PORTLAND, Maine — As long as there have been Navy SEALs, there have been men pumping up their resumes or thumping their chests in bars with bogus claims of being one of the Navy’s elite warriors.
The latest crop includes a Pennsylvania minister who let his congregation believe he was a SEAL and repeated the lie to a newspaper, and there’s no sign of such bogus claims abating anytime soon, especially after a secretive team of Navy SEAL commandos killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
A retired Navy SEAL from Virginia who devotes much of his time to outing the phonies said he’s receiving 40 to 50 inquiries a day from people suspicious of claims by friends, neighbors or colleagues who say they’re SEALs. Their doubts are usually confirmed with just a few checks.
The Naval Special Warfare Command also receives a steady stream of inquiries about possible SEALs, the vast majority of which are debunked, said Lt. Cate Wallace, spokeswoman for the command in California.
And Larry Bailey, a retired SEAL from Chocowinity, N.C., estimates he and friends who are former SEALs have exposed 35,000 phonies through the years.
“There were about 500 SEALs that operated in Vietnam, and I’ve met all 20,000 of them,” joked Steve Waterman, a retired Navy diver from South Thomaston.
Wannabes lie to get free beers, to get women into bed, to further their civilian careers or to get military benefits. But what really bugs retired SEAL Don Shipley is that they’re stealing someone else’s valor — credit due to those who put themselves in harm’s way.
“The more outrageous a story is, in a lot of cases, the more it’s believed. These guys do a terrible amount of damage,” said Shipley, of Chesapeake, Va.
It’s easy to see why folks look up to the SEALs, trained to fight on sea, air and land, because they undergo some of the toughest military training in the world.
Out of each group of SEAL recruits, 70 percent fail to make it through a six-month training course that’s a test of mental and physical toughness, Wallace said.
Those who become bona fide SEALs wear a gold trident. There are just 2,500 on active duty, many serving in the world’s most dangerous places.
What’s especially frustrating about people who have been exposed as frauds, Bailey said, is when they continue lying about their service.
Wallace said that those who are blatant in their deception or threaten the public safety are turned over to the U.S. attorney’s office for investigation.
In Pennsylvania, the Rev. Jim Moats from the Christian Bible Fellowship Church in Newville was called out by Shipley after he was quoted in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg talking about his life as a SEAL in Vietnam.
Later, he admitted he lied.
“It’s an ego-builder, and it’s just simply wrong,” Moats told the newspaper.
He didn’t return a call from The Associated Press.
Moats has plenty of company. These days, Bailey and several others are exposing phonies through a website, stolenvalor.com.
Waterman, a website participant, said it’s easy to ferret out the real deal from the phonies. Dead giveaways are loose tongues and bravado; SEALs are discreet, Waterman said.
Waterman, author of the book “Just a Sailor,” never had any desire to become a SEAL. “I watched them train. That was scary enough for me,” he said.
Shipley agreed that SEALs don’t talk about their exploits.
“It makes us uncomfortable,” he said. “We don’t like talking about it. But these (phonies), that’s what they crave. They like talking about cutting people’s throats.”
Shipley is one of a handful of former SEALs entrusted with a database that shows those who’ve graduated from SEAL training. The public also can make inquiries with the Navy, which keeps personnel files in Tennessee and Washington, D.C., Wallace said.
Last weekend, several dozen SEALs joined together as a Navy warship was christened at Maine’s Bath Iron Works in the name of Lt. Michael Murphy, a SEAL officer killed in Afghanistan.
Murphy scrambled into a clearing, exposing himself to a hail of Taliban gunfire in order to get a clear signal to call in reinforcements during a firefight on June 28, 2005. He was shot and later died along with two other members of his SEAL team and another 16 rescuers whose helicopter was shot down.
Nathanael “Lalo” Roberti, a former SEAL, was supposed to be on the helicopter that was shot down. He and seven others were ordered off because it was too heavy.
“I lost 11 of the best friends I’ve ever known, and some of the best men America has to offer,” said Roberti, who lives in San Diego.
“These guys are the tip of the spear.”