Fabricated valor: 8 people who famously embellished their military service records

Posted at 4:35 PM, Feb 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-25 10:41:51-05

There are few things as widely respected across America as a military veteran’s service record.

There are even fewer things as widely detested as lying about it.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, a United States Army veteran, is being scrutinized after allegedly embellishing his service record during a CBS News report last month.

According to the Associated Press, McDonald claimed in the report that he had served in special forces during his time with the Army — a statement that is drawing ire. The Huffington Post reported this week that while McDonald did serve as part of the 82nd Airborne Division, that division is not considered to be special forces.

“I incorrectly stated that I had been in special forces,” McDonald said in a statement on Tuesday. “That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”

McDonald is hardly the first public figure to publically acknowledge embellishing their service record. Here were eight other infamous examples of fabricated valor:

Ronald Reagan

The 40th president of the United States came under fire during his first term in the Oval Office after publically telling a story that made his World War II service record sound more exciting than it was. While, Reagan did indeed serve in the Army Air Forces, his poor eyesight kept him grounded stateside for his entire military career.

Despite this fact, in 1983, Reagan was allegedly overheard telling the Israeli prime minister that he was in Germany, photographing Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated. In truth, reports indicate Reagan had seen the death camp footage while serving in California.

Tom Harkin

Embellishment of military service records has long been a source of controversy among politicians. Nothing quite inspires voters like a decorated veteran. Longtime United States Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has come under fire several times during his political career for making his service record sound more impressive.

During the Vietnam War, Harkin did serve in the Navy but in 1979, he is reported to have claimed he flew combat air patrols among other dangerous missions. A 1991 story in the Wall Street Journalcalled Harkin out, saying, “That clearly is not an accurate picture of his Navy service.”

In real life, his time during the conflict was spent mostly in Japan and the Philippines.

Timothy Poe

Reality television show contestants shouldn’t be held to the same standards as elected officials, but blatantly lying to the public about one’s service record is never acceptable.

Poe, a 2012 competitor on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” was branded as scum for claiming he was injured during his service, a statement that turned out to be a fabrication. Poe earned sympathy from the show’s viewers and judges when he said he suffered a brain injury and broken back after he was “hit by a grenade in Afghanistan.”

Shortly after the show aired, officials with the National Guard confirmed there was no record of Poe being injured by a grenade and that he only served one month overseas. Poe later gave a tear-filled apology, retracting the false claim.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has come under fire twice for claims about his military service record. (Getty Images)

Mark Kirk

Many people are guilty of making themselves sound more awe-inspiring than facts would indicate when they’re out at a bar, trying to pick up a date. But when you’re a United States congressman, it’s best to stick with the facts.

Mark Kirk, now a Republican senator, was criticized in 2010 for embellishing his military service record. Kirk did serve in the Navy but lied in his online biography, claiming he received a coveted commendation from the branch when in fact, he hadn’t.

“Upon a recent review of my records, I found that an award listed in my official biography was misidentified,” Kirk wrote in a blog post. According to The Washington Post, he claimed the award should have been listed as being given to his unit, not himself. Kirk committed a similar faux pas later in 2010, claiming he served “in” Iraq, when he actually was stateside during the conflict in that country.

Brian Dennehy

The award-winning actor has raised red flags numerous times during his career for falsely claiming he served in Vietnam. While Dennehy was a Marine for four years, he was never in combat during the Vietnam War, a fallacy he admitted in 1998.

“I lied about serving in Vietnam and I’m sorry,” Dennehy is quoted as having said. Writer B.G. Burkett, who made a career of unmasking phony military service claims, outed Dennehy in his book “Stolen Valor.”

Tom Mix

Another famous Hollywood actor, Mix is infamous for claiming he rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. The truth is, Mix never fought with Roosevelt’s legendary troupe and is listed as a deserter, according to Army records.

Reports indicate Mix, an icon of the Western movie genre, did ride alongside Roosevelt in the president’s 1905 inaugural parade but never went to battle with him.

Matt Farmer

Yet another reality television personality who lied about his service to apparently curry favor with the public. Farmer, 26, appeared on Fox’s “American Idol” in 2013, claiming he was severely injured by an IED explosion in Iraq.

After the show aired, several Iraq veterans wrote to the Guardian of Valor website, which specializes in outing false military service claims, alerting the organization Farmer was lying. “He did deploy with us, but never saw combat, never got blown up … and he was kicked out of Iraq because he drank alcohol while he was taking Accutane,” one soldier wrote.

After the backlash, Farmer admitted he misrepresented his military service on the show. “[I] did a single tour in Iraq, and was never at any time hit or wounded by an IED … It was ALL lies [sic],” he wrote in a statement.

Walter Williams

Long hailed as America’s last surviving Civil War veteran, Williams was reported to have been a fraud before his death.

In 1959, a Scripps-Howard news report uncovered the man’s birth records, which proved he was only five years old when the war broke out. The story claimed Williams was “a Confederate veteran only in his memory-clouded mind.”

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.