a sheep in wolf's clothing
What you should know about military impersonators
By David Larocque
On the 11th of November 2014, while Canadians took time to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, one soldier stood out amongst the rest; that was because he was never really a soldier. Ottawa Police Service charged Franck Gervais with impersonating a public officer and misleading use of a badge or uniform under the Criminal Code of Canada.
Those charges were withdrawn after Gervais pleaded guilty to unlawful use of a military uniform and decoration, under Section 419 of the Criminal Code of Canada. As he awaits sentencing, more examples of military imposters have been making the rounds on various social media sites such as YouTube, where videos of two alleged U.S. military impersonators have been posted.
While such cases seem like a relatively recent occurrence, they are not new to the members of the Canadian Forces Military Police. In 2012, I was called in to investigate such a case at 17 Wing Winnipeg.
Military Police Corporal Mathew Hall responded to a call regarding a suspicious “corporal” looking to volunteer at a local Cadet unit. The corporal quickly rhymed off a service number, unit, rank, and detailed list of personnel within his chain of command. Everything about his Canadian Disruptive Pattern (CADPAT) uniform was correct, down to the name tag, corporal rank epaulette, and Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry cap badge. When Corporal Hall asked him to provide his National Defence Identification Card, the story started to fall apart. The following day, Josh Tuckett was arrested and charged under Section 419 of the Criminal Code of Canada.
Many questions about Tuckett remained unanswered. How does someone get their hands on actual military uniforms? Did his family know? How many times did he impersonate a soldier? As we carried out the investigation many of these questions would be answered, and the answers revealed how easily someone could exploit our military system to create these personas.
A search of Tuckett’s online social media profile revealed multiple images of him in both the CADPAT uniform he was arrested with, as well as a PPCLI dress uniform, complete with medals. Several other photos emerged of “Josh” on parade or on deployment. There was even a news article featuring Tuckett amongst actual CAF members in a ceremony celebrating Afghanistan veterans. In total, this ruse had been perpetrated up to six days a week, for over two years.
So how do these individuals go undetected for so long? While there were multiple flaws in Gervais’s uniform that were quickly pointed out by the online community, the flaws were less apparent with Tuckett. Tuckett’s uniform had all of the correct buttons, patches, and similar accoutrements for a PPCLI member. He went so far as to ensure that he had the United States Distinguished Unit Citation adorned on his left shoulder so people would know that he was a member of 2PPCLI specifically.
Sure the court mounting on his medals wasn’t great. Also his maroon beret raised enough suspicion that a municipal police officer actually questioned Tuckett when he encountered him out in uniform. According to Tuckett, the police officer challenged him on whether he was who he claimed to be, and told him that he suspected he was lying about his service. That's where the conversation ended. Another CAF member approached him at that ceremony for returning Afghanistan veterans and knew within a few minutes of talking to him that something wasn’t right. Again, nothing was done and he was simply told to stop wearing the uniform in public.
So if public opinion seems to agree that it is wrong to pass yourself off as a soldier, why don't we do more about it? The general public may suspect that someone is impersonating a soldier, but may not feel certain enough to challenge them on it. That's where websites such as www.stolenvalour.ca have come in to allow people to post such cases for peer review. Another possibility is a lesser form of the “bystander effect,” where the presence of others essentially hinders an individual from intervening with the assumption that someone else will. How many people saw Franck Gervais in person on November 11th and thought that something was off about his uniform and said nothing?
Perhaps it is more likely that the public feels that wearing an unauthorized military uniform may be offensive, but is in reality a victimless crime. My intent in writing this was not to expose yet another “stolen valour” case, but to bring more attention to this problem. In the wake of the Gervais accusations, the internet was inundated with comments ranging anywhere from people diminishing Gervais’s imitation as the “ultimate form of flattery,” to threats of death or bodily harm. At the root of these comments was the perception that wearing an unauthorized uniform is essentially akin to wearing unauthorized medals or decorations. While they are both unquestionably selfish acts, there was a distinct difference that was often overlooked. Even though wearing medals you haven't earned definitely meets the criteria for stolen valour, wearing an unauthorized military uniform is in a category all its own.
On December 12, 2014, terrorists loyal to the Pakistani Taliban walked into an army-run school wearing what were described as “military uniforms.” By the end of the day, 145 people (including 132 children) were killed. Now, try to put that into perspective with the Gervais case where on November 11, 2014, in the location where Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed by a terrorist 20 days earlier, a man allegedly put on the uniform of a highly decorated Canadian infantry soldier and made his way unchallenged into the crowd of spectators, soldiers, veterans and dignitaries including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, Governor General David Johnston, and Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson. While no one is saying in any way that Franck Gervais’s or Josh Tuckett’s intentions were to cause harm to anyone, the risk of such actions by military impersonators is one that should never be ignored or underestimated.
So why are we seeing an increase in these types of cases? Internet sites dedicated to exposing these activities and the social media community have likely contributed to an increase in the number of reported cases going public. Secondly, there is more appeal to being recognized as a modern soldier. The visible and horrific sacrifices made by today’s soldiers have received far more attention and support than they had throughout the Cold War or peacekeeping era.
Attention was a large part of the appeal for Tuckett. To seek attention he pretended to contend with issues receiving significant media attention, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he allegedly developed as a result of deployments in Haiti and Afghanistan. Tuckett's lawyer, Greg Brodsky, stated during Tuckett’s plea hearing that “This made him feel important. He wasn't trying to get any benefit except recognition, adulation.” Tuckett also admitted during the investigation that he attended multiple public events in uniform. When asked in court if he did this for the attention, he told the Provincial Justice, “A little bit, yes.”
Furthermore, it is now easier than ever to pass yourself off as an active military member. Going back to the Tuckett case, various items of his uniform such as his beret, name tags, rank epaulette, patches, and even military medals were purchased online. Various online kitshops, tactical supply stores, and auction sites such as eBay carry these items for sale to anyone willing to pay. Some are replicas, but many are authentic. Tuckett’s uniforms were authentic and purchased secondhand, partially as a result of former CAF members selling their old uniforms.
While former members are entitled to keep their dress uniforms and similar clothing items, CADPAT uniform items are considered controlled goods by the CAF and are prohibited from sale or donation. Yet these items frequently find their way onto classified ad sites such as Kijiji or Craig's List (at the time this article was written, a search revealed a CAF uniform for sale on Kijiji). Military Police have also seen a rise in the amount of reported thefts of CAF-issued items such as helmets, tactical vests and CADPAT outerwear.
Another way that the internet has helped the modern military impersonator build their persona is social media. As mentioned in the Tuckett case, Facebook photos were uncovered of Josh tagged on parade, training, or during deployments to Afghanistan. These photos were stolen from the social media accounts of active service members. Tuckett was careful enough to select photos where he couldn't be positively identified. He even had a photo from a military graduation parade, with a caption stating, “I'm the 21st guy to the left.” Another photo of heavily camouflaged soldiers walking through the woods stated “that's me on the right; you can only see my eyes though.” Mix those in with actual photos of him in uniform, and you have someone who has enough of an online profile to convince friends and family that he is in the military.
There are two questions I get asked the most when I discuss this case. First, did his family know? When CBC reporter Diana Swain interviewed Gervais, he told her that he was a sergeant with the Royal Canadian Regiment. His spouse standing next to him seemed as proud as any military spouse. Photos of Gervais in uniform at what is believed to be his wedding have surfaced, leading to the assumption that he had dressed in uniform in her presence at least once before. As hard as it may be to accept, Josh Tuckett’s family did believe he was a soldier. Tuckett came home from work in uniform daily and was occasionally away on “courses.” He also had military insignias tattooed on his body. As far as they knew, he did what army guys did. Impersonators are not just dressing up like someone would on Halloween; they are living the lie 24/7.
This brings me to the other question: Why? There is no one clear answer. In the Tuckett case, the best that a court of law could determine was that he was living a fantasy life. Tuckett frequently took part in simulated live action combat role playing using replica “air soft” weapons. This rich fantasy life and lack of any proven malicious intent lead Provincial Court Judge Patti Umpherville’s decision to issue Tuckett an absolute discharge with no conditions or punishment as opposed to the up to six months of imprisonment he could had received.
So what should be done to stop future impersonators? While no one can prevent someone from lying about their service, the smallest changes can be made to limit their ability to developing their persona. Military members must make a concerted effort to stop the sale of military uniforms and return all issued uniforms; they can also dispose of any other items in a manner that would make them unwearable. Second, stop posting your military life on social media. Maybe that sounds extreme, but it’s actually one of the safest and easiest things you can do.
On October 24, 2014, in the wake of the Parliament Hill shooting, the Canadian Forces National Counter-Intelligence Unit recommended that CAF members “Remove any reference to your employment with the DND and/or CAF from all social media sites, especially photographs of military personnel in uniform.” The more you put yourself out there, the more there is to take. Ultimately, if you don't want anyone to steal the valour you have earned, don't provide them with the tools required to make it happen.
Military impersonation needs to be taken seriously. While it may seem like the acts of people with overactive fantasy lives and not those of hardened criminals, impersonators do have the ability to cause exceptional damage as seen in the tragic events in Pakistan. The responsibility to prevent these acts lies not solely with those who lawfully wear the uniform, but also with the public who recognize what the uniform stands for.
David Larocque is a Warrant Officer with the Canadian Forces Military Police with over 13 years of experience in both domestic and international operations.