The act of stolen valor — committed when someone poses as a service member or military veteran or falsely claims to have received awards or badges — happens more often than one might think, according to a man who spends his time exposing people he says are military fakes.
Don Shipley, a retired Navy SEAL who has become a go-to source for SEAL verification, told The Sentinel he processes between 12 and 20 queries a day from people asking if their neighbor, boyfriend, co-worker or acquaintance is indeed a member or veteran of the elite force.
This year, he set his sights on Keene.
A video Shipley posted on his website in January details an expedition to the Daley Whipple Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 799 in Keene for what he called the “bust of a lifetime.”
After purportedly driving 10 hours to Keene from Virginia, Shipley’s right-hand man, Hershel Davis, a retired Navy SEAL master chief, engages a man the video identifies as Gary Robert Lefebvre in a conversation about his service. The exchange is documented by a camera behind the bar.
Lefebvre mentions that he is the chairman of a committee for the VFW post. The committees are in charge of certain tasks related to the running of the organization, similar to those of a school board or city council.
The mood of the video changes when Shipley himself enters, with another camera in his left hand and a manila envelope in his right.
Shipley pulls a photograph from the envelope — which shows a young man dressed for combat and submerged past his waist in water — and asks Lefebvre if that’s him.
“Looks like what I used to look like,” Lefebvre says, before Shipley tells him the name of the SEAL in the photo.
Shipley also asks Lefebvre if he indeed received a Navy Cross as his records with the VFW indicate. The award is the second highest military decoration that a member of the Navy, , or members of the Coast Guard when operating under the authority of the Department of the Navy can receive for extraordinary heroism.
“Yes, sir,” Lefebvre responds with a slight nod. He says he received it for his service in Grenada.
Shipley notes that just one person received that award for his service during the invasion of Grenada in 1983, Capt. Jeb Seagle. The U.S. Department of Defense’s military valor awards website confirms the point.
The two continue to discuss Lefebvre’s record until he gets up to leave. At one point Shipley asks him directly: “Are you saying that, yes, you were still a SEAL in Vietnam?”
“Yes, sir,” Lefebvre answers.
Plenty of claims
Shipley’s been outing people he says are fake SEALs for about six years; the really egregious claims, he says, result in a personal visit, which he films and posts on his website as part of his “Phony Navy SEAL of the Week” series.
As of Friday, Shipley had posted 133 videos in the series from all over the country.
His efforts have garnered media attention, including an article from “Washingtonian” magazine in August 2015.
“I don’t go after the simple barroom loudmouths,” Shipley said. Someone he personally exposes “lives the lie,” he said.
Shipley said he does his homework, and has never “outed” someone in error.
Each impostor has his or her own reasons for posing as a SEAL, but Shipley said it mostly has to do with recognition and the reputation that comes with being a member of the elite force.
“Today we lavish our veterans; we’re proud of their service and everything else they’ve done for us … and there’s no shortage of jerkoffs willing to stand in line and steal that from them and take bows for stuff they never did,” he said.
Being part of the SEALs — a special operations force currently numbering roughly 2,700, active duty, according to a Navy spokeswoman — can carry particular cachet thanks to rigorous requirements and grueling training. Their prestige was pushed still higher in 2009, when SEALs rescued a ship captain being held hostage off the shores of Somalia, and in 2011 through the same unit’s successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
Stolen valor is widespread enough that President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 into law; it made it a crime to lie about receiving any military medals.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 2012, ruling that it infringed on the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech.
Congress drafted a new version of the law, called the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which made it illegal to profit or benefit from false claims. President Barack Obama signed that into law that year.
A May 2013 U.S. House of Representatives report on the bill doesn’t indicate the scope of stolen valor, but offers examples of the problem.
In 2006, the Justice Department and Department of Veterans’ Affairs Office of the Inspector General launched a year-long effort called Operation Stolen Valor, which resulted in numerous arrests and convictions, according to the report. In the Northwest, a dozen cases involved fraud totaling more than $1.4 million, the report says.
The most extreme case in the report describes a 10-year Navy sergeant who procured $66 million in security contracts from the military based on fraudulent claims of combat experience in Panama and Somalia, as well as various fabricated medals.
‘I will be vindicated’
Lefebvre’s service record gives no indication he was ever a SEAL. The log makes no mention of his being in Grenada, but says he was in Italy in 1983.
Lefebvre said to Shipley that, to his knowledge, his records were sealed and classified.
Shipley said in his interview with The Sentinel that he can verify if someone was a Navy SEAL quickly through the Naval Special Warfare Archives, which is a database of everyone who ever completed SEAL training.
A common misconception that fake SEALs tell people is that their military status is classified, according to Shipley. But like voting records and other public documents, SEAL status is a public record, he said.
Davis sums it up in the video during his drive with Shipley to New Hampshire.
“What we have to explain to these people, there’s nothing secret about us,” he said. “Some of our ops are, but there’s no secret training, there’s no secret nothing. … The only thing that’s classified is some of the things we’ve done — but we’re not.”
In addition to checking the SEAL database, Shipley requested a copy of Lefebvre’s service record from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
Like Shipley, The Sentinel asked for Lefebvre’s record from the center, and received a copy close to three months after the initial request.
Lefebvre’s file shows he served in the Navy, but not as a SEAL. He was an aviation boatswain’s mate (handling) 1st class and spent the majority of his service in Italy. The date he enlisted is recorded as Dec. 30, 1976.
“According to our records, he was never a SEAL …,” Lt. Cmdr. Edward Early, a news desk action officer with the Navy, wrote in an email.
Officers from the Keene VFW post declined to comment or be interviewed for this story.
But some of them can be seen in the video of the incident, which discusses their growing suspicion of Lefebvre; one describes how he reached out to Shipley.
“Four years he’s gotten away with that,” Shipley says, to the agreement of the man Shipley identifies as their “contact,” who indicates that alarm bells went off in his head after he was appointed post adjutant.
Months after being confronted by Shipley, Lefebvre maintained he served as a Navy SEAL.
“My wife and children, immediate family and those closest to me know the truthfulness of my naval service,” he said in a phone message for The Sentinel. “The video was a well-orchestrated thing to accomplish a certain goal. They had no interest in finding out the truth or hearing anything.”
He said in the message that his attorney was working on filing criminal charges and lawsuits against Shipley and the VFW post in Keene and he wouldn’t answer any questions about what happened in the video.
“My attorney has advised me just let it play out,” Lefebvre said. “We know what we have for information and what we’re gonna work with. Then, when it’s all said and done, I will be vindicated.”
Matt Nanci can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MNanciKS.
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