Brad Hardy, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
A recent news story by KSL-TV in Salt Lake City linked to by the Stolen Valor Facebook page reported on a military fraud named Kenneth Crocheron. With kindness in his heart, Crocheron posed as a Special Forces officer in an attempt to bring comfort to a local boy stricken with a rare disease. It was a touching intent, but with a misguided method. Crocheron's lie about current military service grew and his backstory expanded to a breaking point. The ill boy's family investigated and outed Crocheron as a fake.
At least one has to admire Crocheron's boldness. Just one look at his broad, goofy smile belies anything but a man convinced no one would call him on it. Maybe he assumed the veterans in his midst were too timid to say anything and his Gaddafi-esque collection of awards would dazzle the uninformed civilian. Crocheron's pictures are hilarious and tragic at the same time, and they should make the soldiers laugh and cringe at the absurdity. Further, his story of stolen valor and many others like it show a disconnection between trust in the military and an understanding society.
Crocheron's story went on for some time, at least since 2007. And cases of stolen valor are nothing new. But, for something like this to go on as long as it did says two things about our society. First, it indicates that the Army remains a trusted and admired profession, but almost to a fault. The Army's manual on the Profession of Arms, Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 1, states that "trust reflects the confidence and faith that the American people have in the Army to effectively and ethically serve the Nation, while resting assured that the Army poses no threat to them." A broad assumption is that civilians will tend to defer to the military to do the right thing. Maybe it's the professed values, generally honorable conduct in war, authoritative tone, uniform, haircuts, or heroic portrayal in movies. But jokers like Crocheron, even if unaffiliated with the Army, erode that earned trust. Society may start to second-guess the confidence and question their faith that ADRP 1 touts. The Crocherons of the world destroy public trust in the Army by exploiting it. He abused it to gain unearned prestige and access to a family's young child. The next time that family sees a uniformed servicemember, they may not be so supportive. The next civilian that reads about another case of stolen valor may not believe the legitimate war stories of real returning soldiers.
Now the critical observer may assert that the Army has nothing to do with the likes of Crocheron or similar phonies. This is certainly true. The Army is in the awkward position of defending this skewed sense of the freedom of speech. But the service does not want these crooks to besmirch its proud tradition and uniform. Only an active citizenry that knows its military and, further, desires to keep trusting it may be the one bulwark against a bad reputation.
This is the second point. This event shows that society may have only a passing knowledge about its military, uniforms, combat operations, and history. For many, these aspects of military culture remain esoteric and distant, only showcased in commercials and parades. It's not an indictment, but perhaps shows just how separated the armed forces are from the society it serves. Crocheron could have served in both Vietnam and Afghanistan as he claimed. It's been done before. But no one questioned the claim's feasibility. No one thought how odd a one week deployment to Afghanistan sounded. The gestalt of his uniform's disorganized appearance raised no red flags until much later. No one knew until a veterans group said everything was a scam.
This situation demands that the civilian population grows to know the military they fund and send to war on its behalf. Civilians should do it, if not to prevent the short-term embarrassment of deception, than to grasp what their long-term defense investment is. But also, it indicates that the Army has not done such a great job at advocating its own culture in way that civilians know enough to spot imposters.
Blindly accepting claims of military service can make innocent citizens look or feel foolish and resentful. Further, near-automatic deference, confidence, and faith in a powerful institution, instead of thoughtful questioning and examination of its actions and intent, are dangerous attitudes. Objective critical examination of the government and its agencies feels pretty darn patriotic and serves as a sound civil responsibility. With a closer look, the citizen may be pleased to learn of lost stories of heroism that were ultimately honored. But one's fear may be that the civilian would not like what he finds, such as the seedy actions of some our senior leadership. It is only through this regular examination that society will gain a greater understanding and appreciation of its military and perpetuate the trust it needs for legitimacy. Without trust and legitimacy, the Army becomes an army.
I would be encouraged if the casual man on the street knew so much about the military he funds. I want him to, and hope my brothers- and sisters-in-arms continue to tell the good Army story. But my fear is that, all too often in the mind's eye, the Army is relegated to pop culture concepts and tear-jerking redeployment reunion videos. If the Army continues to act either only ‘over there' in a way that allows the general population to remain unaffected, or on a cloistered installation, or with an indecipherable acronym language, indifference will continue. Choruses of "thank you for your service" will suffice as proper homage, much like attending church at Christmas and Easter constituted the religious experience of my youth.
I am reminded of the tale of the wolf, sheepdog, and sheep. The story goes that the Army is the sheepdog, protecting the sheep (citizens), from the wolf or those who would do the sheep harm. It is very encouraging to the soldier and may touch him with bit of hubris. But I think that we need more sheepdogs geared toward another form of guard duty. We need more sheepdogs examining the military and the policy we fulfill. We need more civilian sheepdogs that are on the watch for the phony as well as on guard for Army culture.
However, the greatest onus to make a difference is on the Army. No matter how special we may think we are, the Army really is not so different and separate an organization. As a part of society, the Army must do better at educating the society it serves about its culture so that future scam artists are detected. The Army must continue to share its culture, as it is part of the broader fabric of American heritage. The military and American experiences have always combined to make us who we all are and show where we have been as a society. So, fellow sheepdogs, let's not let the two drift too far apart.
MAJ Brad Hardy is a U.S. Army officer, Functional Area 59 (Army Strategist), and unapologetic University of Akron alumnus and Akron Zips fan. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.