It was a sweet assignment right up my writing alley: A narrative about the D-Day invasion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Allied attack that marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. My newspaper, the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, published an open invitation for those who had taken part in the grand and awful amphibious assault to contact us and share their stories. In the military-rich Hampton Roads region, we struck gold: From the pilots who flew the paratroopers to the infantrymen who stormed the beaches, I was able to relate the entire D-Day narrative chronologically, all through veterans’ eyes.

A couple of weeks before June 6, 1994, I was at my desk when the phone rang. A raspy voice inquired: Are you all still collecting D-Day stories? The story was essentially done at that point, but I said, “Sure. What did you do?”

“I was in the Army,” the voice replied. And? “I was a Ranger. At Pointe du Hoc.”

As you might imagine, I almost fell out of my chair. “You took part in one of the greatest assaults in U.S. military history?”

“Yep.”

Good grief, I thought. Too good to be true! In short order, photographer Ken Lyons and I were sitting in the fellow’s sun-splashed back yard. His story was detailed, yet he under played his role. He brought out a shadow box filled with decorations and a folded flag; his kids had made it for him, he said.

Back at the office, I started typing up my notes, shaking my head at times. I don’t know what stopped me, but I heard myself saying the words, “Too good to be true,” and decided to call the Ranger headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia. I asked the spokesman if he had a unit roster of some sort. No, he said, but a former Ranger up in New York did. As it turned out, my guy wasn’t on the list. But, the former Ranger said, call this other former Ranger down in Pennsylvania; he was in that unit. I called, telling this former Ranger that my guy had claimed to be the assistant platoon leader. That guy, the real Ranger told me, got killed on D-Day.

I called my alleged Ranger back, said I wanted to clear up the unit name and asked him twice to repeat it. Yep, that was my outfit, he said. I then told him what I’d learned and asked, “Did you lie to me?”

In a voice that suddenly sounded creaky and 10 years older — yet sort of childlike, as though fearing a reprimand — he replied, slowly, “Yes.”

Lucky me, I’d exposed the lie before the story went to press. But as I soon learned, this fellow was hardly the only person who has fabricated or exaggerated wartime exploits.

There is no hard count of how many people have lied about their military service, but one of the best sources on the topic thinks the number is in the millions.

“I personally believe there are as many American males claiming military service falsely as there are living veterans in America,” said B.G. Burkett, author of the acclaimed 1998 exposé “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History.” That’s a big number— approximately 23.6 million.

Burkett might be accused of hyperbole had he not spent the past 25 years uncovering military fakers, often working with authorities who’ve come to view him as the real authority. For the past three years, Burkett has worked “behind the scenes” with the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General on Operation Stolen Valor, aimed at uncovering people in the Pacific Northwest who’ve fabricated military service in order to obtain VA benefits.

In 2007 the effort snagged eight people who were receiving VA compensation for combat injuries, although none had served in combat and two had never served in the military. They got in the door with computer-generated or -altered discharge papers known as DD 214 forms. Their lies collectively cost the VA $1.4 million.

“That’s eight individuals in the Seattle area, in one bust,” said Doug Sterner, a longtime private watchdog who now maintains the Military Times newspapers’ Hall of Valor database. “Now, extrapolate that across the nation, and imagine the millions of dollars that this runs into.”

Between March 1, 2008, and Feb. 25, 2009, the VA investigated 96 cases of “stolen valor” fraud, according to James O’Neill, assistant inspector general for investigations. The work led to 48 arrests, the VA recovered $562,888, and authorities levied $1.23 million in fines. Type “falsify military service” into an online search engine window, and one yields tens of thousands of hits relating case after case in which someone has either exaggerated or completely fabricated their military service.

In 2000, upon hearing that the Library of Congress had launched its Veterans History Project, Burkett asked administrators if they were verifying any of the vets’ records. They weren’t. Burkett predicted that half would be frauds.

Seven years later, Chuck and Mary Schantag, whose P.O.W. Network Web site lists U.S. prisoners of war, reviewed all the history project records. In 2007 the project listed 49 Medal of Honor recipients on its Web site. The Schantags discovered that 24 of those were false entries. So were 47 claiming to have earned service crosses. As were 45 claiming to have been prisoners of war.

The efforts of latter-day watch-dogs such as Sterner, Burkett, the Schantags, fake Navy SEAL–catcher Steve Robinson and others have given military fakery the appearance of being a modern phenomenon, particularly during the Vietnam era. That’s not true.

“I run into far more than my share of World War II fakers,” said Sterner. “A long time ago, I had at least one case of a World War I guy, claiming a Medal of Honor that he’d received.”

Fakery was reportedly widespread during the Civil War and its long aftermath. According to a January 1893 article about veterans’ pensions in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, during a three-year period ending in 1879, out of 4,397 affidavits filed for wartime pensions, 3,084 were false — at a cost to the government of more than a half million dollars. Poor or nonexistent record keeping makes such fakery difficult to track much further back in history. The suspicion, however, is that it has probably been around as long as people have been on the planet.

More than a few 20th century men tried to pass themselves off as the last surviving veterans of the Civil War. One of the best-known examples was Walter Williams, who claimed to have served in the Confederate army under Gen. John Bell Hood. Williams was said to be 117 years old at his death in 1959 in Houston, Texas. That same year, however, American journalist Lowell K. Bridwell wrote that he couldn’t find “one single scrap” of evidence to verify Williams’ age or veteran status. According to research by historian William Marvel, published in a 1991 issue of Blue and Gray, Williams would have been too young to have served in the war.

“I think you can find fakers very far back,” said Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies the communication of deception. “I don’t think it’s particularly modern.”

“I can’t prove that there were phonies among King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table,” Burkett said. “But I know this didn’t just occur starting with the modern wars. It was much easier to do before. You know, you could get yourself a sword and say, ‘Hey, I’m home from starving in the Mideast with the Crusaders.’”

Nor has military fakery been limited to Americans. In 1932 a German, Oscar Daubmann, turned up in his homeland claiming he’d been a French prisoner of war for the previous 16 years after his capture at the 1916 Battle of the Somme. After killing a prison guard, he said, he’d been transferred to a labor camp in French-governed Algeria, where, after years of torture, good behavior had earned him a job as a prison tailor. Daubmann’s tale of escape from the colonial hellhole prompted the German government to treat him as a national hero. The Nazis, in particular, lionized him. Accounts vary as to how Daubmann’s lies unraveled, but five months after his glorious “return,” he admitted he’d never served in the German army. He was telling the truth about prison, it turned out; but he’d done time for burglary, not as a POW. Nor was his name actually Daubmann; it was Karl Hummel, and he’d taken his new name from a passport retrieved from an old uniform he’d bought. The real Daubmann had been killed in the war.

In this country, fakers did proliferate following the Vietnam War, according to Burkett. The My Lai Massacre and other news stories created for some a public image of troops as “baby killers,” an image since exacerbated by films such as 1986’s “Platoon.” The post-Vietnam period recorded countless news accounts of hundreds of thousands of angry and sometimes homeless and desperate veterans.

That negative image was fresh in Burkett’s mind when he decided to help a friend in Dallas raise money for Vietnam veterans a quarter century ago. Reporters often interviewed local veterans of the war, Burkett said, “and the things they [the veterans] were saying were just bogus as hell. I was thinking, There’s something wrong here.”

After one local vagrant killed a policeman, the next day’s headline read, VIETNAM VETERAN GOES BERSERK. Burkett, who at the time was verifying records for the Texas State Archives, discovered he could get military records by request. He searched for the vagrant’s record and discovered the man had been kicked out of basic training after three weeks on a psychological discharge. “He wasn’t a Vietnam veteran,” Burkett said. That launched the financial planner into a new career.

Military fakery is hardly limited to the down-and-out, however. Take John M. Iannone, a Pittburgh- area oilman whom family members said had it all and was even more admired for his extensive community service. He apparently fabricated documents claiming he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor during his Vietnam War service. Oddly, his charitable endeavors included involvement with local Vietnam veterans’ groups, which ended in 1994 when he disappeared, only to resurface years later as a con man.

In 1997 Wes S. Cooley, a sitting first-term eastern Oregon congressman, was convicted on charges he’d lied about his military service in official state voter guides. Cooley had claimed Korean War service with Army Special Forces. An Oregon newspaper learned that Cooley hadn’t finished training until nearly a month after the signing of the 1953 armistice. A judge sentenced Cooley to two years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and 100 hours of community service.

Well-known actor Brian Dennehy often shared stories of his service with the Marines in Vietnam. Burkett verified that the movie tough guy was indeed a former Marine but had been discharged in 1963, before any Marines were sent to Vietnam. Dennehy did play football for a Corps team on Okinawa, Burkett reported.

Local community celebrities appear no less prone to telling such tales. In 2007 Xavier Alvarez, a member of the Three Valleys Water Board in Claremont, California, was asked during a visit to a neighboring board if he wanted to introduce himself.

“I’m a retired Marine of 25 years,” Alvarez told the attendees. “I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I’m still around.”

His words were recorded. The following year, Alvarez was sentenced to more than 400 hours of community service, three months’ probation and fined $5,000 for violating the Stolen Valor Act — a 2005 federal law named for Burkett’s book.

Any number of personality flaws might drive someone to fabricate a military background, no matter what their station in life. In Sterner’s experience, it’s all about the financial advantages fakers can obtain.

“It’s all done for personal gain,” he said. “That is the one common thread.”

In Burkett’s mind, most fakers do so because of low self-esteem. “All societies in history have revered the warrior,” he said. “The second you tell people that you are a veteran, they look at you differently. Regardless of what they thought of you before, there’s suddenly more substance to you.”

The lie “often starts modestly,” Burkett said. “Someone says, ‘Hey, Joe, you’re of the age for Vietnam. Did you get drafted, go in the military?’ Rather than say, ‘No, I avoided the draft,’ the guy says, ‘I don’t like talking about it.…Well, I was in the Army.’ ‘You serve overseas?’ ‘Yeah, I was in Vietnam.’ The next thing you know, the guy’s being asked to join the VFW.”

DePaulo more or less agreed: “You say something, almost as a trial balloon. Or maybe you don’t even mean it consciously as a trial balloon, but you put something out there, and it works and maybe gets a good reaction. People are impressed. Once you start getting away with it, then I think you get more emboldened. And you think, Oh, no one’s ever going to catch me. Nobody’s going to care.

DePaulo says it’s not surprising a person already held in high esteem would choose to fabricate a military background.

“If you are also in a position of power or authority or prestige, then you might also feel less vulnerable, because you think that people won’t challenge you,” she said.

But in a broader sense, DePaulo said, people lie for the same reasons, no matter what they claim to be.

“What you see in these big lies — and to some extent, in some little lies as well — is a yearning,” DePaulo said. “People want to be a certain kind of person they only wish they could be. And rather than doing the hard work of actually trying to become that person, they just do a shortcut of claiming to be that person.”

DePaulo believes that most people who tell such lies probably are doing so consciously. At the same time, she said, “I think it is possible that in some cases, they’ve told the lie for so long, and it’s so integrated into their perceptions of their life experiences, that, psychologically, it’s almost like a truth, because if they’ve been telling the lie for a long time, then they don’t have the challenge of someone who’s making it up for the first time.”

Perhaps the idea that the lie about military service ultimately becomes a “truth” in the phony veteran’s mind explains what happened with my aspiring D-Day Ranger about two weeks after I’d caught him lying. It was Saturday night as the newspaper prepared my D-Day story for the Sunday edition. At about 11 p.m., I remembered that local enthusiasts were reenacting the Normandy invasion on the beach at Fort Story, an Army base nearby. So I turned the television on and checked the local news.

The news must have been slow that day, because the reenactment was the lead story. Men in period uniforms scrambled across the beach between mock explosions, as the reporter interviewed D-Day veterans who came to watch.

And there he was, my false ranger, holding his shadow box of medals as he repeated his fake story. I could not believe it. Here I’d called him on his lie, and he had the gumption…the belief…the desire to somehow lie again, as if by lying many mines, the lie would turn true.

I don’t think I’ll ever know.

For further reading, William McMichael recommends: “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes” and “Its History,” by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley; “No Guts, No Glory: Unmasking Navy SEAL Imposters,” by Steve Robinson; and “Fake Warriors,” by Henry Mark Holzer and Erica Holzer.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.