Rick Duncan, as he's been known in veterans' circles, had his act together.
Talking with a slight stutter, he often described in detail how, as a Marine Corps captain, he was nearly killed by a roadside bomb blast in Iraq. The resulting brain injury let people make sense of his tendency to constantly misplace his cell phone or lose track of his schedule.
For more than a year, he used his story and experiences to raise money and rally people to veterans' causes. As head of the Colorado Veterans Alliance, a group he founded, he championed wounded vets, the Colorado Springs homeless community and other disadvantaged groups.
He volunteered for Hal Bidlack's campaign for U.S. Congress and seemed to have a growing political profile.
Now, veterans who worked with Duncan are wondering what, if anything, in his colorful past is true.
"We think this is a stolen valor case," says Dan Warvi, a board member for the Colorado Veterans Alliance.
The alliance, under Duncan's leadership, was on its way to becoming a fully functioning nonprofit. As part of that process, Warvi says, he started checking into everyone's background, calling the U.S. Naval Academy to confirm that Duncan, as he claimed, graduated in the late '90s.
Warvi says he learned, and the Naval Academy confirmed Wednesday, that it has no record of anyone named Rick Duncan graduating there since 1948. He says he contacted the FBI, and that Duncan was taken into custody Tuesday evening in Denver, with an investigation underway.
FBI Special Agent Kathy Wright confirmed Wednesday that Duncan was arrested on an outstanding traffic warrant out of Colorado Springs, but says she cannot confirm any investigation is ongoing. Calls to Duncan's cell phone were not returned.
In January, Duncan filed alliance documents with the Colorado Secretary of State using the name "Strandlof." According to Nevada court records, a Richard Strandlof completed 24 months probation in 2006 in an "unlawful taking" of a motor vehicle case in Reno. A MySpace page bearing only the first name Rick shows Duncan's picture and a hometown of Reno.
Warvi says he and others are outraged, and worried that the Colorado Veterans Alliance will be stained by its founder's past. He explains his fear that Duncan may have used the veterans group to solicit contributions, either of cash or grocery store cards, which were never recorded as official donations.
"I am a disabled vet, which makes me particularly angry," Warvi says.
If Duncan's story is proven false, he will have fooled many people, including reporters with the Independent. Since late 2007, his name has cropped up in the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Boulder Daily Camera and the Gazette, and he has been interviewed in a "lawmakers thank veterans" piece on KCFR-FM in Denver. A blog post at vetvoice.com notes he was present at a breakfast meeting last year attended by Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, who had held the chief enlisted post in the Marine Corps.
Bidlack, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, frequently appeared with Duncan at events during his congressional campaign last fall. If Duncan's past turns out to be false, Bidlack says, he will be "profoundly disappointed."
Duncan knew how to push Bidlack's buttons. Bidlack was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, and Duncan said he was also, prompting Bidlack at one point to put an arm around the other man when he choked up talking about the experience.
"He was also a friend," Bidlack says.
Anyone who may have donated to the Colorado Veterans Alliance is asked to call the Denver FBI at 303/629-7171.