This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Some fantasies strike me as incredibly weird. A dream world, for instance, in which you're paid badly, bossed around and regularly shot at doesn't seem like it's worth spending that much time on.
Mind you, people love soldiers. And people also love being loved. So it's not entirely surprising to discover that there's a steady stream of charlatans heading to surplus stores, stocking up on jackboots and Special Forces camo vests and pretending they once did some heroic stuff in service of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, faking a history of military service goes down very badly with proper ex-servicemen. Take Roger Day, for example, a man who wore a ridiculous amount of medals—medals he couldn't possibly have won—to a Remembrance Day parade a few years ago and was caught out as a fraud and scolded by the ex-servicemen organizing the march.
One bunch of ex-forces personnel—the Walter Mitty Hunters Club HQ (WMHCHQ)—have decided enough is enough. Sick of all the sad online swindlers posting Facebook photos of themselves in combat fatigues and boasting about "seeing action", the real veterans decided to publicly shame offenders. Named after the classic James Thurber story about a fool with a vivid fantasy life (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), the Walter Mitty Hunters Club HQ uses old army contacts to check service records and pick apart tall tales.
If a "Walt" is found to be making it all up or wantonly exaggerating his military experience (former cadets claiming to be ex-SAS men is fairly typical) the investigating hunters and their squadron of online followers are merciless. Fantasists are taunted as "Walting thundercunts" and have headshot photos stuck on Action Man dolls.
I asked one of the Walter Mitty Hunters Club HQ's main members—who wished to stay anonymous—to explain why exposing the fantasists was necessary.
VICE: So what pisses you off most about the Walts?
The Walter Mitty Hunter: It's an insult to all those who have worked hard, felt the pain and, in some cases, lost people close to them—the people actually doing the things the Walter Mittys like to boast about. The Walts also abuse charity resources for PTSD sufferers. We've come across quite a few who go on to claim having PTSD from serving in war zones by recounting stories they've heard or read about.
In your experience, what's the main incentive for these guys to pretend they've been in the army?
Mostly it amounts to getting attention. Some do it for potential financial gain—people like Bob Spour, conning people into buying a survival DVD, or Richard Lee, who set up his outdoor assault course business Spartan Race using his so-called experience as a Royal Marine. But they all have one thing in common: they have lied and deceived people, sometimes the people close to them—wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters.
How do you sniff out a possible Walt?
It normally starts with a tipoff on Facebook—we're inundated with private messages. We ask for several pieces of evidence before we fully commit to an investigation. We then use several means to cross-reference everything and make sure we're 100 percent accurate. We have to be on our guard because previous Walter Mittys we've exposed have made up fake profiles with the aim of trying to get us to expose someone who doesn't exist, or someone completely innocent. Their logic is that if we get it wrong with a made-up profile, then we could have got it wrong with others. It's bizarre.
Have you ever got it wrong?
Sadly, an innocent did get through the net. Once. Two previously exposed Walts got their heads together and managed to post a picture that was doing the rounds on several Facebook pages, claiming under their fake profiles to personally know the innocent guy. The admin person at the time took the bait and posted the picture up without following our investigation procedures. So we sacked him.
Do some people own up quickly when they're caught?
Yes. Sometimes we've had people offering themselves up and we've not even been looking at them. But some of these guys have been living these lies for years. Some have wives who married the guy in a uniform full of medals. They've built their lives around it, so they'll fight to the bitter end. At first they might try to convince us it's just a jealous business rival trying to set them up. When that fails, they threaten us with legal action, then they threaten us with the police, claiming we're bullying them. And when that fails, they claim mental health issues. We've heard it all.
Do you ever feel bad about shaming these guys so publicly?
No—these are people making fraudulent claims. But we are careful to try to avoid people with very obvious mental health issues.
The law on Walter Mittys seems unclear—only in cases where charities are defrauded of cash are people being prosecuted. Do you think we need a UK version of the US Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to lie about military honors?
Yes. It's getting out of hand, and the police need guidance on what powers they can use in order to make an arrest.
When Hunter told me to look out for several new Walts "soon to be exposed," I wondered how many more there could possibly be. Since several of the group's exposes have been picked up by the tabloids, surely—I thought—all those British Army fanboys would keep their surplus store fatigues safely tucked away out of view?
I clearly underestimated the power of fantasy. Sure enough, the WMHCHQ posted the results of a fresh sting on Facebook a couple of days before Remembrance Sunday. It seems some people remain utterly devoted to the adventure playing out in their heads.
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