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Reprinted from: Marine Corps Times

 

Foundation Member is a Medal Cop, One-Man Fraud Squad

This FBI G-Man Takes Down Bogus Marines and Fake Heroes

By Laura Bailey, Marine Corps Times Staff Writer 

Making a bust was the farthest thing from Thomas A Cottone Jr.’s mind as he paid his respects at a Marine officer’s funeral this spring. But when the FBI special agent saw a man there he believed was breaking a federal law, he couldn’t resist reaching for his badge. 

In a sea of mourners and squared-away leathernecks, 58-year-old Walter K Carlson was one awkward-looking Marine. His dress blue jacket belt struggled over his plump belly. Tufts of puffy, unshorn silver hair poked out of his white barracks cover. The captain’s bars on his shoulders seemed out of place for a man his age, especially given the extraordinary collection of decorations he wore. 

Cottone couldn’t help but notice when Carlson slipped into the funeral service for 2ndLt John Thomas Wroblewski in Washington Township, N.J., then strode to the front of the pews and plopped down uninvited among the pallbearers and family members. 

Something about Carlson didn’t add up. At the first strains of the Marines’ Hymn, he was the only Marine who didn’t snap to attention. But what really concerned Cottone was Carlson’s valor awards. Among his seven rows of ribbons were a Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, multiple Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. And then there were the scuba bubble, gold jump wings and distinguished shooting badge. “I got whiplash once I saw what this guy was wearing,” Cottone said. “It was just too much. I strongly suspected this guy was bad.” 

Cottone would know. Since stumbling upon a medals fraud case a decade ago and befriending a legendary leatherneck Medal of Honor recipient, Cottone has made a cottage industry of catching phony service members, wannabe war heroes and medal traffickers. He is the FBI’s lead man on medals fraud cases. And when he saw Carlson at the funeral, he had to act. 

The price of faking 

The West Paterson, N.J., agent spends most of his time on violent crime cases and is involved in some anti-terrorism work that occasionally takes him to the Middle East, but busting phony war heroes is where he gets his kicks. 

“I do it because it is a federal law, but this is one federal law I truly enjoy enforcing,” he said. 

With a father who was a World War II combat veteran, Cottone is passionate about the value of awards — all one needs to do to get a rise out of the otherwise cooltempered agent is imply that impersonating a veteran is a victimless crime. 

“This is as much a theft as any other fraud and theft,” he said. “These people are literally stealing the recognition of those who legitimately earned these awards. It’s illegal and it’s disgraceful. These people are criminals.” 

Not only is it against the law to impersonate a military officer, but it’s also illegal to wear, sell or manufacture valor awards without permission. 

These laws weren’t widely enforced until a legendary Marine, retired Col Mitchell Paige, a Medal of Honor recipient and World War II veteran, pushed Congress in 1994 to toughen laws governing illegal wear and sale of the Medal of Honor. 

Before that, a $250 fine wasn’t enough to deter traffickers from selling the medals, which could net up to several thousand dollars depending on the medal’s history. But at Paige’s urging, the laws were changed to include up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine for individuals and $200,000 for corporations for wearing, selling or manufacturing the Medal of Honor illegally. 

Busting those who break these laws is a small part of his FBI work, but Cottone has nailed more than 100 people in the past decade. 

At the funeral, he added Carlson to his list. As it turned out, Carlson was a bus dispatcher who never served but was living the Marine image to the hilt, Cottone said, periodically dressing up and sneaking into events such as the annual Marine Corps birthday ball, telling people he served three tours in Vietnam with 1st Recon. With membership cards for veterans’ organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Marine Corps League, and a Marine Corps license plate on his SUV, it wasn’t hard to fool the untrained eye. 

Cottone, 55, stumbled upon Carlson by sheer coincidence, but he was no less enthusiastic about the arrest he made after luring Carlson out to the church parking lot. Carlson is seeking acceptance into a pretrial probation program, Cottone said, noting that to be accepted is a tacit admission of guilt. 

Why they pretend 

At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Cottone pushed his way into the FBI 37 years ago at a time when the bureau had a minimum height requirement of 5 feet 7 inches. 

Since then, high-profile cases have dominated much of his work. His past cases include the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the 1992 murder of former Exxon executive Sidney J. Reso. But he was hooked after his first medals case in 1995, when he busted a man for illegally selling Medals of Honor. Since then, he has dedicated part of his work to investigating the phonies — and he’s learned a lot about pretenders and why they do what they do. 

Cottone said war hero impostors are often regular Joes, low on self-esteem. They often dress up as service members and attend events such as Veterans Day parades or other veteran functions to somehow earn respect or live the lives they never lead. 

He has outed all types of impostors, from small-town-celebrity war legends to fakers who try to blend in at military reunions to federal judges claiming to be Medal of Honor recipients. There are many common traits. For one, he said, they will talk to anyone who will listen to their pretend exploits. 

“It’s like offering heroin to a junkie,” he said. And they do it first and foremost for attention and glory. “All these guys, they get a psychological rush.  

"Having people looking at them, saying, 'Wow,' it gives them accomplishments they never had," he said. 

About 90 percent are prior or retired service members. They tend slightly toward Marines. And they always tout the best résumés. 

"Most of the impostors, they're not happy with being a Medal of Honor recipient, they've got to be everything else, Rangers, SEALs ... If there were just as many Navy SEALs out there as there are guys out there saying they're Navy SEALs, we wouldn't have to have any Navy SEALs." 

Impostors know exactly what they're doing; they calculate, they deceive, they steal the honor of others, he said. Often, they even have their families fooled, said Cottone, who once put a stop to a military funeral for a deceased phony veteran only hours before the ceremony was to begin. 

Many use their status to gain access to things that otherwise would be closed to them. One impostor, for example, stated in his company brochure that he was a fighter pilot in Korea, with the aim of improving the company's image. 

And some are active-duty service members wearing medals they weren't authorized to wear. In fact, another of Cottone's busts that came by sheer chance involved an active-duty Navy captain. 

In October 2002, Cottone was made an "Honorary Marine" by then-Commandant Gen James Jones for his work in busting frauds. And at his own award ceremony, Cottone spotted a phony.

Navy Capt Roger D. Edwards, who was also made an Honorary Marine at that October ceremony, had an impressive rack of ribbons that tripped Cottone's trigger. The special agent enlisted the aid of another medals-fraud hunter, B.G. "Jug" Burkett, who had heard about Edwards' possible fraud and reported him to Navy leaders. Soon enough, the truth came out: The captain was wearing 11 decorations he didn't rate. He was convicted and sentenced to 115 days' confinement and $7,500 forfeiture of pay for three months. 

Finding a phony at the ceremony was a kind of downer for Cottone. But with a lifelong interest in the Marine Corps - his career choices were either the FBI or the Corps - Cottone wears his title proudly despite the way the ceremony played out.

His pride is evident in the small Marine Corps emblem which now adorns the lapel of his typical navy blue suits.

 Unique partnership 

Many of Cottone's tips come from other watchdogs, especially the North Carolina-based Congressional Medal of Honor Society. With only 130 recipients still living, unfamiliar names are quickly recognized as impostors by the tight-knit group. 

Working closely with the society, Cottone has busted an impostor at each of the five Medal of Honor recipient reunions he's attended over the past decade. 

At one such reunion in Missouri, the special agent caught a wheelchair-bound man posing as a medal recipient. When Cottone confronted him, the man got out of the wheelchair, packed it in his van and drove away, Cottone said. The reunions have also provided a venue for conmen trying to scoop up medals, a highly sought-after collectors item, Cottone said. 

At one reunion, a man wearing an Army uniform offered to replace a medal held by Charles E. Coolidge, a veteran of World War II, with a new, updated medal. Coolidge got his new medal, which turned out to be a fake, and the one he turned over to the conman was later found for sale at a pawn shop for $5,000. 

It was Medal of Honor sales that drew Cottone into his decade-long passion, in fact. In 1995, he received a tip that a vendor at a gun show in New Jersey was selling two Medals of Honor. 

"It was by luck and by chance that I had the case referred," Cottone said. In the investigation into the vendor, Cottone called the Medal of Honor Society for help in verifying the authenticity of the medals. 

"That's when they about blew my ear off and said, 'It's about time,'" Cottone said. The phone call led to a years-long friendship and collaboration with Mitchell Paige. Before then, the retired colonel had been almost single-handedly hunting down and exposing phony war heroes. 

"We became best friends and partners [after] that first phone call," Cottone said of the colonel, who died in November 2003 at the age of 85. Before his death, he tipped Cottone off to dozens of cases. 

Cottone's watershed case came in 1996, when he busted government contractor HLI Lordship Industries for manufacturing hundreds of extra medals and selling them at gun shows and flea markets. The company was eventually convicted in federal court of manufacturing 300 extra Medals of Honor over the years; the medals it produced continue to pop up on impostors, Cottone said. "Every medal I've taken off the neck of these impostors has come from that company," Cottone said.

 A drop in the bucket 

Now, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are spurring a new generation of phonies. Cottone can't talk much about the case because the investigation is still underway, but at least one man is claiming to have received the Distinguished Service Cross for actions in Afghanistan. 

As the national case agent for medals fraud, Cottone follows up on many tips himself or assigns others to special agents including Mike Sandborn, a former Marine captain working in the FBI's Phoenix office. 

Sandborn says Cottone is the driving force behind medals arrests, but the cases they catch are just a drop in the bucket. "They're just the ones we know about," Sandborn said, noting that impostors are "a dime a dozen. They're everywhere." The job, he says, could be full time if they wanted it to be. Cottone said the Internet has helped make impostors easier to track, as many Web sites record the names of real Medal of Honor recipients and also spread the word about what is legal. "Obviously we don't get everyone, but you don't want to be the one who gets caught," Cottone said. 

"The bottom line here is that we're trying to honor the real people," he said. "If we don't enforce this law, [the awards] won't mean anything."

 

8 Ways to Spot A Phony
By Laura Bailey, Times Staff Writer

Wannabe war heroes aren't just the guys at bars telling tall tales about their glory days as a Navy SEAL or recon Marine. Impostor veterans infiltrate unit reunions, military events and even funerals. Most are former military members beefing up their image with employers and friends. Some are active-duty service members trying to get an edge at promotion boards. Some have never even seen the inside of a military base. 

So the odds are you'll run into a faker at some point. But how can you tell for sure? If you think someone is an impostor, usually your first instinct is accurate, said FBI Special Agent Thomas A. Cottone Jr., the bureau's lead agent on medals fraud cases. 

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," he said. 

Medal of Honor impostors are the easiest to expose because there are few living members and they maintain a tight network, Cottone said. There are only 130 living recipients, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which maintains a complete online list of recipients that can be checked to verify a suspicious story. 

An independent investigator of phony veterans, B.G. "Jug" Burkett, said the men who impersonate war heroes gain from it personally and professionally. Burkett, author of the book "Stolen Valor," says the con often begins when a military member leaves or changes services. Once they're no longer with their peer group it becomes easier to lie, Burkett said. If they have doctored their records, their new peers don't bother to check them, he said. 

The crime usually starts small, he said, typically beginning with tall tales at a social event. It often escalates when the story teller gets stuck in the lie, so he continues making up details to support the original lie. Then he might continue from there once he sees the benefit of the lie. The community might take him and make him the local war hero, for example. 

"It's like knowing a sports hero," Burkett said. "Suddenly he's feeling better about himself. He's getting treated better." But medal fraud hunters are out to ruin those good feelings. They have special ways to decipher whether someone is the real deal, and while they wouldn't share all their tricks of the trade, they did disclose a few that you can use to help ferret out a phony.

  1. Sketchy records. When asked to verify details of their military record, phonies often say they didn't go through the normal military channels, said Mike Sandborn, an FBI special agent and former Marine captain who works medals fraud cases. Sandborn said phonies will often say they were in high demand by the military and weren't required to go through the normal training. 

  2. Appearance matters. Impostors put on pretty lousy impersonations. They're often out of shape or have a "slovenly appearance in uniform," Sandborn said. If they look like "50 pounds of pork shoved into a 10-pound sack," Sandborn said, they're probably an impostor. 

  3. Top secret? Probably not. A phony often will say details of his career exploits are classified. But even with awards for classified actions, ceremonies are never top secret. Veterans claiming to have received an award should be able to produce an order granting it no matter how secretive the action. 

  4. "My dog ate it." Phonies often say their military documents were destroyed in a fire or some similar disaster. 

  5. Watch that rack. Check their decorations; phonies often wear medals in the wrong order or in disproportion to their time in service. 

  6. Check the birth date. When it comes to the Medal of Honor, age matters. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the youngest living recipient is 53-year-old Gordon R. Roberts. "If you see a young kid wearing a Medal of Honor, he's impersonating," said Gary Littrell, president of the society. 

  7. Just ask. Don't be afraid to test someone if you think they're faking, FBI agents say. If they're legit, they won't mind if you ask questions, Cottone said. Highly decorated veterans usually are very modest and rarely draw attention to their accomplishments; impostors love to boast. Sandborn cautioned troops to remember that "true heroism is like a river - the deeper it runs, the quieter it is." 

  8. Surf the Web. Still not sure? Check out the online databases of information about both real and phony war heroes. The site www.homeofheroes.com has a confidential online "bust a phony" form. Information submitted is turned over to the FBI. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society maintains a list of living MOH award recipients at www.cmohs.org. Also, www.pownetwork.org maintains a list of phony veterans.

 

 

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