The day’s first lead arrives in Anthony Anderson’s inbox mid-morning. The tipster says a man claiming to have served in Vietnam with Charles Beckwith, the late founder of the Army’s elite Delta Force, is using that association to sell his training skills to police departments. His story might well be true. But boasts like these fire Anderson’s suspicions.
From a laptop at his kitchen table, in a quiet subdivision outside Columbia, South Carolina, Anderson investigates a particular form of lying that’s come to be known as stolen valor: civilians fibbing about military service, and veterans embellishing their records with bogus claims of battlefield medals and missions with elite units. Fueled by coffee and Coke, he goes about unmasking imposters as a detective might, digging through public records and compiling dossiers. His computer dings with Facebook messages and his phone buzzes with texts, many of them from a loose network of self-styled investigators, mostly veterans themselves, scattered across the country.
Anderson, a staff sergeant on active duty in the South Carolina National Guard, has been doing this work of his own initiative and on his own time for several years. Not long after returning from Afghanistan, where he was deployed from 2009 to 2010, he started the Stolen Valor Facebook page, then the Guardian of Valor website, which features a rogue’s gallery of hucksters and fraudsters. The site’s traffic ballooned in 2013, when Anderson helped investigate Matt Farmer, a former soldier and contestant on American Idol. Before Farmer’s audition, in which he performed a Sam Cooke song, he told the judges that an IED explosion in Iraq had left him with a traumatic brain injury. But though Farmer had served in Iraq, he hadn’t been injured. “My inbox started lighting up with guys who had served with him,” Anderson told me, as he tapped out a text message regarding one of his half-dozen current investigations.