Coast Guard Auxiliary commander posed as Navy SEAL

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a federal crime to profit from lying about military awards.
February 28, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
A commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary has resigned because of this I-Team investigation that found he exaggerated his prior military service in a major way -- pretending to be a Navy SEAL. It's the latest example of what's called "stolen valor" to come across my desk.

It's one thing to pad a resume or to exaggerate your life story from a bar stool. It's another to falsely paint yourself as a hero and to wear awards for which others gave their lives.

The U.S. Coast Guard's Auxiliary is comprised of civilian volunteers. They perform many of the same functions as active duty members: search and rescue, harbor patrols, and keeping boats safely away from events such as the America's Cup.

For the past 20 years, Jim Van Fleet has been a major figure at Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 1291 out of San Ramon.

Noyes asked Van Fleet: "And your title? What's your actual title?"
Jim Van Fleet: "Currently, I'm a Flotilla Commander."

Like many in the Auxiliary, Van Fleet has prior military service in the Navy, and boy, he has some stories: "Well, I got shot in the head here. There's still a crease in my skull where, you know, you can feel the bullet path as it creased my skull. What a headache!"

Van Fleet told me he got two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. He said, "I got tossed in the air by a mortar round that landed fairly near to me and it was just like the movies, you go straight up, you come back down on your neck and shoulders or your head."

Van Fleet also wears two Bronze Stars. He said, "I don't usually talk about my medals and actions that I was in until after midnight and half a bottle of tequila."

Also on Van Fleet's shirt was a gold Trident -- the insignia given to Navy SEALs.

Van Fleet claims, "I was in Naval intelligence and I was trained as a frogman, and so today, today you call them Navy SEALs. I was a young pup."
Noyes: "Wow, a Navy SEAL."
Van Fleet: "Yeah, a long time ago."

Van Fleet told me he went on SEAL patrols in Vietnam to provide coordinates for bombing runs, and that he carried out a secret SEAL mission into North Korea after they captured the U.S. intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo. He said, "That was very frightening. We all thought that we were going to be vaporized by an atomic weapon any minute."

Van Fleet's tall tales have caught up to him because of a new push by military veterans to expose the phonies.

Someone snapped his picture in Monterey last year and posted it to the "Fake Warriors" website for identification. Finally, a member of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary was browsing the pictures this month and recognized Van Fleet.

He called retired Navy SEAL Don Shipley, who verified Van Fleet is a fake using the SEAL database. Don Shipley explains, "All I got to do is check your name. I'll check your name, just like that, a couple of keystrokes, I'll tell you if that guy was ever a SEAL or not, it's that easy."

Then, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and received Van Fleet's records. He served three years on the USS Rupertus -- no Purple Hearts, no Bronze Stars, no Navy SEAL.

Noyes told Van Fleet: "You know, Jim. I got to tell you that I know that those are fake medals. I know that you aren't a Navy SEAL. I know that those Purple Hearts are not real. Those Bronze Stars are not real. I've pulled your records. Why wear those? Why embellish your service?"

It took Van Fleet a moment to compose himself before he answered, "I spent three years in-country in Vietnam."
Noyes: "On a ship."
Van Fleet: "Yes, sir."
Noyes: "In-country means you're on the ground. You weren't on the ground."
Van Fleet: "We had occasion to put boats in the water and go ashore to provide medicine and so-forth to villages on the shore."
Noyes: "But you were a radar man."
Van Fleet: "Yes."
Noyes: "Looking at a scope in a dark room on the ship."
Van Fleet: "Yes."

Van Fleet says he decided to wear the medals because he felt unappreciated after returning from Vietnam. And, he questioned why the I-Team even began this investigation.

Van Fleet asked, "Why are we doing this? What difference does it make to you?"
Noyes: "It makes a big difference. My father served. He has a real Purple Heart. He had a real Bronze Star. He's passed away since. He actually bled for this country. You exaggerated it. It's called 'stolen valor'. Have you heard that expression?"
Van Fleet: "Yes, I have, sir."

The issue also matters deeply to five retired Navy SEALs.

Hershel Davis described the incident in which he lost two fingers: "AK-47. It was April the 9th, 1969. First shoot 'em up, off in Vietnam."

Together, they have about 100 years of experience as Navy SEALs, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each paid a personal price.

Jason Redman told us he took "three rounds directly to the body, at least ten that we know of, between body armor, weapon, helmet. So, obviously the one to the face is the game, the game winner that not many people get to walk away from."

Hugh Middleton said, "Hearing loss, shoulders, back, knees, neck, are the typical injuries for SEALs."

And they have seen a spike in the imposters. The experts believe there are as many as a thousand phonies for every living Navy SEAL.

"It's more common than you think of," said Retired Navy SEAL Tom Black. "And the people that are stealing this, from the people that actually earned it, they just, there's a special place in hell for those people."

"I'll tell you how it makes me feel," said Hershel Davis. "I'd like to turn their birthdays off. No more ice cream and cake. But it's against the law, and I'm a law-abiding citizen. That's how serious I take it."

Redman added, "I know in my career alone, I've been to over 50 memorials and funerals for guys that I worked with that fell on the battlefield. You can't put a price on that."

Noyes asked Van Fleet, "What do you say to the families of those who fought and died, who earned the medals and you're wearing those? What do you say to the families?"
Van Fleet: "I knew this would eventually happen. I didn't worry about it and I wasn't afraid of it and I figured when it happened, fine, then we'll, you know, we'll stop. You know, it will go away. I'll stop doing it. And that's what I shall do."

The Coast Guard told us last week that they launched an investigation into Van Fleet. Noyes asked for an interview about stolen valor, and how he was able to get away with it for so long, but they refused. Ten minutes later, Noyes received an email saying Van Fleet had resigned from the Auxiliary, so the case is closed.

The current version of the Stolen Valor Act makes it a federal crime to profit from lying about military awards.

Van Fleet works as a private eye. His website does not mention being a SEAL directly, but says he was "trained by Naval intelligence and the CIA during three years in Vietnam." After our interview, he changed his website, removing the picture with all those phony medals and replacing it with him in a suit and tie.

Van Fleet had a hard time apologizing to the real SEALs who earned their medals...or to the families of those who fought and died.

Noyes:"You aren't apologetic at all."
Van Fleet: "No, I'm not."
Noyes: "You aren't apologetic?"
Van Fleet: "Oh, yes I am. Ok? Of course I am, but I'm just, you know, a little bit distraught with you."
Noyes: "With being exposed?"
Van Fleet: "Yes, of course, being exposed."

Van Fleet also admitted his wife believed he was a Navy SEAL.


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