Imitation: The Highest Form of Flattery?

Maybe it’s a source of pride. Or it’s about insecurity. Maybe it brings a rush. Wearing a military uniform is an honor; impersonating an officer is a crime (18 U.S.C. § 912).

Reported occurrences of wannabe’s donning military threads — and the higher rank the better — seem to be on the rise. Last year, Trung Huan Nguyen appeared as a Navy rear admiral, speaking at a Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Day outside Washington, D.C. (The event took place at Eden Center, an enclave of Vietnamese restaurants and shops catering to the area’s growing Vietnamese population. It is like stepping out of Falls Church, Va., and into the former South Vietnam. This is a must-see. But we digress.) Nguyen was pushing his luck. Some of the 100 attending the event became suspicious, as often happens. The former sailor has pleaded guilty to impersonating an officer and is looking at a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Some have impersonated general officers; others masquerade with lesser rank. Some are former military, like Nguyen, who was a former sailor; others have never served. Some are on active duty and make unlawful claims, often to military decorations they never received. Our personal fave was the Marine staff sergeant at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., who passed himself off as one of the Iran hostages held from 1979-81. He spoke about his captivity at numerous events and wore the corresponding decorations. His claims went unquestioned, and the charade went on for so long he seemed to truly believe it himself. He eventually was outed and tossed from the Corps.

There are those embellish the details of their services. The false musings themselves are not a crime; if they don decorations or otherwise gain their dishonesty, that’s a different story. These guys make stuff up. It often starts with small, but then the stories grow. One day the masquerader is no longer the insurance salesman or veteran who spent time on board a ship in what he considers an irrelevant theater. Now he’s shooting down kamikazes, liberating concentration camps, or fighting the infamous fire on the USS Forrestal. (We cannot get over how many people we have met who were on the Forrestal at the time of the deadly fire.)

Most of these guys probably just want respect. They want to be John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, George C. Scott, Richard Gere. (We get the Richard Gere thing.) They want to be a part of something bigger.

Maybe imitation truly is the highest form of flattery.

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