“And some brothas always gotta high cap
Showin’ all his boys how he shot ‘em
But real gangsta-ass playas don’t flex nuts
’cause real gangsta-ass playas know they got ‘em”
-Geto Boys, “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” (Radio version)
By Jack Mandaville
He walked onto the stage with a guitar hanging over his shoulders, a brown cowboy hat sitting atop his head and a gleaming smile plastered on his face. He opened his mouth and, with a frustratingly slow stutter, began to tell his story:
After fourteen years in the US Army, while serving as a soldier in Afghanistan (with one tour in Iraq already under his belt), he was wounded by a grenade blast—which, as a result, caused brain damage and gave him the speech impediment the viewing audience was hearing. During the pre-performance montage, he went into great detail about his wounds (accompanied by pictures of him serving), often holding back tears in the process. The judges, the audience and the millions of viewers watching from home were awestruck by this man.
And then he gave his recital. It was immediately obvious he was not only a talented singer, but a great guitarist. That stutter which had affected him before had magically gone away when he put his heart into the performance. America wept with joy. The panel of judges—Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, and Sharon Osbourne—were speechless. America was, potentially, looking at the next winner of America’s Got Talent.
His name was Tim Poe… and his story was a lie.
Poe hadn’t served fourteen years in the Army. He was never wounded in Afghanistan, nor had he ever been to Iraq. And as for the picture shown of him (the one he submitted to AGT), it wasn’t him.
Americans—especially those within the Armed Forces who were following the story—quickly turned on him… rightfully so. This act of Stolen Valor was not just some braggart at a nightclub or an idiot parading around his small town. This was national. This monumental fib had the ability to damage—or, at the very least, dent—the American Veteran population’s reputation as a whole. People were duped. Nobody likes being duped.
But this is the thing: Poe had, in fact, served in the Army for eight years. Although he had never been to Iraq, he had deployed to Kosovo. And the big one: he had, indeed, served in Afghanistan for a brief period as a supply specialist.
So why did he fabricate his service record?
The high number of individuals embellishing and/or completely lying about their service records seems to be one of the more baffling issues facing the Iraq/Afghanistan generation. These aren’t people who have never served we’re talking about (which is a whole other issue). These are people who have done their time and still feel the need to seek unearned accolades.
Tim Poe undoubtedly inflated his story in order to gain a leg up in the competition. But I suspect there was more to it than material gratification. This was a man who seemed to have deep psychological issues and, according to many people who knew him, a pathological tendency to lie.
His situation—while not the first or the last of its kind—could arguably serve as a microcosm for this Stolen Valor pandemic we’re witnessing. By simply browsing through a few months of posts on a blog like This Ain’t Hell—one of many that dedicates itself to exposing military phonies and wannabes—you will find an alarming number of individuals (who have served) wearing unearned medals and making fictitious claims about their service. The majority of these folks are typically outed after making false claims on the internet, in a local paper, or simply by being caught in public with questionable paraphernalia on.
They graduated basic training. They successfully graduated from their respective MOS schools. Many of them had even deployed during their enlistment. So why lie?
Here’s my take:
I can only surmise—just by the trends I’ve seen—that many of these people have some sort of overwhelming feelings of inadequacy.
We live in a culture that has been saturated with stories involving our war heroes—mainly via film, literature, and videogames. Whether it’s presented in a fictional protagonist like John Rambo or a real life hero like Marcus Luttrell, the aforementioned mediums have bombarded us with the concept of the “ideal warrior.” While many of these movies, books, and games do a spectacular job of honoring our troops and Veterans with realistic combat scenes and well-researched dialogue, it can often become unclear where the line between honoring and glorifying their service is drawn. This sets up a confusing precedent for many. The fact is, the overwhelming majority of us will never or have never served in the capacity shown in Hollywood.
We all begin our enlistments with certain goals in mind. And the fact is, if you were like me and only did one enlistment, you probably did not meet many of these goals. There are many factors to this. To name a few: circumstance, failure to meet certain standards, and a loss of desire to achieve the goal.
This is a fairly common scenario for Vets. So our enlistment ends and we go home. Most of us can walk away from our service proud of what we did achieve—be it the final rank we attained, how we performed in our jobs (in training or in combat), and/or the decorations we left with.
And then there are those who aren’t satisfied. They carry their service with them into the private sector and construct a forged catalog of accomplishments, both vocally and, in the case of those who wear unearned medals, physically. They become victim to the primal emotion of insufficiency, which in turn justifies their conscious decision to take what others have sweat, bled and died for and make it their own. Many individuals, like Poe, do this to get an advantage over perceived competition. But when you really look at why people do this, it all boils down to one thing: ego.
One of the main things you will see with these prior service posers are low self-esteems. They bought into the notion that they had to be the typical Hollywood hero in order to matter. What they failed to realize is by simply taking the oath, completing basic training, and serving honorably, they do matter. They’ve done more than 99.55% of the American public in the past decade.
You don’t have to be a decorated Navy SEAL, secret squirrel Green Beret or battle-hardened Reconnaissance Marine to be a great warrior. The absence of a Silver Star or Purple Heart will not detract from your accomplishments. You made the choice of which branch to serve in and what job to do. Whether you end up learning how to provide equipment in supply school or fight tigers in Ranger School, be proud of what you do. Own it.
You serve(d). You have nothing to prove to anyone—not potential employers, potential mates, your fellow Veterans, or the general public. You are part of that .45%.