This Filmmaker Is Calling Out Military Impostors

Those who exploit our bravest are exposed in 'Stealing Valor,' screening this week at the GI Film Festival

Men and women are posing as American military members and veterans and getting away with it. It’s an all-too-common problem that needs a solution. Sure, every now and then a video about one of these impostors will go viral and cause a stir — but by and large, the issue is overlooked.

Now comes a new film that is screening on May 28 at the GI Film Festival in Washington, D.C. It shines a light on these impostors — as well as on the veterans and nonveterans who work tirelessly to expose the lies and put an end to this fraudulent activity. Interviewed in the film are people such as Doug Sterner (pictured above) who is the curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor website, and B.G. Bukett, co-author of the book “Stolen Valor” and the man responsible for coining the popular term that describes military impostors.

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Ed Caffrey, the Joplin, Missouri-based reporter, producer and writer of “Stealing Valor” a retired master sergeant of the Air Force, took some time to talk to LifeZette about his film, why he became involved with the project, and the critical issue it examines.

Question: Tell us a little about this film and your passion for its subject.
Answer: My film explores the phenomenon of military impostors, often referred to as stolen valor. The film examines instances of stolen valor and a network of veterans who work to expose the impostors.

Like many working in the stolen valor movement, I became involved by accident. In my case, I had watched YouTube videos and was intrigued by the subject. In 2011 a friend of mine posted on Facebook that her uncle had been shot in a road rage incident. The shooter initially claimed that he was a former Navy SEAL suffering from a flashback, and that the condition caused the shooting.

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After seeing the videos, I reached out to Don Shipley (a retired SEAL who investigates cases of stolen valor). He confirmed the shooter was never a Navy SEAL. I passed this information along to prosecutors.

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Although I served as a medic for 21 years in the Air Force, I had a background in journalism from my college days before I enlisted. So I soon transitioned from watching YouTube videos to actively researching news articles in which claims made by veterans contained signs of stolen valor. On a regular basis, I came across instances of impostors getting attention in the news media by duping reporters with false or exaggerated claims of military service. And I worked with multiple blogs and websites to bring these impostors’ lies to light.

I retired from the Air Force and began pursuing a master’s degree in communication at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. I concentrated my research on military impostors and their interaction and exploitation of the news media. So my film is the creative project recapping my research on this.

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Q: Viral videos of this stuff seem to pop up everywhere. Is this issue getting better or worse?
A: While videos dealing with stolen valor may be a new occurrence, military impostors have existed since men first picked up swords and shields on the field of battle. In his 1995 book, “Stolen Valor,” B.G. Burkett gave the phenomenon a name and documented how impostors use and manipulate the public to advance their fraudulent activity.

I don’t know that it’s getting better or worse — it’s always been a part of our society. The difference is the exposure it receives in the new media. In the past, impostors carried out their charades, and people didn’t have instant access to references to call the impostors out on their scams. The general public is now a bit more educated on the subject because of some of the viral videos.

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But there is a downside to the viral videos also. We’ve seen a few instances where some people have gone overboard as vigilantes accosting genuine veterans in an attempt to be the next YouTube sensation. Those of us who have been working the issue of stolen valor always advise that people verify the facts before they publicly accost someone.

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Q: What does it mean to have your film screened at the GI Film Festival, and what are your plans for the movie after the event?
A: I’m overwhelmed my film was selected to be screened. It was a student project, and to see it selected for screening beside professional filmmakers is extremely humbling. I’m honored. I don’t think it’s a testament to my skills as a filmmaker, as much as it is to the [stories] and the people I profiled. The network of veterans working to expose impostors is an amazing group of people. They served their country and took an oath to defend it. They continue to serve — but now they’re defending the legacies of the men and women they served with, the legacies of their fellow veterans.

“People need to verify the facts before they accost someone.”

I hope as many people as possible can see my film to simply acquire a basic understanding of stolen valor. I’m working full-time as a reporter now, and I use the film as a tool when I lecture to undergraduate journalism students at Pittsburg State.

I would love to speak to other aspiring journalists on the subject — and teach them how not to be duped by an impostor in the future.

Tickets for the GI Film Festival screening of “Stealing Valor,” which will be held at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater in Washington, D.C., on May 28, can be found here.

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