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Consumer Reports

Iraq war bringing out latest round of phony war heroes | (KRT) The war in Iraq is creating a new generation of military veterans - and a new opportunity for fake ones.

In what's become an inevitable outcome any time America goes to war, people claim honors and accolades for action they never saw, in places they've never been. Sometimes they are running a scam. Usually it's just a free beer and a pat on the back they're after.

But the number of impostors is sure to climb, experts say, as the latest combat veterans return home. And it's not just people claiming to have taken fire in Iraq. The just-ended fighting has inspired some to make up stories about their experiences in other battles, like the Vietnam War.

"It's sick. It's started already," said Mary Schantag, who tracks phony war heroes from her home in tiny Skidmore, Mo., 100 miles north of Kansas City.

Schantag has investigated two incidents in recent weeks spawning from the war in Iraq. Both involved close relatives of soldiers killed or captured there this year. The relatives claimed they were reliving a nightmare because they were prisoners of war in Vietnam. Only, they weren't, Schantag said.

Military officials say false claims of service - especially in the special forces - occur frequently. "It seems to be a pretty steady thing," said Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

Most of these claims are dealt with quietly. But sometimes they pop into public view.

In March, a Memphis newspaper profiled an Army specialist heading to Iraq whose wife claimed he'd served during the 1991 Persian Gulf War as a Navy SEAL. She even showed a reporter a leather jacket with a SEAL insignia. But the paper later learned the soldier never was in the Navy or the SEALs.

Police in Seattle are investigating the case of a man claiming to be a Navy SEAL who is accused of scamming a series of women. In one instance, he allegedly told one woman he was terrorist-hunting in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and had to leave town repeatedly to rejoin the pursuit. He, too, never served in the Navy.

Both of these cases were ferreted out by phony-vet hunters - fiercely dedicated researchers who maintain Web sites specializing in confirming a person's service claims. They also tend to post a person's false claim in a variation of a "Wall of Shame."

Schantag runs the Web site with her husband, Chuck, a Marine wounded in Vietnam. The site received 22 inquiries in 1998. Last year, it received 4,000.

In Forsyth, Mo., Steve Robinson, a blacksmith, tracks down claims about being in the SEALs for Each week, the site receives about 20 to 30 reports. Maybe one or two turn out to be true SEALs, he said. And he's heard some doozies coming out of the war in Iraq.

"They claim they've just returned from Iraq, but they aren't able to disclose their super-secret missions," said Robinson, who was a SEAL for three years in the 1970s.

Fake vets don't even need a real war - Hollywood's rendition will do. The blockbuster movie "Black Hawk Down," about a failed U.S. military mission in Somalia, led to a wave of "Black Hawk phonies," recalled Schantag. And whenever the Discovery Channel reruns a show about the SEALs, Robinson gets a new round of fake stories.

Elite groups like the SEALs (an acronym for sea, air, land) or Army Special Forces are favorite targets. The allure - and the positive impression it tends to make on friends and co-workers - is too much to pass up, said the researchers.

It's happened in St. Louis. In 1997, the head of the St. Louis city chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America resigned after falsely claiming to be a former SEAL. Daniel J. Meyer admitted he was a pipefitter on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.

A popular new war inspires fake vets. They stand by as the returning soldiers get attention and respect and decide they can share in the glory, the researchers said. Changing public attitudes toward soldiers can inspire, too. After the Persian Gulf War, the phony-vet hunters saw an increase in false Vietnam War claims - especially related to POW status.

"We are desperate for heroes," Schantag said. "Anybody will believe anything about anybody if they can look up to them."

Experts expect to see more false claims from the Iraq war. "Give it a year or two," Schantag said.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services