much less a free-fall combat jump! We chatted for a few minutes, during which time he regaled me with war stories that chilled my very marrow; phony SEALs are invariably more bloodthirsty than the real thing. Not being very bloody-minded at the moment, I soon excused myself and went to consider the other sideshow freaks.

Almost a SEAL

Even the above incident seems trivial compared to a real classic case of phony-SEALism I encountered when I was CO of Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, the Navy's center for basic and advanced SEAL training. One day I received a call from a SEAL captain friend who was participation in a port security exercise in Long Beach. It transpired that he was suspicious of a Navy officer, a Captain John Burrud, who was wearing the "Budweiser" badge, the breast insignia worn by qualified SEALs (so called because of its close resemblance to the Anheuser Busch corporate logo: Is that apt or what?) Since Burrud tap-danced around the issue of when and where he had undergone training, my buddy decided to check him out with me. Because NSWC is the repository for records of all UDT and SEAL trainees since the early '50s, I was able to determine who Burrud really was. Unlike a lot of phonies, he had actually been in UDT training in the early '60s, but he had dropped in mid-course for medical reasons.

When a Navy captain misrepresents himself as a SEAL, it is a certainty that there will be retribution when the real SEALs find out. Such was the case with poor Burrud, who stoutly maintained to his admiral that, although he had not actually completed UDT training, he had a letter in his file from an Army officer that certified he had done enough cloak-and-dagger stuff while assigned to an Army unit to qualify him as SEAL. The salty old admiral replied that he would like to see such documentation, but in the meantime, Burrud, take that blankety-blank badge off your blouse and don't put it on again. Needless to say, the good captain never got around to proving his status and, as far as is known, never put on the Budweiser again.

A sobering aspect to this story is the fact that Burrud, an officer in the Naval Reserve, was in real life the director of security for the Port of Long Beach, a position which, like his Navy position in a harbor-defense unit, required the highest of security clearances. Unfortunately, the admiral's rebuke was the only action that was ever taken against this officer who so blatantly abused the public trust, which is sad commentary on the Navy's willingness to turn a blind eye to officer misconduct. In fact, Burrud finally retired from the reserves with his security clearances intact, which does not reflect favorably on the Navy's vetting procedures, either.

Wished He Were a SEAL

One day in late 1987 I got a frantic call from the San Diego County Sheriff's office, wanting to know if a certain Juan Rodriguez had ever graduated from SEAL training. Seems that the guy was holed up in a building in south San Diego with a bunch of guns and was claiming to be a deadly SEAL. Naturally, the lawmen involved would take this into consideration in determining how to get the situation under control. When I checked the files and determined that this bad boy had never even enrolled in training, the peace officers lost no time in taking him into custody.

Even Phony Friends

I have asked myself a thousand times why there are so many people who claim to be what they aren't. More often now than ever I encounter guys who claim they were Special Forces or Rangers or Recon Marines or SEALs. One of the most personally perplexing cases happened in early 1992, when a good friend, Jim Adams, turned out not to have been the World War II frogman he claimed to be. What made this case so noteworthy was the fact that Jim was the curator of the UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. He had sat in on five years of monthly board-of-directors meetings, participated in fund-raising drives, and generally been in the middle of everything associated with the museum.

When suspicions resulted in questions, Jim came up with a World War II muster list with his name on it. What was pathetic was how he had doctored the document with "white out" and then typed in his own name in another style of type! I couldn't help feeling sorry for Jim, until I realized that he had used his fictitious story to get the curator's job in the first place. And since he had total access to all the artifacts in the museum, including the hundreds not currently on display, who knows what items he might have taken for his own use? Or cash, for that matter?

Another Museum Specimen

Nor is that the only case involving a phony in the museum organization. For two years there was a guy named Art Wilson who sat with me on the board of directors of the museum association. I don't know what first excited my suspicions about him (maybe it was his wearing a SEAL-logo-bearing woolen sweater on a warm Florida day), but I began to ask him some question. His story was that, although he was assigned to SEAL Team One during Vietnam, the job he was doing was so hush-hush that his name never appeared on an official roster. Then another member of the board mentioned to me that he also had some suspicions about his authenticity, and would be please provide proof that he had actually been a SEAL. A second letter was sent repeating the request, but to no avail: The gentleman just vanished from the world of the frogmen and was soon replaced on the museum board of directors. I'll bet he's still wearing the woolen sweater on warm days, though.

A Phony Fooling A Fraud

There was a widely reported case in Texas a few years ago that involved a reputed SEAL veteran and an alleged Special Forces veteran who had set up a Vietnam museum in San Antonio. Turned out that the SEAL had never even been in the Navy, and the Green Beret had never been in either Special Forces or Vietnam. The irony of this situation was that the guys had done a tremendous job of establishing their museum, which proves that they could have done it without misrepresenting themselves.

Exposure Angst

One of the saddest cases I ever personally encountered was that of a U. S. Navy Supply Corps lieutenant stationed aboard a replenishment ship in Subic Bay, Philippines. This officer was highly respected among his peers because of his outstanding enlisted career as a SEAL. He was held in the highest esteem by officers and enlisted alike, and, by all accounts, was a highly effective leader. A casual remark by a friend of the lieutenant's to a SEAL officer stationed in Subic Bay led to the unmasking of this particular phony. Curiosity led to questions, question led to records checks, and records checks revealed that the officer had never even been associated with SEALs. Tragically, this poor officer, after fessing up to his fraud, had to be institutionalized.

Reckless Striving

And speaking of screwed-up Navy officers, listen to this one. Two years ago a friend of mine on temporary duty from Washington, D.C., walked into the Officers Club on the amphibious base in Coronado, California. There he ran into a salty-looking lieutenant commander having lunch with three attractive young women. Noting that the officer was wearing the SEAL Budweiser badge and a chest full of ribbons, my friend introduced himself to the good commander, a fellow named Larry S. Jacobs. The latter, a male nurse on recruiting duty (the three females were hot prospects), was sporting a Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, several Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, and a bunch of other decorations from the Vietnam era. My friend, a fairly salty guy himself, quickly became suspicious of Jacobs' bona fides. Upon returning to Washington, he began to ask around about Jacobs and discovered that there were numerous discrepancies in his official personnel file. Calling Jacobs' commanding officer in California, he learned that the former was already assigned to a USMC unit deployed to Saudi Arabia to participate in Operation Desert Storm. The CO immediately got on the line to the Marine unit in the desert and learned that, based on his ostensible credentials, Jacobs had just been selected to lead an elite medical field unit into battle.

When the Marines learned that Lt. Cmdr. Jacobs was never in Vietnam, never a SEAL, and had never been under fire, much less decorated, they put him on the next plane back to the States. When asked about his real background, Jacobs at first refused to admit anything, but, confronted with hard evidence, he broke down and confessed that his whole career had been a sham. Among other things, his record indicated that he had been assigned to SEAL Team Six in 1973, a pretty good stunt considering that the unit wasn't commissioned until 1981. His record also indicated that he had a master's degree, which turned out to be false, as well. How Jacobs managed to enter his false credentials into his computerized personnel file in the Bureau of Naval Personnel is still a mystery to the authorities; he obviously had inside help.

This case had a tragic, if predictable, denouement. When Jacobs was found out, he had more than 19 years of active duty in the Navy, less than one year shy of retirement. After lengthy deliberations as to how it should best handle the affair, the Navy offered Jacobs two options: (1) accept a court-martial, or (2) submit a letter of resignation. Whatever else he may have been, Jacobs wasn't stupid; he resigned with less than six months to go before retirement eligibility. If one is charitable, one hopes that Jacobs' nursing credentials enabled him to become gainfully employed, because leaving the service without his pension put him into the job market over the age of 40, not a comfortable prospect even for a nurse. The poor guy paid a tremendous price for pandering to his foolish ego.

Fooling The Fourth Estate

Another twist to this peculiar phenomenon came when Dan Rather, doing one of his inimitable person-to-person investigations on CBS' 48 Hours, interviewed a mountain-man type in the hills of Oregon about why he was isolating himself from his fellow Americans. His story was both sad and chilling, since he claimed to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of having served with the SEALs in the much-maligned Phoenix program in Vietnam. Any SEAL with Vietnam experience knew immediately that the guy was a fraud, because, among other discrepancies, he told of being sent to Vietnam as an 18-year-old straight out of UDT/SEAL training to work in the Phoenix program.

This story simply didn't track. For starters, I have never known of a student to graduate from UDT/SEAL training before he turned 19. Then, after graduation, the new SEALs were required to undergo several months of intensive team-oriented training prior to being deployed. Seldom did a new SEAL deploy to Vietnam in less than six months after graduation from training. Finally, while a small number of senior SEALs participated in operations in support of the Phoenix program, none were ever assigned to it.

Johnny Mountain Man had beau coup problems, but one of them wasn't convincing Dandy Dan that he was authentic, because Rather bought his story, hook, line and sinker. That incident, in my mind, ranks right up there with Rather's hoked-up visit to Afghanistan for deceptive reporting. (Just to be on the safe side, I did a personal records check on the kid, and nobody by his name had ever matriculated into UDT/SEAL training. It's too bad nobody ever did a records check on Dan Rather.)

How to Vet a Vet

How does a non-special operator know when he is talking to an impostor? Generally, one doesn't, as the phonies usually have some knowledge of their chosen fantasies. Over the years I have developed a repertoire of questions I ask guys if I have doubts about them: I ask them which team(s) they were on, who they knew (invariably they'll claim knowing someone who doesn't exist), when they deployed to 'Nam, where they were operating, and a few other questions. (I have one sure-fire question that never fails to uncover a phony, but I think I'll keep that to myself to avoid helping some Walter Mitty-type character escape discovery.)

How many people like this are out there? I don't have any idea, but I can say that there must be thousands. I have personally encountered several dozen cases of misrepresentation, and every SEAL or SF or Recon friend I know has encountered several frauds.

I don't have any idea how many guys claim to be former SEALs in seeking employment, but I remember one case in which a Southern California police department was about to hire a young man who claimed to have been a SEAL. The personnel office called me at the center, and I was able to determine that the guy was blowing smoke. Needless to say, he wasn't hired, and the police department became sensitive to the issue.

Amateur Impostor

In October of 1990, I was approached at a Washington reception by a co-worker, who told me that I just had to meet a former SEAL officer, one John Kendall, whom she had known for some time. I went to meet the gentleman, whose obvious softness immediately took me aback. (While some older SEALs tend to corpulence, I like to think most avoid looking like they just crawled out of a bag of marshmallows.) A few question revealed that John not only had never been a SEAL, but that he knew little about them.

The significance of this case was in the guy's using his purported SEAL background to convince a major Washington think-tank to hire him as a consultant on security matters. I confess that I did my patriotic duty and informed a friend in that organization of this case of misrepresentation, and his contract was not renewed. (I found out several weeks later that his fiancee also learned what he had done. If love was what motivated him to claim to be a SEAL, I could have told him that being a SEAL never helped me all that much.)

Why do they do it? I can't begin to answer that question, but it's a fact that since time immemorial people have been claiming to be things they aren't, and I guess that phony SEALs/SF/Recons, etc., are just more of the same. And there are even some special operations people who claim to be badder than they really were.

People, like things, ain't always what they seem, so next time you run into some bad dude whose war stories curl your flattop, check him out: There's a better-than-even chance he's a fraud.

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