Longform

Will the real Rick Strandlof please stand up?

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After his release, he moved to Nevada and exchanged Pierson for his given name, Strandlof. In April 2005, the Reno police arrested Strandlof for stealing a gold Ford Explorer he'd rented and neglected to return. After arranging to move his case to Washoe County's Mental Health Court, Strandlof pleaded guilty and spent an additional nine months in jail for the gross-misdemeanor offense. Soon after he got out, he and Jeremy Weed, his boyfriend, moved to Colorado, where Strandlof could exercise his burgeoning interest in politics.

"I'm a whore for a cause," he admits on his blog.

******

The ease with which I convinced myself that all was well did not come as much of a surprise to me, as I have a well-documented track record of convincing people to believe things that are not true.

In 2007, Army Specialist Garett Reppenhagen met Rick Duncan at a meeting of the Colorado Springs branch of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The local group had about ten consistently active members, which quickly came to include Duncan.

Duncan was a charming, outgoing and intelligent — if "really weird" — man who didn't hold anything back, the group's members recall. "The first thing he ever said to me was, 'Hi, I'm Rick Duncan, a former Marine captain. I have two fake knees and a plate in my head,'" remembers Army Specialist Kyle Briggs.

At that initial meeting, Duncan shared what would become, with the occasional quirk or plot hole, his official story: He'd graduated from the prestigious United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the military career that followed was brilliant but blighted. On his third tour in Iraq, the Marine captain was on a routine intelligence mission when an IED, or improvised explosive device, struck his amphibious military vehicle. "I remember him breaking down in tears telling the story," Reppenhagen says. And he'd tell the story over and over, often over beers at Jack Quinn's, the bar where the Springs members of IVAW would bond after outreach events. According to one version of Duncan's tale, the vehicle held five soldiers, three of whom died while the fourth sustained wounds less serious than Duncan's. The next morning, Duncan woke up in a military hospital somewhere near Fallujah, where he underwent surgery that put a metal plate in his head and gave him two fake knees. For his role in the incident, he earned the Purple Heart.

Except that he didn't. No part of Duncan's military story was true. (A Richard T. Duncan did graduate from the Naval Academy — in 1948.) But for two years, Strandlof's exceptional acting talents and the details he pulled from online accounts of other soldiers were enough to convince the members of IVAW that he was legit. In his blog, Strandlof admits using the Internet to further his game of pretend. "I was very proud to live by my wits," he writes. "OMFG."

To join the IVAW, a vet was required to apply through the national branch, proving eligibility by sending a copy of his DD214 form, the paper that came with release from active duty. But somehow Duncan managed to get his name included on the national IVAW listing of all branch members online. "Locally as a chapter, we didn't really do a lot of investigation to see if someone had been a national member," Reppenhagen says. "But we probably should have."

Because the other members of the Springs IVAW were predominantly Army vets, they knew little about the Marines. "He could have said any number of things and I wouldn't have known the difference," says Army Specialist Mike Flaherty. And Duncan did say any number of things: In addition to describing his decorated active-duty career, Duncan also claimed to have been inside the Pentagon on September 11. He didn't share many details, but everyone knew that day was tough to talk about. Later, at a public event he staged to memorialize the victims of 9/11, Duncan choked up.

Duncan had no problem talking about his post-traumatic stress disorder, though. Unlike other members of the group with PTSD, he talked about it constantly, incessantly. While remembering his time in Iraq, he would cry or freak out and fly into a rage. He was depressed, he said. He was demoralized. He had night terrors. He hated that his brothers and sisters — his fellow Marines — were still out there. "He was manic-depressive," Reppenhagen says. "He went on pretty crazy mood swings of being extremely happy and loud and rambunctious to being moody, these two very big extremes. Before I knew he was faking, I credited it to his PTSD."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple