An Army of Anyone
For Private Kevin Shane Heitman, the completion of Army National Guard basic training last month was a day of sweet reward. After what he describes as "six months of hell," Heitman was done with basic training and advanced infantry training, ready to be a soldier. Boot camp had been the most arduous test he'd ever encountered; graduating from high school was so much easier.
He'd just faked his diploma -- at his Army recruiter's suggestion.
Heitman dropped out of school in the eighth grade and doesn't have a general-equivalency diploma. For him to be a soldier in the Arkansas Army National Guard contradicts the rules and regulations that the Armed Forces set for themselves and reaffirmed this past spring.
But they didn't take into account Sergeant Lloyd Spears of the Little Rock Army recruiting office. Heitman's family says that Spears not only told Heitman a fake diploma would work, he made it for him.
The recruiter "does nothing but try to help people fix their lives," Heitman insists when asked about the faked diploma. Spears's advice, however, could ultimately cost Heitman his chance at an Army career.
Spears claims he had nothing to do with the faked diploma and has signed a sworn affidavit to that effect, according to the Arkansas Army National Guard.
Heitman's family says that Spears came into Cafe Lauren, the Little Rock restaurant where Heitman and his mother, Laurie Bennett, worked, and created the diploma using a scanner and a co-worker's high school diploma. After a few minutes of cut-and-paste with a Photoshop program, Kevin S. Heitman was a graduate of Beebe High School in Beebe, Arkansas -- a feat that takes most Beebe teens four years.
"He would say, 'Get on the computer and just make up a diploma,'" remembers Bennett. "I was there."
Beebe High School confirms that Heitman was never there. The school has no record of him attending, and the date on the diploma, which was changed to 1997, isn't consistent with the signatures on the diploma. "I've been here eighteen years, and I don't know him," says Beebe principal Mike Tarkington. "[Superintendent] Marshall wasn't here in 1997. That would tell me this is fake."
The signatures on the diploma correspond to people working at the school about five years earlier, when Nicole Goforth, Heitman's former co-worker, graduated from Beebe.
"Kevin did exactly what the recruiter said to do," says Heitman's father-in-law, Robert Edl. "I talked to the recruiter. He wanted me to make a copy of it and blow it up to 8 1/2 x 11. He made the copy here at my print shop."
The plan was for Heitman to get his GED before he left for basic training, at which point Spears would pull the fake diploma and put in the real certificate. "The recruiter said, 'As long as you get your GED, I can switch these papers to get you in there,'" Edl remembers.
But Heitman never got his GED, and the fake diploma was never pulled.
The recruiter didn't want to wait for Heitman to get a real GED before he signed him up, the family says, because Spears was trying to win a trip and a $10,000 bonus for enlisting a certain number of recruits in a specific time period. "It was his trip to Hawaii or the Bahamas or whatever," Bennett says.
"The fake-diploma thing came up because he needed him enlisted and sworn in before a certain date," Edl adds. "They can put me on a lie detector."
Bennett says Spears even promised to help cover up Heitman's drug use: "He would say, 'Kevin, go in the bathroom and pee in this cup,' and Kevin would go pee in a cup. And he would say, 'If you don't pass this, I can cover it.'"
Under military regulations, recruits are required to have graduated from high school or to have earned an equivalency diploma. They must also pass a urine analysis, physical and mental-health exams, and a criminal-background check, and receive a passing score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. It is the responsibility of the recruiter to make sure a potential enlistee meets those qualifications.
A photocopy of a diploma is acceptable, but the recruiter is supposed to verify its authenticity. "We don't have the manpower to check every diploma," says Christine Munn, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Army National Guard.
In his affidavit, Spears says he simply accepted a copy of what he believed to be an authentic diploma. He is still a recruiter, although the Arkansas Army National Guard says he is being investigated in connection with Heitman's enlistment.
"They're doing an investigation on me which is gonna cut off my damn bonus which I worked so goddamn hard to get," he says. "I worked so fucking hard, and you just ruined it. Your little eighteen-year-old ass just fucked me out of it....Grow the fuck up, you little punk."
On March 17, my little eighteen-year-old ass published a story in The Westwind, the Arvada West High School newspaper. Titled "Army Desperation Leads to Recruiting Fraud," the article recounted my journey of deception with a few recruiters.
After seeing how military recruiters at my high school fished for students willing to fight a war, I began to wonder just how far they'd go to get one more finger on the trigger. I decided to find out for myself.
On January 20, 2005, I went to a local recruiting office with the following scenario for James David McSwane: Due to my overwhelming battle with drugs and alcohol, my incompatibility with my peers and my inability to succeed in the classroom, I gave up on my education in the eleventh grade. Although I'd dropped out of high school, I was an efficient thinker and problem-solver. I worked hard and liked to exercise. And despite my drug addiction and lack of a diploma, I aspired to serve my country and become a part of the proud legacy that is the United States Army. Now, what could the U.S. Army do for me?
I gave my spiel to a recruiter, Sergeant First Class Eric Mulero. To my surprise, he showed no interest in my addiction, saying simply, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
He was adamant, however, that I set up an appointment with a GED testing facility. He said that a GED and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery were the only obstacles on my way to enlistment. But then he checked my height and weight, and said that at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 210 pounds, my body composition was not up to par with Army regulations. In order to join, I'd need to lose ten pounds and an inch off my waist.
Mulero called my house the next week. I told him I was wasting his time, because I could not stop using drugs. He should have told me that I could not join the Army with a drug addiction; instead, he said he had a solution. He would take me to this "place" to get this "stuff" that would "clean you out," and offered to pay for half the cost. What was this "stuff"? A type of detoxification drink that I could take the morning of the physical exam, he explained, and if I followed his instructions precisely, I would pass my urine test. It was no big deal, he said; he'd used it three or four times before.
On February 3, Mulero called to tell me that I'd "freakin' smoked" the ASVAB with a score of 88 out of 99 -- so he was taken aback when I told him I'd failed my GED exam two days earlier.
Two weeks later, I called Mulero and told him that I could not pass the GED because of my test anxiety. The reason I'd done so well on the ASVAB, I said, was because it tested more practical skills, such as mechanics, shapes, electricity concepts and basic grammar, while the GED assessment had graphs and a writing section. Mulero should have told me that I could not get into the military without a diploma or GED; instead, he said there was the "home-school option."
He should have called it the "no-school option." A short time later, Mulero called from outside the recruiting office and explained how I could go online and forge a phony diploma, as well as fabricate a high-school transcript. He told me to use the name of a fictitious school that he'd created, "Faith Hill Baptist School."
A few clicks and $200 later, I was a graduate of Faith Hill Baptist High School. When I submitted the phony documents to Mulero, he said they looked great. He just needed to have them approved by his battalion commander.
But then Mulero was reassigned to Germany, and my enlistment packet was handed off to Sergeant Tim Pickel.
In my first conversation with Pickel, I told him that my diploma and transcripts were fakes and that I had a drug addiction. No problem, he said. On March 20 -- after my first Westwind piece appeared -- Pickel drove me to Pipeline, a local tobacco shop, to purchase the "black magic" detoxification kit. A friend filmed us from across the street.
I decided my investigation had gone as far as it could when Pickel asked me to sign an affidavit that I was, in fact, a graduate of Faith Hill Baptist High School. Instead, I walked out of the recruiting station without giving a reason and never returned.
In addition to the Pipeline film, I had photos and video footage of my meetings with the recruiters. I'd also taped numerous phone conversations during which the recruiters told me to lie and cheat to get into the military.
The Army says it does not condone such behavior by recruiters. "Let me sum up all of this in one word: unacceptable. Completely unacceptable," said Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Brodeur, the man in charge of recruiting for Colorado, when I told him what I'd found. "It appears to be a character issue. We are trained not to do that."
The recruiters were dismissed as "bad apples" and my case as an isolated incident.
But my investigation -- which was picked up by KCNC-TV/Channel 4 in Denver and then went national on CBS News on April 28 -- sparked other reports of recruiter misconduct. What the Army calls "recruiting improprieties" have occurred across the nation. They've ranged from ignoring medical conditions to intimidation to blatant illegalities.
On May 3, after interviewing two dozen recruiters in ten states, the New York Times reported that recruiters had concealed mental-health and police records, falsified documents and supplied cheat sheets for applicants taking the military aptitude test. Two Ohio-based Army recruiters deliberately ignored a man's bipolar disorder -- a condition that would disqualify him for enlistment.
"We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by," another recruiter told the Times.
On May 9, KCNC reported that a recruiter had told a Grand Junction man to use a laxative just before the physical exam so that he would meet the military's weight regulations. His aptitude-test scores had also been falsified, Michael Flaherty said: "I never completed none of those tests, and my recruiter faked the documents."
On May 12, a CBS affiliate in Houston reported that a recruiter threatened to get an arrest warrant if a potential enlistee missed his meeting. Sergeant Thomas Kelt told reporters that his threat was a "marketing technique."
On May 18, a Cincinnati-based NBC affiliate caught recruiters lying about the realities of war. "You have more chance of dying here in the United States at, what is it, 36 percent die, kill rate here in the United States," one recruiter said. "People here just dying left and right, you have more chance of dying over here than you do over there."
Senator Wayne Allard sent a formal letter to Army Secretary Francis Harvey on May 12, requesting a federal investigation of questionable recruiting tactics. "According to these reports," Allard said, "the rules weren't just bent, they were broken and tossed away."
In response to growing reports of recruiting misconduct, reports that stemmed from my Westwind investigation, the Army's Recruiting Command initiated a national "Values Stand Down Day" on May 20. This one-day moratorium on recruiting would be devoted to refocusing on Army values and reviewing Army policies and procedures pertaining to recruiting.
On June 3, Army Secretary Harvey responded to Allard's request for a probe of recruiting improprieties. "The Army takes these allegations seriously, and last month initiated an investigation into the charges against certain recruiters in Colorado," he wrote. "Our overall policy is to investigate any and all allegations of wrongdoing."
Eric Mulero was scheduled for an August 30 court martial on charges of recruiting improprieties in connection with my case. I was subpoenaed to testify, but my testimony wasn't needed after he pleaded guilty to the charges. Mulero, a fifteen-year veteran, was demoted from sergeant first class to staff sergeant, and lost a grade of pay.
"I know I'm a good soldier," Mulero said after making his plea. "I used poor judgment."
Sergeant Tim Pickel received a non-judicial punishment last month, which most likely means a letter of reprimand will be on his permanent military record.
Lieutenant Colonel Brodeur, who has about 130 recruiters -- including Mulero and Pickel -- under his command, says his office has combed through its files, and investigators have found no evidence of any enlistee joining the Army fraudulently over the past five years in Colorado. Although Mulero and Pickel both said my fake diploma had been submitted and accepted by their battalion commander, Brodeur insists that the paperwork was not submitted.
"Your packet was never what we call ';built' and put in the system," he says. "It never went through quality-control gate number one, and there were too many glaring errors for it to pass any quality-control gate. I've got greater than 90 percent confidence in the system. It's a pretty sophisticated system. It's a very, very complicated system. It certainly has a few vulnerabilities, and that's why I say it's not 100 percent.
"For the layperson who doesn't see it work and doesn't know all of the intricacies, it would be pretty doggone difficult to identify the vulnerabilities. If all you had were the recruiters at the station on your side to get you in the Army, you still wouldn't [get in with a fake diploma]. They could not bulldoze it through."
But in Little Rock, Kevin Heitman didn't need a bulldozer to become a U.S. soldier. He just needed a recruiter willing to provide that fake diploma.
"If this is true, this is terrible," says Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Collins of the Arkansas National Guard Recruiting Battalion, the man in charge of investigating Heitman's case.
"I think it is and has always been an isolated situation," Douglas Smith, spokesman for the national Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, says of the Colorado recruiting problems. "The vast majority of all recruiters do the job of recruiting for the Army in an outstanding manner. All applicants for the service have to take a drug test; we screen all applicants for a criminal background. We check for a birth certificate, a Social Security number, look at the actual diploma."
Since Stand Down Day, "we've gone about our business of recruiting for America's army," Smith continues. "We had reports of recruiters bending the rules, violating procedures, and the General concluded it was necessary to stop the business of recruiting for a day to re-emphasize to all of us within the command the importance of maintaining America's trust in recruiters and in the institution.... Loyalty, duty, respect, honor, selfless service, integrity and courage -- all those should apply. Making our recruiting goals is important to the Army and to the nation, but doing so with integrity is also vitally important."
The Army will not come close to meeting its goal of getting 80,000 recruits by September 30. So at the same time the military talks about raising standards for recruiters, it might want to consider lowering its standards for recruits. Plenty of young men and women with drug issues and without high school diplomas would love to serve their country; so far, they just haven't found the right recruiter.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.