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Camouflage: in style

Richard Strandlof's local military yarn weaves into a national narrative



Callers to the Colorado Veterans Resource Coalition asking about Richard Strandlof are greeted with weary indifference.

"He has nothing to do with us," explains Vicky Pettis, program director for the Colorado Springs nonprofit that provides housing and support for homeless and disabled veterans. "The only thing I know about him is what I read in the papers."

But Pettis' employer has the misfortune of sharing much of its name with the Colorado Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group that Strandlof built around his fake identity as Rick Duncan. Strandlof claimed to have been a Marine captain wounded during fighting in Iraq.

Pettis has taken a few calls since Strandlof's deception made national news last week. She says she's explained that her organization is a legitimate nonprofit serving vets, whose identities are verified through discharge paperwork and checked again with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies.

"We've got ways of finding out," she says.

That others don't helps explain why so many people are using fake military identities to enrich themselves or their egos.

"It's always gone on, but it's become a lot more public," says Doug Sterner, a Pueblo military historian who maintains and investigating possible fakers. "Since 9/11, we tend to hold our military [veterans] in higher regard."

Mary Schantag, a Missouri woman who is a founding board member of the P.O.W. Network, an advocacy group, says public esteem for military service is combining with a sour economy to provide a pathway for opportunists.

"The economy is luring people to do things they normally wouldn't," she says.

Sterner and Schantag each receive dozens of tips every month about military tales that don't ring true. Sterner talks rapid-fire about recent cases; last year, he notes, a Nevada post office was nearly named for a veteran claiming false heroics.

"My work is about preserving history," Sterner says, adding that Strandlof's case is only exceptional for attracting wide attention. "It happens all the time, everywhere."

Schantag says she's heard recent reports of people claiming military service to get government health benefits, or spinning tales of heroism to woo moneyed widows. Disproving some military tales can take weeks, months or even years, she says.

It's not necessarily against the law to conjure stories of military service from a bar stool. But thanks to the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, authored by U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., it is a federal crime to claim to be a decorated veteran, with punishment up to a year in prison.

Salazar proposed the legislation after reading a paper written by Sterner's wife, Pam Sterner, while she was a student at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Doug Sterner says one problem now is that federal investigators have too many cases. He believes a proposed national database of war medals would help expose frauds.

He's also hoping Colorado joins a handful of states with laws mirroring the federal legislation, making prosecution more likely. State Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, says he'd be on board, as long as it doesn't break the budget.

"We could put an exclamation mark [after the federal legislation] by running it at the state level," Tapia says.

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