When is a SEAL not a SEAL? Too often, says Darryl Young, an ex-SEAL who trained in Coronado. Young heard of so many many SEAL impostors that he helped form a group called the "U.S. Navy Special Warfare Archives" to "root out wannabes" around the country.
His zeal sometimes produces spectacular payoffs. Earlier this month, Young caught one of his prize pretenders. Daniel J. Meyer, 48, president of a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in St. Louis, Missouri. Meyer had long been proclaiming he was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam era. For the past three years he flew a flag with the SEAL insignia outside his pub, the Ashau Valley Tavern, a hangout for vets named after the site of a famous battle in Vietnam.
Then came the morning Meyer's vice president and best buddy Mark Estopare happened to be "chatting" online with Young on the Vietnam Vets' Internet Web site. "Estopare knew I was a SEAL," says Young. "He just said, 'Hey, I've got a friend who's one.'
"I said, 'Well, where is he?' He said, 'As a matter of fact, he spent the night with me last night. He's sleeping right now.'"
Young asked for his SEAL buddy's name. Estopare typed in "Daniel J. Meyer." There and then, Young went to check Meyer on his BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) database. "I'm one of five people in America that have a BUD/S database of everybody that's ever graduated from Training Class 1 to the present day, which is Class 213. Every time a training class graduates, I get a complete update of the names, service numbers, hometowns where these boys are from that graduated."
It only took about a minute. Young found out there was no Dan Meyer in Class 68. "That's the class he was supposed to have gone to. So I told [Estopare] to wake him up. Get him up. And I communicated with Meyer [through Estopare's computer] and basically told him he was lying.
"This man wouldn't get on the computer. He was standing in the background. So the next day I did call and talk to Dan Meyer in person. He was sorry for this and sorry for that. He was real nervous on the phone. He never said anything about being president of the VVA [Vietnam Veterans of America] in St. Louis. He was just very sorry, it would never happen again.
"Well, the very next night, on the same Web site, I found out that [Meyer]'s the president of [his local] VVA. So I call him back, kind of disturbed that he never told me that. I gave him 24 hours to send out five apologies: an apology to the five of us who have the database. Twenty-four hours is a reasonable amount of time for this man to send out an 'I'm sorry' apology. And I also requested that he resign from the presidency of [his] VVA."
Young says he would have left it at that. Except that Meyer's apologies didn't show up till five days later. "And it was a very insincere apology," says Young. "So I figure that the guy doesn't really care that he's running around living off the dead bodies [of my SEAL buddies], and the glory, so I called the executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Washington, D.C."
The next Sunday -- November 2 -- Meyer resigned his presidency of his VVA chapter. "I admitted to everyone that, for the last three years, they thought I was a SEAL, but I wasn't," Meyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't really know how it got started, but I never put a stop to it."
Meyer admitted that during the Vietnam War he really had been a pipefitter aboard the carrier USS Ticonderoga.
Estopare says he still considers Meyer to be a "good friend who will do anything for you."
"He feels better now that he's no longer carrying all that stuff around," Estopare told the Post-Dispatch. "He never told war stories. All he ever said was 'Yeah, I was a SEAL.' "
Young, who now lives in Montana, says since the report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailing Meyer's exposure, he has received nine phone calls from nine different people from the St. Louis area. "Each wanted me to check out a name, a friend of theirs who was claiming to be a SEAL. I've checked six of them so far. All six of those people were wannabes. And really, Meyer is nothing. We have busted over 400 wannabes last year alone. That's the ones we've kept track of. I wouldn't be surprised if there were 400 that we never kept track of."
And yes, Young does get people who want him to lighten up, who ask, "What's the point?" "Why humiliate a man like that?"
"As a matter of fact, one of the people who helped me expose Mr. Meyer is really mad at me now. He's worried about the [Ashau Valley Tavern] bar maybe being closed and all the vets not having a good time. But the man [complaining] was a Marine. His job was guarding a missile silo, and he has never had a bullet fly past his head in anger, he's never had one of his teammates lay in the mud and die beside him bleeding to death. Navy SEALs were the most highly decorated unit to serve in Vietnam. We've got three Medal of Honor winners, three Navy Crosses, 50 Silver Stars, 400 Bronze Stars -- it just happened that way. I started with 78 people in my training class. [Only] 15 graduated. Five of us went to SEAL team. The other 10 went to UDT [Underwater Demolition Teams]. That's how serious this is. After you make it through that training, you create a bond, a camaraderie.... I'm worried about my 46 fellow SEALs who died in combat [in Vietnam]. We'll never see them again. Their families suffer today because of the loss of their loved one back then -- their wives, their kids -- and it's just not right for a man to run around claiming he was a Navy SEAL when in fact he wasn't."