A Cautionary Tale: Stolen Valor

Correction to article: Mr. Herbery was offered a resignation in lieu of a hearing board, or a hearing where he could dispute the multiple charges against him. Mr. Herbert chose to resign in lieu of hearing. This was done over a year before this article came out. The Marine Corps League remains proactive in cases of Stolen Valor.

Former Marine from Buckland apologizes for lying about military service

  • Buckland resident Paul “PJ” Herbert, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of tours in Iraq and Somalia, speaks during Greenfield’s Veterans Day services in 2019. Herbert has confessed to lying about certain aspects of his military service. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ» Buy this Image

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 8/7/2022 9:47:34 PM

Modified: 8/7/2022 9:44:17 PM

BUCKLAND — A former U.S. Marine is apologizing to his fellow veterans and the community at large after it was discovered he has embellished his military service and received medals and money he had not earned.

Investigations by the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District found that Buckland resident Paul “PJ” Herbert had lied about certain heroic actions during deployments to northern Iraq and Somalia in the 1990s. Employees at the veterans’ services district in Greenfield said Herbert initially denied the allegations and became defensive before eventually confessing.

“I just needed to feel important. I started feeling important and feeling good about myself and I didn’t know a way to get out,” Herbert, 51, said in an interview in Greenfield. “I know I hurt a lot of people that trusted me and cared about me and everything else.”

Starting an investigation

In the fall of 2021, the Greenfield Recorder learned that the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District had investigated a local potential case of stolen valor and that the case had been picked up by the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General. Stolen valor is the act of lying about military service. It can come in a variety of forms — from falsely claiming to be a veteran, to claiming a certain rank that was not earned, to wearing or claiming military awards or decorations never awarded. Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District Director Timothy Niejadlik previously explained most cases of stolen valor are unveiled after someone has died. He mentioned a widow or widower — who has been lied to for years about their spouse’s service — will sometimes visit a veterans agency to apply for benefits, only to learn none or few have been earned.

According to information the veterans’ services district received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Herbert was in active service from Dec. 11, 1989, to Dec. 10, 1993, and in the Reserves from Dec. 11, 1993, to May 1, 1995.

Christopher Demars, deputy director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District, said he and his colleagues started to become suspicious of Herbert’s claims a few years ago when Herbert spoke at a local veterans event and talked about his experiences. Demars said Herbert mentioned a lot of information not documented in his DD214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). Herbert had claimed to be the sole survivor of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack while with a group of British Royal Marines during Operation Provide Comfort, a mission to defend Kurdish refugees fleeing northern Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. But during a recent interview, Herbert told the Recorder there was no IED explosion and no Royal Marines were killed.

“On top of that,” Demars said, “IEDs were not a thing until Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Brian Brooks, the veterans’ service officer at the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District and the commandant and web sergeant for the Marine Corps League Oak Ridge Detachment in Bernardston, said his detachment was also suspicious of Herbert’s claims. He said Herbert began bragging about some events not reflected in his discharge paperwork.

Demars said he, Niejadlik and Brooks reached out to Herbert to try to correct any errors. Demars said they asked Herbert for evidence and he provided a type of certificate the three men researched and learned hasn’t been used since before the Korean War era. That’s when the three men filed a FOIA request and discovered Herbert wasn’t telling the truth.

Demars, who earned a Bronze Star with Valor and was seriously wounded in Afghanistan, said Herbert’s false claims of earning one are especially hurtful. Demars recounted the time he told Herbert about regaining consciousness and hearing a medical helicopter’s propellers, only for Herbert to tell that same story to the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2017.

“I told him that [expletive] story,” Demars said. “And he [expletive] used it.”

Herbert, however, told the Recorder that a military trauma he experienced does, in fact, occasionally make him believe he hears the sound of propellers.

“I know I did hurt Chris a lot,” he said. “I apologized to him, sincerely.”

Benefits

Demars, Niejadlik and Brooks — all veterans themselves — said Herbert has hearing loss and tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), but have questioned his claims of a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and direct combat. Herbert said he had been diagnosed after numerous VA medical exams and was granted the VA’s 100% disability rating before he was dishonest about his service.

The three men at the veterans’ services district said Herbert has received at least $452,000 from the VA since 2010. According to the veterans’ services district, Herbert also receives free dental care, $9,000 in tax abatements from Buckland over nine years and $19,000 from the state’s annuity for veterans who are 100% disabled. Herbert has reportedly also received reimbursed mileage to free mental health and neurological appointments district officials claim he does not qualify for.

The veterans’ services district also claims the VA pays the pet insurance and veterinarian bills for Herbert’s free service dog, an English Labrador retriever named Bear. Niejadlik also said Herbert’s lodging and food were paid for when he went to Long Island to train with Bear.

But Herbert said he does not think he will have to return Bear or any money because he has been evaluated by the VA.

Herbert maintains he suffered a legitimate traumatic brain injury when a landing craft utility boat hit a sandbar during Operation Leatherneck Ranger at Camp Pendleton in California. When told about this statement, Brooks said there is no medical evidence to back it up and Herbert never filed any such claim.

However, Herbert said he makes no excuses for his lies.

“I don’t know how to explain it to those guys. And I feel horrible about it,” he said. “I have a lot of good in my heart.”

Military awards

Herbert also fraudulently wears at least 14 military awards (including that Bronze Star with Valor and a Combat Action Ribbon) on his uniform, the investigations have revealed. Asked about these medals, Herbert said he has locked away the ones he legitimately earned and thrown away those he received fraudulently.

“I didn’t want any of that stuff. I got mad at myself. I hated myself. I still hate myself for this,” he said. “I lost a lot of really, really good friends.”

Demars and Niejadlik said Herbert applied for a Purple Heart, but was denied by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Demars, Niejadlik and Brooks expressed frustration that no charges have been brought against Herbert. They suspect this is due to the VA’s role in this situation.

“They conducted an active investigation. He fessed up to all of this, to the OIG inspectors. The OIG inspectors have pushed it forward and it’s just sat there now,” Niejadlik said. “The reason being, we think, is the VA is completely culpable in all this. Because their doctors are the ones that gave him his exams and said, ‘Yeah, he’s got TBI. He’s got PTSD.’”

State law partially defines stolen valor as a person fraudulently claiming “to be a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Combat Action Badge, Combat Medical Badge, Combat Action Ribbon or Air Force Combat Action Medal and obtains money, property or another tangible benefit through such fraudulent representation.” This is a crime punishable by imprisonment of not more than one year, a $1,000 fine, or both.

Brooks said the VA denied Herbert’s claims at least three times until they were granted because “somebody dropped the ball.”

“The time that we’ve all had to sit on this has worn on us considerably over the years,” he said, adding that it was “not good for my own PTSD.”

Marine Corps League

Herbert has formally resigned from the Marine Corps League Oak Ridge Detachment. In his capacity as the detachment’s commandant, Brooks drafted a press release addressing the situation.

“The Marine Corps League, and subsequently the Oak Ridge Detachment, prides itself on honor, honesty and integrity. We do not condone stolen valor, and we do not condone misrepresenting one’s service,” he wrote. “We each volunteered of our own accord to join the United States Marine Corps, and as such we feel that each of us should be honored to have served in whatever capacity we did without the need for embellishment.

“It is my hope that the public, when reading about this unfortunate event,” he continued, “maintains its positive view of the Marine Corps League as we enjoy working for the betterment of our local community.”

Herbert said he worked as a Buckland Police officer for several years before having to retire due to injuries sustained in the military.

“I lost my identity after I was diagnosed with TBI. And I did feel really low, until I found the Marine Corps League. I wanted to feel that I was worth something,” he said. “After I found out I couldn’t work as a police officer anymore, I didn’t have anything to live for until I met the Marine Corps League. And I contemplated suicide over and over and over again. If I knew what a brotherhood that was, I wouldn’t have had to exaggerate about awards that I did not receive. I was really proud helping the community. I’ve done a lot for the community. I’ve done a lot for veterans.”

Demars, Niejadlik and Brooks acknowledged Herbert’s work for veterans but said they are disgusted by the lies he has told.

“It makes us sick, because we trusted him,” Niejadlik said. “We believed his story for a couple of years and, still, he just kept going overboard.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

Link to the Greenfield Recorder Article

Posted: to Oak Ridge News on Mon, Aug 8, 2022
Updated: Mon, Aug 8, 2022