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Hey, Pastor, Thou Shalt Not Lie About Being a Navy SEAL

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on May 9, 2011

If only there were some moral code, some book of principles, some spiritual guidelines handed down from on high, that one could live by which would tell all mankind that it’s not acceptable to spin and perpetuate untruths. If this sort of bible does exist in, friends, someone please kindly send a copy along to the good Reverend Jim Moats of Newville, Pennsylvania. He could use the guidance.

After SEAL Team Six successfully completed the 10-year mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, the media frenzy for interviews with former Navy SEALs hit an all-time high. We wanted answers: What’s it like to be part of such an elite military force? What’s it like to be the best of the best? What’s it like to know you’re a badass performing such badassery around the world?

So when the Patriot-News — the largest daily newspaper serving the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania metropolitan area — went looking for former SEALs in the hopes these interviews would slake our thirst for true heroism, someone sent them over to the Christian Bible Fellowship Church, where the 59-year-old Rev. Moats led a congregation who’d been led to believe he had earned serious accommodation as a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

“I had almost no discipline. I was as wild as they came. That was my nemesis,” Moats told the Patriot-News on Friday. “They weren’t looking for a guy who brags to everyone he is a SEAL. They wanted somebody who was ready but had an inner confidence and didn’t have a braggadocio attitude.”

The only problem? Turns out, there was some braggadocio and embellishment in Moats’ story. The reverend, who did actually serve in the Navy from October 1970 to July 1974, never served in Vietnam, and he was never accepted into the SEALs training program.

Moats on Sunday came clean to the paper, saying the closest he ever came to Vietnam was in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS Independence.

After a feature on Moats ran in the paper over the weekend, PennLive received emails from several people about Moats’ claim. Moats on Sunday then went to the Patriot-News’ office and acknowledged in an interview that his story was mostly fabricated. “It’s an ego-builder, and it’s just simply wrong. In that sense I’ve been living this lie for the past five years,” he said.

One of the men who write in to the newspaper to shed light on Moats’ claims was Don Shipley, a retired SEAL who lives in Chesapeake, Virginia. Shipley can access a SEAL database that’s not accessible to the public and informed the paper that Moats was lying about his record. Shipley called Moats to confront him, and then contacted the paper. “We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up,” Shipley said.

Listen to Moats’ mea culpa here:

But lest you think this mistake was a simple misunderstanding, there’s one piece of crucial evidence that shows how far Moats was willing to take the lie: Moats wore a Trident medal on his civilian suit at a public gathering at least once. That’s the same gold Trident medal that the Navy awards to those brave folks who have completed SEALs training and have earned the right to be called a SEAL. You can also buy one at a military surplus store, which is where Moats bought his.

Rev. Moats now says it “was meant as a memorial to all SEALs,” though you can imagine how that detail might have been left out of his conversations while wearing one.

So how did this story run so wildly out of control? Moats relayed the birth of his lies to the Patriot-News:

Moats had a plaque on his office wall that honors SEALs and other Navy special-operations units. Moats said his two sons, who were in the Army and served in Iraq together, made the plaque for him.

Moats’ name doesn’t appear on the plaque, but when church members got the impression from it that Moats had been a SEAL, Moats didn’t deny it. From there, the word spread, and Mats did nothing to correct the record.

“I have allowed people to assume that, and I have not corrected it. Probably at this church for the last five years do people assume that,” Moats said.

Moats said his wife and his two sons, Jamie and Jonathan, knew that he was never a SEAL. Moats said one of his sons called him after seeing the published story to ask why he would tell the world he was a SEAL when he wasn’t.

Moats said his older son, Jamie, is an Army first lieutenant in Germany about to be deployed to Afghanistan. Jonathan is no longer in the Army.

Moats said his father, now deceased, served in the Navy in World War II and was wounded in the South Pacific. Both of Moats’ sons fought in Iraq. They are real war heroes, something he wanted to be but never was, he said.

Moats said he lived his own dream of being a SEAL vicariously through his sons, although he doesn’t put the blame on them for the lies he told.

Here’s the best part, according to the Patriot-News’ follow-up article: Shipley says Moats’ story about “being re-assigned to kitchen duty and about being waterboarded were lifted from the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege, while his reference to being hit by SEAL instructors was vintage GI Jane.”

Ever since the Stolen Valor Act was ruled unconstitutional, it’s not a crime to misrepresent your service. SHipley, however, says Moats shouldn’t face prosecution anyway. Instead, Shipley argues, Moats got a great sense of street justice: “I don’t lump him in with the worst of the worse. He’s just despicable. Some of these guys are total criminals. I think just having his ass spanked is enough for him that he won’t do it again any longer,” he said. Yup. And that’s an ass spanking right there.

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