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But hours later on the bus to Big Creek, Mr. Alvarez made the stunning statement that he had won the Congressional Medal of Honor, Ms. Campbell said.

“I about dropped the snacks all over the place,” she said. “I’d much rather meet a CMH winner than any rock star. So I said, ‘I can’t even speak right now. I’m in awe of you. Anything you need, let me know.’ “

But a few text messages and a quick check of a website with information on the fewer than 100 living Congressional Medal of Honor winners made clear, just minutes later, that the list did not include anyone by the name Xavier Alvarez.

“This is a big deal,” she recalled, confiding to a co-worker. “This is like against the law.”

A standing ovation

Once at Big Creek, Ms. Campbell said, Mr. Alvarez’s military service drew praise from other attendees.

During a dinner, a member of the public-affairs staff got up and asked how many people had served in the military, Ms. Campbell said. While about half of the people raised their hands, she said, the woman told the attendees about a “very special guest” and described how Mr. Alvarez had received a Silver Star.

“They gave him a standing ovation,” she said.

After dinner, she said, a co-worker began peppering Mr. Alvarez with questions, including which president had awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Mr. Alvarez said it was President Reagan.

Alvarez advised that he was in Iran and was on a mission to rescue the U.S. ambassador,” FBI agents later wrote in an affidavit describing their interview with Ms. Campbell days later. “During the raid, Alvarez was wounded several times, but returned to the U.S. Embassy to retrieve the U.S. flag that was flying.”

To Ms. Campbell, the story sounded an awful lot like the plot from the movie “Rules of Engagement,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, whose character rescues the flag from the embassy — though the movie-version embassy was in Yemen, not Iran, as told by Mr. Alvarez.

It wasn’t the only hard-to-believe story she recalled hearing. Another time, she said, Mr. Alvarez said he wasn’t getting on any helicopters on the tour because he had been in two other Edison helicopter crashes. Ms. Campbell said she knew that wasn’t true, either.

Finally, upon overhearing Mr. Alvarez boast of his many killings while in the military, including some involving children, Ms. Campbell said, she couldn’t help but interrupt.

“He’s speaking for my Marine Corps,” she recalled thinking.

At first, she said, she asked him from which base he retired. She said Mr. Alvarez said that he had retired from Camp Pendleton as “Delta,” or Special Operations Delta Force. To Ms. Campbell, the answer didn’t make sense.

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