In 2008, I met a man who I thought was the love of my life. I was volunteering with the Red Cross in Beaumont, Texas, following the aftermath of Hurricane Ike when I met Chris. He was a 20-year veteran with the Army Special Forces and the exact opposite of everything I was.
I was and still am a hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, lefty-liberal living in Los Angeles. He was a conservative, Christian-raised, career military man brought up in the heartland of Texas. It was the basis for a movie-style romantic drama starring Sandra Bullock, only it was all a lie.
I remember the first moment I saw him when our group from the Red Cross entered the small church where we would be housed for the recovery. He was slung low in a chair, his leg kicked out in front of him and a baseball cap pulled down on his head like a rebel country music singer. I knew instinctively when he walked, he swaggered.
It didn’t take long for Chris’s story to swirl through our camp. He had been medically discharged from the Army not for the sniper's bullet that tore apart his ankle but for the suicidal thoughts and PTSD he suffered by years of combat. He was hero-worshipped by the other volunteers who gathered around to listen to his war stories, and although I had protested the war on numerous occasions shouting “No blood for oil,” along with my artist-hippy friends, it wasn’t long before I took was sucked in. It broke my heart that this man had suffered so much for a war I didn’t believe in.
The first night we hung out alone I asked him about the tattoo on his upper arm. It was a blue arrowhead with a yellow sword and three lightening bolts.
“Special Forces Airborne. It’s for the guys in my unit I’ve lost,” he answered with his Texas drawl.
“How many did you lose?”
He raised his eyes to meet mine. “All of them.”
Recently a video of a man in uniform being called out as a fraud while shopping in a mall on Black Friday went viral on YouTube. My sister shared the video on my Facebook page and as I watched all I could think was as shocking as it was, it didn’t surprise me at all. I knew all too well that there were people out there masquerading as heroes. I had fallen in love with one.
Although the YouTube video didn’t surprise me, many of the comments did. Some commenters tried to come up with reasons and excuses for why the fake soldier would put on a uniform and go to a public place. Some examples below:
“Yeah, he's a fake, but he might have been doing it because he has some underlying issues. For all you know, he could be severely depressed.”
“Well he may have dissociative identity disorder. Playing a solder may actually be a reality in his life.”
“The guy certainly doesn't seem like he wants to be offensive by wearing that uniform, even if he is faking it. Maybe a bit of an over reaction to start shouting and swearing at him.”
Seeing these comments reminded me of a documentary I recently watched, "The Woman Who Wasn’t There," about a woman named Alicia Esteve Head. The documentary chronicles the deception of Alicia Esteve posing as Tania Head, a survivor of the attacks on the Twin Towers. She told an elaborate story of loss and survival during 9/11 in which she nearly lost her life and did lose the life of her fiancé. The entire story was a lie. She wasn’t even in the United States when the attacks occurred.
What I found interesting was the reluctance of any of her fellow survivors to question gaps in Head’s story. One woman, who was in fact a survivor of the attacks and befriended by Tania, said, “It would have been cruel [to question her story].”
I understand this thinking. There is something awkward and embarrassing about calling someone out on their lies, especially if they have painted an elaborate portrait placing themselves in the role of victim, hero, or both. This was the case with Chris. He was both victim and hero. He served our country and lost his best friends in the most gruesome ways imaginable. He took a bullet, so that you and I could live in freedom. Except he made all of it up.
How are we supposed to question someone like that? In the short time I was in a relationship with Chris, I often found myself second-guessing some of his tales. Timelines didn’t match up (he suffered from PTSD and got confused on dates); there were no pictures (everything had been stolen!); and no one was around to corroborate events (everyone had died). Whenever I did bring up a contradicting fact, he got flustered, sometimes angry, and brushed it aside. Then I would feel embarrassed and cruel for bringing it up. How could I question him when he had suffered so much already?
When my internal voice would tell me things didn’t seem right, the visual reality of his Army Special Forces tattoo, told me I had to be mistaken. I discounted my gut truth, my knowing something was off, because he wore a permanent symbol of his lies. It never occurred to me that someone would place a tattoo on his body that wasn’t legitimate. It was his “get out of lying free card.”
When the cleanup for Hurricane Ike had ended. I went back to Los Angeles and Chris returned to Texas. Many tearful phone conversations later we knew we wanted to spend our lives together and made plans to move to Louisiana together where my family owned a home that needed repairs after flooding in the hurricane.
In the swamps of Louisiana, our fairytale began to unravel. Too many inconsistencies began to pile up and I could no longer ignore my doubts. In a conversation with his brother while Chris was away I finally asked the question I didn’t want the answer to.
“Chris was never in the Army was he?”
I heard a deep exhausted sigh, followed by, “He isn’t still telling that story is he?”
Yes, yes he was. I hung up the phone with his brother and sent Chris a simple text: I know the truth.
Posing as a vet was the perfect cover. We as a nation have been conditioned to “support our troops” — as we should — but this can sometimes cross the line into “don’t question our troops.” It’s what a sociopath thrives on. They get off on manipulating people for the sheer pleasure of getting away with it.
There are no repercussions for a sociopath getting caught in a lie. According to Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, “I don’t think that the sociopath is ever punished or ever really capable of being made aware of any of the trauma they have imposed on another person.” You can read the full interview here.
I am not a doctor and in no way can say whether the fake soldier in the YouTube video or Tania Head are sociopaths, but what I did observe was that when each was caught in their lies, they simply walked away. There was no apology or explanation; they just disappeared. I never received either from Chris. I moved across the country to get as far away from him as possible and cut off all contact.
I spent the next year and a half writing a book. Not to tell his story but to tell my own. To make sense of all that had happened and maybe perhaps to warn others to always trust their gut instinct. It never lies to you.
Two years after publishing my memoir, "Will Love For Crumbs,"about living with a fake soldier and a man I believe is a sociopath, I still get letters from readers asking if I don’t wish to contact Chris and get an explanation for why he lied. I always respond the same way: “I would have better success trying to get a brick wall to explain why it’s a brick wall.”
I walked away from that relationship knowing there was nothing I could have done differently to change who he is. My conscious is clear… because I have one.