May 9, 2011 -- A central Pennsylvania pastor who said he was a Navy SEAL and Vietnam vet has been exposed as a fraud – and the man who caught him says the number of wannabes falsely claiming to be veterans of the elite force has "skyrocketed" since the May 1 SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
For five years, parishioners of the Christian Bible Fellowship Church in Newville, Pennsylvania believed that their pastor, Rev. Jim Moats, was an ex-SEAL who'd seen combat during the Vietnam War.
In the wake of the bin Laden raid last week, the Harrisburg Patriot-News decided to profile Central Pennsylvania residents who'd served in the SEALs. On Saturday, the paper published a glowing profile of Moats, who reminisced about being waterboarded and about being reassigned to kitchen duty for bad behavior.
"I had almost no discipline," said Moats. "I was as wild as they came. That was my nemesis."
The story soon landed in the email inbox of Don Shipley, a real ex-SEAL in Chesapeake, Virginia who is among the small group of people with access to a database listing all current and former SEALs. Shipley, who has taken it upon himself to expose frauds, has a Google Alert set up to notify him by email whenever someone's claim of having been a Navy SEAL is published on-line.
It didn't take long for Shipley to determine that Moats was never in the SEALs. Moats had served in the Navy during the Vietnam era, but as a sailor aboard a ship in the Mediterranean. He'd never been to Vietnam or seen combat.
"It's always shocking to find this," Shipley said. "He's gotten away with this for a very long time."
Shipley also figured out why the pastor's tales of waterboarding and kitchen duty sounded familiar – they were a mashup of plot points from the Steven Seagal movie "Under Siege" and the Demi Moore flick "G.I. Jane."
After Shipley left him a voicemail, Moats was forced to confess his sins. The scam had begun, he said, after church members spotted, and misinterpreted, a plaque in his office that honors SEALs and other Navy special operations units. He also wore a trident pin that is issued to SEALs. His own sons, he said, had called him after the initial newspaper story appeared to ask why he had lied.
"I never was in a class, I never served as an actual SEAL. It was my dream," he told the Patriot-News in a follow-up story. "I have allowed people to assume that, and I have not corrected it." He briefly alluded to what he had done during Sunday's church service, admitting that he had been "untruthful," and said he plans to address his misstep in more detail at Wednesday's service. Moats did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
Don Shipley spends much of his time identifying and confronting men who claim to have served among the military's most elite. Shipley told ABC News that he even before the Abbottabad raid he was finding as many as 20 fakers a day who attempt ed in some way to portray themselves as former Navy SEALs. But since the SEALs' role in bin Laden's death has been made public, the group has taken on an even more exclusive significance, and the number of phony SEALs has soared.
"Oh god, it has skyrocketed," said Shipley. "I can't even keep up with the amount of fraudulent claims and phony SEALs. Guys who haven't ever considered doing this are coming out of the woodwork, and we're nailing them as fast as we can."
Shipley said he had dealt with 15 to 20 phony SEALs a day before May 1, and the number has probably doubled since. He added that it's not unusual to find members of the clergy pretending to be former SEALs. "It's something with these guys who are in a position of trust that causes a lot of them to do it," he said. "The fact that they are in a position where whatever comes out of their mouth is believed -- I think that causes some of them to take advantage."
Shipley noted that simple math make it likely that anyone who claims to be a SEAL is probably lying about it. There are fewer than 18,000 men who were ever SEALs, and many of them served during World War II. "We estimate there's probably fewer than 10,000 men alive today who have ever been a SEAL. The FBI did a study a few years ago estimating that each of us has 300 imposters. I put the number closer to 1,000 based on the fraud cases I've seen."
He said he's glad to bust fake SEALs, but the work can be depressing. "You just deal with liars all day long," he said. "They even have you second-guessing yourself at times."