SANTA FE — At age 28, Paul R. Thurman has made himself famous and infamous.

A division of Unisource printing company produced a booklet about wounded warriors that featured Thurman and two other men. Thurman posed with the Navy SEAL trident, a proud warrior almost killed by a bomb in Iraq.

He has captivated listeners with countless other stories of his days in the SEALs, including a claim that he was a sniper on the world's finest fighting team.

But a review of Navy records shows that Thurman's dramatic accounts of life as a SEAL are all lies. He served in the Army and the Navy, but he was never a SEAL.

When Thurman faced misconduct allegations as a soldier in 2007, he said he was not performing well because of a head injury he received in a training exercise. Then, he said, the Army deployed him to Iraq, where he served briefly before being shipped home as a medical evacuee.

Thurman is one of thousands of men who for egotism or financial gain have falsely claimed to be Navy SEALs, said Don Shipley, a retired SEAL, who exposes the fakes.

False claims of service in the SEALs — the Navy's elite Sea, Air and Land teams — have escalated this spring for an obvious reason. SEALs three weeks ago killed Osama bin Laden in a daring raid on his compound in Pakistan.

Phonies have been claiming they were SEALs for decades, but since bin Laden's death the number of impostors has multiplied, Shipley said.

He said he used to get a dozen requests a day for verification of men claiming to be SEALs.


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Now he receives about 50 daily.

Shipley does not spend much time on liars who sit in taverns, boasting of SEAL exploits. Instead, he focuses on those who hold high-profile positions or present themselves to the public as war heroes.

It was Shipley who investigated a Pennsylvania minister this month after the clergyman told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that he was a SEAL in the Vietnam war. This man of God, Jim Moats, lied to his congregation for five years.

Unlike many of the frauds, the minister admitted to Shipley and then to the public that he had fabricated much of his Navy record. He was never a SEAL and he never served in Vietnam.

Shipley said Thurman has been more elusive, telling so many conflicting stories that his web of deceit is notable even in a fraternity of phonies.

Thurman declined to be interviewed for this story. His wife, Tanya, sent a series of emails asking that the piece not be published.

"The use of Paul's name or likeness have not been authorized for use in any stories and any use of his information will be treated as a violation," she wrote in an email.

Thurman's public claims about his military career seldom matched from one day to the next. For instance, he has given at least four different accounts of how he received a brain injury.

Sometimes, he says he was a casualty of war, wounded when an enemy bomb exploded three feet from his head in Iraq. He also has claimed he was hurt in Kuwait when a mock explosive device went off.

On still other occasions Thurman said his injury occurred while in training for the SEALs. Navy records show he never entered a SEAL training class.

He gave yet another version when he was accused of misconduct as a soldier at Fort Carson, Colo. Thurman faced a loss of rank and pay grade for poor soldiering.

In that instance, he told superior officers that a heavy log had struck him in the head when he tried to qualify for Army Special Forces.

This injury, not a bad attitude, caused him difficulty in doing his job as an Army specialist in Colorado, he said.

After being hurt in training at Fort Bragg, N.C., he said, the Army deployed him to Iraq anyway. Soon after that he was shipped to Fort Carson.

About the time he faced misconduct charges in 2007, Thurman was one of 18 soldiers whose accounts of abuse in the Army captured the attention of U.S. senators.

These service members alleged that they had brain injuries that were not treated properly. The senators sent a letter about their complaints to the Government Accountability Office.

Even after Thurman publicly said the Army mistreated him, he misrepresented himself as a Navy SEAL, Shipley said.

Thurman's wife, in a statement she sent to the POWnetwork website, said he was discharged from the Army in 2009 because of a medical disability, and that he tells conflicting stories because of his head injury.

Thurman is one of thousands of SEAL impostors who have been scrutinized by real SEALs.

Another is Charlie Andrews, a Utah man that ESPN featured in a lengthy story on the "sport" of jousting. Both ESPN and The New York Times reported that Andrews was a SEAL.

The Navy says he was not. Shipley said Andrews failed to complete SEAL training.

ESPN, after complaints from real SEALs, re-edited the jousting story to remove references to Andrews being a Navy SEAL.

Shipley said Andrews, seeking a reality show, intentionally misled ESPN about his Navy record.

Shipley also targeted a personal trainer named Carter Hays, who had appeared as a fitness expert on "The Biggest Loser." Hays also falsely claimed to be a former SEAL.

"I called Carter Hays several times. I asked if he was Navy SEAL, and he hung up," Shipley said.

Shipley said he never received a response from Hays, who also was a minister in Tennessee.

Real SEALs, such as Shipley and his mentor, Steve Robinson, rely on an authoritative database of SEALs to quickly pinpoint impostors such as Hays and Andrews.

Several hundred frauds exist for every real SEAL, Shipley said. Most people will never meet an authentic SEAL, though a few are household names.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska was a SEAL in Vietnam. Kerrey received the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor in the war. He ran for president in 1992.

Jesse Ventura, the former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler, also was a SEAL who served in Vietnam.

Ventura, who for years in wrestling played the part of a villainous braggart, has rarely mentioned his service as a SEAL.

Unlike Ventura and others who served honorably, SEAL impostors are quick to tout themselves.

They can be worse than con men. Some are dangerous.

James Edward Nalls was a Virginia-based cook when he served in the Navy. But after he returned home to Pittsburgh, he presented himself as a SEAL who had been wounded in Iraq. He wore a cap with the SEAL trident and managed to get publicity for himself.

Real SEALs soon unmasked Nalls as a phony, but the story of his erratic behavior was only beginning. Police arrested him in a series of crimes, including robbery, assault and drunken driving.

Nalls' violence escalated when he shot his girlfriend in the back of her head, killing her at 19. Nalls, now 28, is serving a 20- to 40-year prison sentence for her murder.

Shipley said only one thing is certain when dealing with SEAL wannabes.

"There is a never-ending supply of them. They are everywhere."

As for Thurman, he is on the radar of Shipley and other SEALs. They are preparing an Internet video detailing his deceptions.

Milan Simonich: msimonich@tnmnp.com