When is a SEAL not a SEAL? Too often, says Darryl Young, an ex-SEAL who trained in Coronado. Young heard of so many many SEAL impostors that he helped form a group called the "U.S. Navy Special Warfare Archives" to "root out wannabes" around the country.
His zeal sometimes produces spectacular payoffs. Earlier this month, Young caught one of his prize pretenders. Daniel J. Meyer, 48, president of a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in St. Louis, Missouri. Meyer had long been proclaiming he was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam era. For the past three years he flew a flag with the SEAL insignia outside his pub, the Ashau Valley Tavern, a hangout for vets named after the site of a famous battle in Vietnam.
Then came the morning Meyer's vice president and best buddy Mark Estopare happened to be "chatting" online with Young on the Vietnam Vets' Internet Web site. "Estopare knew I was a SEAL," says Young. "He just said, 'Hey, I've got a friend who's one.'
"I said, 'Well, where is he?' He said, 'As a matter of fact, he spent the night with me last night. He's sleeping right now.'"
Young asked for his SEAL buddy's name. Estopare typed in "Daniel J. Meyer." There and then, Young went to check Meyer on his BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) database. "I'm one of five people in America that have a BUD/S database of everybody that's ever graduated from Training Class 1 to the present day, which is Class 213. Every time a training class graduates, I get a complete update of the names, service numbers, hometowns where these boys are from that graduated."
It only took about a minute. Young found out there was no Dan Meyer in Class 68. "That's the class he was supposed to have gone to. So I told [Estopare] to wake him up. Get him up. And I communicated with Meyer [through Estopare's computer] and basically told him he was lying.
"This man wouldn't get on the computer. He was standing in the background. So the next day I did call and talk to Dan Meyer in person. He was sorry for this and sorry for that. He was real nervous on the phone. He never said anything about being president of the VVA [Vietnam Veterans of America] in St. Louis. He was just very sorry, it would never happen again.
"Well, the very next night, on the same Web site, I found out that [Meyer]'s the president of [his local] VVA. So I call him back, kind of disturbed that he never told me that. I gave him 24 hours to send out five apologies: an apology to the five of us who have the database. Twenty-four hours is a reasonable amount of time for this man to send out an 'I'm sorry' apology. And I also requested that he resign from the presidency of [his] VVA."
Young says he would have left it at that. Except that Meyer's apologies didn't show up till five days later. "And it was a very insincere apology," says Young. "So I figure that the guy doesn't really care that he's running around living off the dead bodies [of my SEAL buddies], and the glory, so I called the executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Washington, D.C."
The next Sunday -- November 2 -- Meyer resigned his presidency of his VVA chapter. "I admitted to everyone that, for the last three years, they thought I was a SEAL, but I wasn't," Meyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't really know how it got started, but I never put a stop to it."
Meyer admitted that during the Vietnam War he really had been a pipefitter aboard the carrier USS Ticonderoga.
Estopare says he still considers Meyer to be a "good friend who will do anything for you."
"He feels better now that he's no longer carrying all that stuff around," Estopare told the Post-Dispatch. "He never told war stories. All he ever said was 'Yeah, I was a SEAL.' "
Young, who now lives in Montana, says since the report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailing Meyer's exposure, he has received nine phone calls from nine different people from the St. Louis area. "Each wanted me to check out a name, a friend of theirs who was claiming to be a SEAL. I've checked six of them so far. All six of those people were wannabes. And really, Meyer is nothing. We have busted over 400 wannabes last year alone. That's the ones we've kept track of. I wouldn't be surprised if there were 400 that we never kept track of."
And yes, Young does get people who want him to lighten up, who ask, "What's the point?" "Why humiliate a man like that?"
"As a matter of fact, one of the people who helped me expose Mr. Meyer is really mad at me now. He's worried about the [Ashau Valley Tavern] bar maybe being closed and all the vets not having a good time. But the man [complaining] was a Marine. His job was guarding a missile silo, and he has never had a bullet fly past his head in anger, he's never had one of his teammates lay in the mud and die beside him bleeding to death. Navy SEALs were the most highly decorated unit to serve in Vietnam. We've got three Medal of Honor winners, three Navy Crosses, 50 Silver Stars, 400 Bronze Stars -- it just happened that way. I started with 78 people in my training class. [Only] 15 graduated. Five of us went to SEAL team. The other 10 went to UDT [Underwater Demolition Teams]. That's how serious this is. After you make it through that training, you create a bond, a camaraderie.... I'm worried about my 46 fellow SEALs who died in combat [in Vietnam]. We'll never see them again. Their families suffer today because of the loss of their loved one back then -- their wives, their kids -- and it's just not right for a man to run around claiming he was a Navy SEAL when in fact he wasn't."
Young himself lives every day with the real consequences of being a SEAL. "I'm 100 percent disabled. I got 'the bends' -- it's called vascular necrosis -- in both hips and both shoulders. I had a lot of deep diving. I trained in Coronado and did my [deepest diving] off the coast of San Diego. I've been to 180 feet on mixed gases, nitrogen and oxygen, and other types of compressed air."
Young says the type of "bends" he has can creep up on you 10 to 15 years after a particular dive. "I just started having problems walking [two years] after I got out of the Navy. First my left hip, then it spread into my right hip, now it's in both shoulders."
He turned 20 when he was in Vietnam. "That was 1970. I had two tours of Vietnam. I got the shrapnel wounds on an operation where everybody but 2 in our 14-man SEAL platoon got wounded. I'm on a cane and crutches all the time. I've lost total movement of my left shoulder and arm, I'm blind in my right eye. I still have shrapnel in my back. I'm 47. I can't work. I have a hard time sitting at the computer. I received the Bronze Star with the Combat 'V' medal and the Purple Heart from the same operation. I'm one of the lucky ones. I've been married 24 years, I have two great kids. But I take 800 milligrams of Motrin four times a day. I take stomach medicine because the Motrin eats your stomach and kidneys, and I take Tylenol when I absolutely need them. I have a high threshold of pain, being that I went through that training anyway. I can deal with it. But some days are worse than others. [It's there] every day, every night. I get very little sleep. And [people] get mad at me pursuing these men who seek the glory of being a SEAL and pay none of the price?"
"You've no idea the lengths some of these wannabes will go to," says Young's fellow frog, R.D. Russell, from Colorado, who started the archive. "One claimed to have been a SEAL admiral to help him land a top job in a San Diego corporation [whose name Russell says he promised to keep confidential]. There are only five SEALs who have made admiral. We know them all like the backs of our hands. But if the company hadn't checked with us -- he was a total fraud -- they would have hired him."
"The majority of the wannabes that I have busted personally have been financially successful," says Young. "They own their own business or they've been high-ranking officials, executives. We've even busted a [Republican] political figure in the government in the state of Florida."
"The first big one I busted," says Russell, "moved his entire family to Florida just to be near where the UDT/SEAL museum is. He found out who were the big people in the [SEAL] teams that were retired. He joined their service clubs. Got to know them. Inserted a phonied-up class list [with his name added in] into the official class list. He'd made a several-year project of it. He was the most perfect wannabe phony I ever met. It took me a couple of months to run him down. When I confronted him, he said he didn't want his wife to know or his stepson to know. It would ruin his marriage. I backed off on that one. I'd got to know his wife and his stepson. I thought, 'Do I push this further and mess with the guy's already shaky marriage?' So I got a written apology out of him and a promise he would never do it again, and I let it go at that."
But now, says Russell, the rules are much stricter. "Anybody caught, we inform the immediate family: the wife, the parents, the kids; we fax the place of employment, we contact all relevant organizations and demand that the individual be stripped of his office. We even post notices in bars that the individual frequents. These days, it's total and complete warfare. In the teams, phoniness was the one thing you couldn't tolerate. Phoniness got people killed."
But why do wannabe SEALs do it? Since the recent spate of books written by SEALs, and especially, Russell says, since the Demi Moore movie G. I. Jane, SEALs have become the glamour unit of the U.S. armed forces. And the number of wannabes has escalated. The more Russell sees, the more he thinks there may be serious mental problems in many cases. He calls the phenomenon Munchausen Complex, after the fictional German baron who exaggerated his exploits and importance. This condition is also known in medical circles as "Factitious Syndrome," in which people feign illness, victim status, or hero status to gain attention.
La Jolla psychiatrist Dr. Charles Ettari calls it the "Pretender Syndrome."
"We all tend to exaggerate. It feels good. But we know that we're exaggerating. There are some people who want to be that thing so badly they actually feel that they are it. I've seen people pretend they were police officers. [Meyer] was pretending that he was a SEAL. The positions they aspire to tend to be ones of esteem and respectability."
Ettari says it is a fulfillment issue. "It's not just that I am going to play [a SEAL]. I really am this. Down deep, there's a part of them which really believes that. And there's always a problem [that provokes the act]. Whatever it is, the pretending in that particular identity solves a problem of some kind."
Which is why Ettari believes confronting the person with the hard truth may not be the best thing. "If you take that person's ability to solve whatever that problem is away, it causes usually significant psychological distress," he says. "Most of those people ought to be in some type of therapy. They really have some issues that need to be dealt with and resolved."
But Darryl Young believes Daniel J. Meyer should be thanking him. "I didn't ruin his life. Maybe I helped it. Maybe now he can be who he is. Maybe he won't have to lie anymore and he can go through life with a straight conscience. The man was ruining his own life."