- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2011

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Navy SEAL wannabes lie to get free beers, to get women into bed, to further their civilian careers or to get military benefits. And the number of phonies will probably only grow with the SEALs in the spotlight for the May 1 operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

In fact, there might be more fakes than the real thing — so despite being outnumbered, retired SEALs and others are doing what they can to stop impostors from stealing the valor that rightly belongs to others who have trained for some of the world’s toughest military missions.

“There were about 500 SEALs that operated in Vietnam, and I’ve met all 20,000 of them,” joked Steve Waterman, a retired Navy diver from South Thomaston, who said he has exposed more than 100 phony SEALs over the years.

The latest crop of fakes includes a Pennsylvania minister who let his congregation believe he was a SEAL and repeated the lie to a newspaper.

It’s easy enough to spot a phony, the SEAL sleuths say. For starters, bona fide SEALs — trained to operate on sea, air and land — don’t boast about their top-secret exploits. And the fakes’ stories often unravel upon questioning. Sometimes, they’re plots pulled from movies. Other times, they’re too fanciful to be true.

“The more outrageous a story is, in a lot of cases, the more it’s believed. These guys do a terrible amount of damage,” said Don Shipley, a retired SEAL from Chesapeake, Va., who devotes much of his time to exposing the phonies.

Mr. Shipley is one of a handful of former SEALs entrusted with a database that shows those who’ve graduated from SEAL training. The public also can make inquiries with the Navy, which keeps personnel files in Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

Mr. Shipley dreads opening his email these days because he’s getting 40 to 50 inquiries daily from people suspicious of claims by friends, neighbors or colleagues who say they’re SEALs. Their doubts are usually confirmed.

Mr. Shipley called out the Rev. Jim Moats from the Christian Bible Fellowship Church in Newville, Pa., after he was quoted in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg talking about his service as a SEAL in Vietnam.

Mr. Moats admits he lied. “It’s an ego builder, and it’s just simply wrong,” Mr. Moats told the newspaper. He didn’t return a call from the Associated Press.

The Naval Special Warfare Command also receives a steady stream of inquiries about possible SEALs, the vast majority of which are debunked, said Lt. Cate Wallace, spokeswoman for the command in California.

Larry Bailey, a retired SEAL from Chocowinity, N.C., estimates he and friends who are former SEALs have exposed 35,000 phonies through the years.

The impostors come from all walks of life: educators, politicians, businessmen. There’s a professor who tried to impress students in the ROTC. Another man claiming to be a SEAL and former prisoner of war received a home from Habitat for Humanity. Law enforcement officers, lawyers and politicians all have made bogus SEAL claims.

It’s easy to see why folks look up to the SEALs — they undergo some of the most rigorous military training in the world.

Out of each group of recruits, 70 percent fail to make it through a six-month course that’s a test of mental and physical toughness, Lt. Wallace said.

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