Longform

Will the real Rick Strandlof please stand up?

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Looking back, Flaherty knows why Duncan wanted to avoid the police: "What was he going to do when they took his ID in front of all of us and called him Mr. Strandlof?" Then again, he also remembers Duncan pretending he had lost his ID. "And what about his criminal record?"

The tipping point came when staffers in Udall's office learned that Duncan was claiming to be working for the senator, which they told the board of the CVA wasn't true. Boardmembers were already concerned that the organization wasn't yet a legal nonprofit. And the person who had submitted the paperwork was one Rick Strandlof, not Duncan. Now, looking into the founder's background, they learned that a Rick Duncan hadn't attended the Naval Academy in decades. He hadn't served in Iraq. He hadn't won those medals.

The CVA board contacted the FBI, and investigators tracked Rick Duncan back to Rick Strandlof and his matching criminal records in Montana and Nevada. The Springs branch of the IVAW started getting calls from Veterans of Foreign Wars USA, the American Legion and various branches of Veterans Affairs. News of Strandlof's lies reached the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and scores of other media outlets; Strandlof went on Anderson Cooper 360 to explain himself. But critics attacked him online, calling for punishment on the CVA's Facebook page and its official website, both of which were rapidly removed from the Internet. (The group is now disbanded, but still listed on a number of military advocacy sites.)

And in Denver, a federal district court formally charged Strandlof with violating the Stolen Valor Act, citing him for five misdemeanors.

During his first and only tour in Iraq, Briggs heard the news from his father. In the months leading up to his deployment, Duncan had offered Briggs all kinds of advice based on his own experiences there: "Keep your head down," he encouraged. "Give 'em hell."

"Rick Strandlof is a dirtbag. He researched being full of crap," Briggs says today, and the local members of the IVAW didn't appreciate him unloading crap on them. "Each individual was so filled with anger that there was never really any question of talking to him. The only question was whether we would go find him. For a while, I was down."

Others who knew Strandlof as Rick Duncan vacillate between anger and pity...and curiosity about what happened to the money he raised. Some remain firmly convinced that his heart was in the right place, even if his Purple Heart was decidedly not. "The record will show he definitely has a soft spot for veterans, and I dig that," Flaherty says. "When the news broke out, we were all like, 'What a piece of shit,' and dumped on him, but then we realized he did a lot of good things for the community. But you don't have to pretend to be a veteran to have done the good things Rick did."

Flaherty continues: "He is a good person, from what I can tell, and he doesn't have to put on these facades to belong. I think that's his main struggle: He's just never going to feel like he fits in anywhere. You can't start any relationship under false pretenses, because ultimately, you're always going to be caught."

He pauses to consider. "He's like the Mr. Magoo of espionage."

******

Maybe it was done to protect myself from something I was threatened by, that was going to somehow hurt me. Maybe someday this will be revealed to me. Maybe someday it will not.

What would become the Stolen Valor Act began as a college assignment at Colorado State University in Pueblo. At the time, 47-year-old political-science major Pam Sterner was looking for a topic for an essay assigned by her public-policy professor. The assignment — write about a law that isn't working or one you'd like to exist — struck her as wildly open-ended, but she eventually found her subject while listening to a conversation between her husband, Vietnam vet Doug Sterner, and a friend in the FBI.

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple