Staff Sgt. Joshua Stokes had been a squad leader in the 82nd Airborne Division for about a year when, as he prepared to transfer to his battalion’s headquarters in March 2015, a fellow NCO pointed out that something was up with one of his records.
The air NCO for A Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment had seen hundreds of Airborne Graduation Certificates in his time, but something was off about the one he had for Stokes: The name wasn’t printed in all caps, and he had questions about it.
“When I would ask SSG Stokes about his orders for his parachutist badge, he would always tell me that he would have to try and find them,” the air NCO said in a sworn statement that was part of a 15-6 investigation that unraveled a long and complex web of falsified documents and unearned distinctions in Stokes’ service record.
The battalion air NCO, according to the report obtained by Army Times, then called down to the Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, to see if Stokes had indeed graduated on Aug. 12, 2000, as his certificate stated.
The clerk there, according to the investigator’s findings, confirmed that Stokes was not a member of that early August 2000 class.
“She then informed [the staff sergeant] that his [Stokes’] name and Social Security number were not on any of the manifests of jumps on record at Airborne School,” the investigator wrote.
Army Times has withheld the names of other witnesses in the investigation for privacy reasons. Stokes did not respond to Facebook messages from Army Times.
That call kicked off a battalion-level investigation that, when all was said and done, found that Stokes had not only falsified his airborne certification and jump log, but that for years he had been sending false documents to the Electronic Military Personnel Office, awarding himself a Purple Heart and even a Good Conduct Medal for a period before he had enlisted.
He also claimed to have completed Sniper School and, according to his Enlisted Record Brief, spent three years there as an instructor.
“I was informed by [a Sniper School NCO] that they never heard of Staff Sgt. Stokes as an instructor or student,” the investigator wrote.
Six days into the investigation, Stokes came in for his first interview, where he answered a list of basic questions. Unsatisfied, the investigator called him in for a second meeting, with more detailed inquiries.
“…he answered almost half of the questions on the sworn statement before deciding to stop the interview and requested an attorney,” according to the report.
In his sworn statement, Stokes denied lying about anything, claiming that he had worked at Sniper School from 2011 to 2012 and he had gone to jump school in 2002 — not 2000, as the suspicious certificate stated.
According to the clerk at Fort Benning, Stokes’ jump certificate could not have been real, even if the name had been printed in all caps.
“The certificate I was sent is dated the 12th of August 2000, which was actually a Saturday,” she wrote in an email to the investigator. “Even if the class graduation was delayed due to weather, the certificated would always be dated on Friday, the original graduation date.”
And in his jump log, there are several events from 2003, a time when Stokes was stationed with 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York — which is not an airborne unit.
But one thing was for sure: He did jump with the 82nd.
“Based on the final jump manifest from 28 AUG 2014, proof shows that he actually did jump out of a military aircraft with the unit without being airborne certified,” the investigator wrote in his report.
Three years on, it was difficult to find any leadership at the 82nd familiar with Stokes’ case, but a spokesman for the division reiterated the importance of proper training before jumping out of an aircraft.
“Airborne operations are inherently dangerous, and it is critical that all paratroopers on airborne status have received the Basic Airborne Training,” Lt. Col. Joe Buccino told Army Times.
What remains unknown — and unexplained by the Army — is how Stokes’ suspicious record and qualifications remained undetected by the Army for so long.
Airborne, and beyond
Not only was Stokes’ airborne graduation certificate bogus, but the paper trail couldn’t have added up. He changed his last name from Asche in 2002, yet Stokes was on his certificate dated 2000.
His ERB said he graduated in 2005. His jump log listed 20 jumps, but in his sworn statement, he said he had eight.
And the director of the Defense Military Pay Office told the investigator that Stokes, who had officially joined the Army in May 2003, had never received jump pay.
After sorting out the mystery of Stokes’ airborne career, the investigator turned to the rest of his ERB.
In his statement, Stokes told a different story: He said that he had gone to Airborne School in August 2002, then spent six months in a California Army National Guard unit before going on active duty in May 2003.
The record showed that he had been a member of a California Guard unit in late 2002, before coming on active duty as a “sniper” at Fort Drum. Meanwhile, his military education record showed he completed sniper school in 2005, despite the organization having no record of him attending.
He also told the investigator that he completed Air Assault training at Fort Drum in 2005, but his ERB had it down as 2003. In any case, he did not have documentation to prove his claim.
“The first award on SSG Stokes’ ERB is the Purple Heart,” the investigator wrote, which Stokes denied in his statement.
“No I did not get a PH never at all and I don’t know how it is on there and would never claim to have one,” he wrote.
However, a unit yearbook photo shows him wearing a Purple Heart on his Army Service Uniform, in addition to an 82nd Airborne combat badge, despite never having deployed with the division.
Perhaps most curiously, Stokes had a Good Conduct Medal in his records for the period of January 1992 to January 1995.
“This is not possible because SSG Stokes was not in the Army at this time and, according to him, he was in high school,” the investigator wrote. “This only indicates to me that this document was forged.”
After pulling records from EMILPO, the investigator discovered that in one instance, 10 records had been added to Stokes’ file on one day in 2007, many of them for events years earlier.
They included an Army Commendation Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, a Combat Infantryman Badge and two Overseas Service Ribbons. When contacted, the clerk who inputted the decorations said that, per policy, she only added awards into the system when she had physical documentation to support them.
“It is likely that SSG Stokes was able to produce false documents … to have these put into his records,” according to the report.
In the end, the investigator recommended further Uniform Code of Military Justice action for Stokes.
A spokeswoman for Human Resources Command confirmed to Army Times that Stokes had been administratively separated, but could not elaborate on the characterization of his discharge, citing privacy concerns.
“This appears to be a case in which the command identified misconduct and took appropriate action,” Buccino said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.