Ways to tell if someone is faking military service

The Chicago Tribune posted an embarrassing note to readers earlier this evening.  The summary: The paper’s story about a man who was blinded in an improvised explosive device attack while serving in the military turns out to have been based on an erroneous foundation — the man hadn’t served at all.

I have known this terror, having written about a veteran and had a photo of the man and some of his service ribbons accompany the story, only to have a reader call and say “He has the wrong ribbons for what he claimed.” It got figured out and my guy was real, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend about six hours swinging between the terror of being wrong and the rage of being lied to.

The Tribune’s error is easy to make. Because the National Military Personnel Record Center is slow at processing requests (they get lots of them) and require the signature of living veterans to release their records, official verification is difficult.

How can you fact-check to avoid this?

Ironically, if someone claims to have been in Special Operations (Rangers, Delta Force, SEALs, Air Force Parajumpers, etc.), it’s easier to rat them out. Every Special Ops person ends up chanting their training class number over and over. Ask for that. A quick call to the command will tell you when that class number passed through and you can use that as a gauge. You can ask what unit they were from and where they were based, and that’s an easy fact to check.

But what if they, like the man in the Tribune article, are just claiming to be regular soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines?

1) You can ask to see their DD-214, which is the official separation paper issued by the Department of Defense. You need it to claim veteran status and it’s a royal pain to get a copy of, so people hold onto them. They’re offended? Blame it on a policy from your employer because “we don’t want to devalue someone’s service by saying someone served when they didn’t.” Make it the interview subject’s patriotic duty to show you the DD-214.

2) Be a little jargony. If someone claims to be in the Navy, ask what their “rating” was (the Navy uses “ratings,” rather than “ranks.”). Ask someone where their command was (if someone gives you a post name instead, like “Fairchild Air Force Base,” press and ask what the command was. You should get something like “36th Rescue Flight”).

3)  Ask specifics about equipment or location and get some verifiable fact you can check. If someone says they were a Navy pilot, ask what he or she flew, the squadron number and off what ship. Easily verifiable through the Navy’s public affairs folks. A statement such as “I was with the Third Rangers in Al-Anbar Province in 2007,” is relatively verifiable with the Third Ranger Battalion’s public affairs folks, at least to the extent that you can confirm whether elements of the unit were deployed to wherever in whenever.

4) Ask the paired question: What did you do and what was the classification number? Each service uses a different bureaucratic system to explain jobs. This is another one of those things that people don’t forget. The Army and Marines use the Military Occupation System, or MOS, for enlisted men.   In the Army, it’s a nine-character code where the first three characters — always two numbers and a letter — denote what someone does (i.e., an 11B is an infantry man, a 63D is an artillery mechanic). The Army’s official manual is here.  Army officers receive career branch and functional area numbers and you can ask for those, as well. We’ll get to a better way to ask about officers in a second.

The Marines use a different variation of the MOS, assigning a four-digit code where the first two digits are the field (i.e., infantry, artillery, intelligence) and the second two numbers are the specialty within the field (i.e., 0300 is a basic infantryman, 0313 is a crewman in a Light Armored Vehicle; different jobs, but both are still in the infantry). Here’s a good list of Marine MOS codes. Unlike the Army, Marine officers get a standard MOS code, but there are limited codes and they’re generally broader.

The Air Force uses the Air Force Specialty Code, which is four characters for officers and five for enlisted personnel. The system consists of career group (i.e., operations, support, medical), career field subdivision (i.e., combat control, transportation and vehicle management), a career field subgroup (i.e., aircraft structural maintenance, aircraft armament systems), a skill level (i.e., apprentice, craftsman) and a specific skill (i.e., Arabic speaker). The system is complex enough that here’s an example from Wikipedia:

For example, in the AFSC 1N371:

  • The career group is 1 (Operations)

  • The career field is N (Intelligence)

  • The career field subdivision is 3 (Cryptologic Linguist)

  • The skill level is 7 (Craftsman)

  • The specific AFSC is 1 (Crypto-Linguist Specializing in a Germanic Language

Air Force officers use a similar system, though it’s a four character group and doesn’t get quite as in-the-weeds as the enlisted system.

The Navy uses ratings in the Navy Enlisted Classification, or NEC, system for enlisted personnel and designators for officers. The NEC is refreshingly simple: It takes the code for someone’s specialty (i.e., Boatswain’s Mate is BM) and their rating, from low to high (i.e., a yeoman third class would be a YN3 and a quartermaster chief would be a QMC). Here’s the Navy guide.  Officers use a four-character code: billet code (the first three numbers are what they do, such 142X is an engineering duty officer, with the fourth character — the X — describing their exact job). The system, like all such systems is mind-numbing. Here’s the manual.