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.

Heitman, who is currently on duty with the National Guard in Louisiana, could lose his own $10,000 signing bonus and face a court martial.