May 27th, 2010
05:41 PM ET

Stolen Valor

Program Note: Watch Randi Kaye’s full report tonight on AC360° at 10p.m. ET.

Randi Kaye
CNN AC360° Correspondent

As Memorial Day approaches, it got us wondering here at Anderson Cooper 360 about all those folks who pretend to be veterans.

Many of them come out especially around this time of year and flaunt their fake credentials and medals, hoping to impress friends or get better treatment at the Veterans Administration. But the case of “Stolen Valor” as it’s called that we are reporting on for AC360 tonight is unlike any other.

In this case, a 26-year-old man from Texas duped the United States Army! Yes, the top military in the world was fooled! The guy’s name is Jesse Johnston and he used a standard form resume required by the military, known as a DD-214, to stretch his credentials. On it he claimed he had four years experience in the Marine corps, combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a bronze star and a purple heart.

Turns out it’s all a lie. All the Army had to do to verify Johnston's record was call the Marines - that's what we did! Instead, it gave him the rank of Sergeant. If checked, the Army would have discovered, just as we did by calling the Marines, that Jesse Johnston had never even been through boot camp. Yet the Army gave him a leadership role in a combat unit of the Army Reserves.

The Marines told us Johnston “was not a Marine at any point ... he was never a sergeant with the Marines, never an enlisted Marine.” He had completed six weeks of a twelve week platoon training program in 2004, we were told, but was dropped from the program for reasons the Marines would not disclose.

Johnston’s wife filed a petition to annul their marriage after finding out he’d lied about combat experience. Johnston also signed the petition to annul the marriage saying he is aware of what it said, does not want the testimony of the case recorded and waived his right to a lawyer in the case.

Can you imagine this happening? If anyone had really looked closely, they might’ve noticed Sergeant Johnston was wearing a uniform he hadn’t earned - and on top of that, he was wearing his distinguished medals backwards! He was displaying one of the rarest medals around, the Navy and Marine Corps medal, but was wearing the colors reversed. Nobody noticed. The Army is still formally investigating and didn’t allow Sergeant Johnston to speak with us. It wouldn’t even say if he’s still in the military.

Experts we talked with for this story are extremely alarmed. As one congressman put it, “you could have people .. that have terrorist links entering the U.S. military.. they could simply get a holed of the DD-214 and falsify it.” Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, wrote a letter to the Department of the Defense about this case, suggesting it exposed a “significant security gap” in the armed forces. Plus, what if this guy had been sent to the war zone? Is there anything scarier than a squad leader in combat without any prior training?

There is so much more to this story. Be sure to tune in tonight to Anderson Cooper 360° to find out more about who was most surprised of all to hear Jesse Johnston’s life was a lie.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime & Punishment • Randi Kaye
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