How to spot a phony SEAL

Posted at 7:59 PM, Jun 17, 2011
and last updated 2012-04-20 20:03:53-04

A Pennsylvania reverend grabbed his flag and displayed it proudly for his hometown newspaper. He told the reporter about his special connection to the Virginia Beach SEALs who cornered and killed Osama bin Laden. After all, the reverend himself was a SEAL in Vietnam, and he'd been trained in Virginia Beach.

But it was all a lie, caught by Chesapeake couple Don and Diane Shipley.

"We unfortunately just busted a phony minister, a phony preacher," said Don.

Days later, with a lot of hand-wringing, the reverend confessed to the newspaper. He was indeed a phony.

"That's how dumb a lot of guys are, they don't understand how the Internet works. The will say it to a small-town newspaper, and they just don't get how search engines and key words work," said Don.

Don and Diane know how it works. Anytime something like "former Navy SEAL" shows up in an online news story, they get an alert. That's how they found out about the Patriot-News story, and the reverend's fishy SEAL tale. So Don went to his private database of every man who has ever graduated SEAL training. The reverend's name was absent.

"If I pull your name up, and it is not listed, you were not there," he says.

The killing of bin Laden has triggered a lot pseudo SEALs to offer news analysis, or just to claim membership in the exclusive group. And that's triggered a lot of news alerts and emails to Don and Diane.

"I bet I have answered 50 today alone, and only one, one guy turned out to be real," he says.

That is a lot of phony SEALs on a Thursday.

Don is a retired SEAL - a "real" retired SEAL. That means Diane is a SEAL wife, proudly wearing a Trident around her neck, and what's more, she's a SEAL mother.

Together they bust fakers.

"Phony SEALs hurt everybody," said Diane.

The couple often finds phonies bilking charities or the government, angling for better jobs, or wooing unsuspecting women. Diane says these frauds are stealing the honor earned from the sacrifices of real SEALs and their families.

"I take it very personal and I will fight to expose phonies," she says.

You see, a little boy in a suit and tie, not that big, and the commanding officer of one of those SEAL Teams will bend down and put his dad's medal on him while his dad is in the coffin behind him up on the amphibious base. That's a wake-up call.

So sometimes Don takes to the Internet to expose the phonies. His targets are always imposters using the claim to boost their profiles or get special treatment. Like nationally-known fitness guru and an instructor on the hit show "The Biggest Loser," Carter Hays.

"I just found out yesterday, he is a former Navy SEAL. (choking). No wonder," he says.

So Don and one of his former Navy SEAL colleagues exposed him, and Hays scrubbed the SEAL references from his biography.

Shipley often uses humor to bust the braggers because their combat claims are just silly. But sometimes a faker's claims just make him mad. South Carolina electrician Les Agro used a fake SEAL story to get charity benefits meant for wounded warriors.

Shipley exposed him, and Agro confessed.

"We just keep getting these news links of phony SEALs giving interviews to all different kinds of radio stations and TV shows," he says.

So how do you spot a phony? Shipley has a database of real SEALs, but he says most of the time he doesn't need it. Here are three sure-fire ways to spot a SEAL scammer.

"What training class were you in?"

"I didn't go through the regular BUD/S training. I went through secret training."


All SEALs graduate basic SEAL training, called BUD/S, and none of that is classified.

"I thought you were in the Army. How did you become a SEAL?"

"I was recruited from the Army to join the SEALs."


SEALs aren't recruited from other military branches. They must be in the Navy.

"Can you provide your service records?"

"No. They've been sealed for national-security reasons."


Missions may be classified, but a SEAL's records never are.

Besides that, Shipley says there are other giveaways. Real SEALs don't brag about missions or medals, and they don't introduce themselves to strangers as SEALs.

"When someone tells you there are a Navy SEAL, don't believe it." He says.

"If a guy walks in with a SEAL Team shirt on, SEAL Team hat, SEAL Team license plate, he is damn well not a SEAL," says Diane.

So if you suspect there is a faker in your workplace or in your neighborhood, you can email me and I will work with the Shipleys to verify the claim.

You may be wondering how I know Don Shipley is legit. Well, there is another retired SEAL in the Midwest who has the same SEAL database. So I called him to make sure Don's name is on the list. And it is.