Stealing Valor for a free meal
NOTE: This was written after Veterans Day 2012, and still applies today.
I experienced something recently that I have to talk about. I’m pissed off about this and need to get it out now, while it’s still fresh.
Monday November 12th my wife and I went to a couple of restaurants that were offering free meals to veterans. Despite the fact that I’m a trillionaire author, our four kids and single income means my family doesn’t have a lot of extra money to throw around. So this year we decided to go to the Olive Garden and Golden Corral.
The experience at the Olive Garden was excellent. The restaurant wasn’t any more packed than normal when we arrived for lunch. When I asked the waitress about the Veterans Day meal, she very politely asked me for my ID (the Olive Garden requires proof of military service) and then told me her boyfriend is an Army reservist preparing for an Afghanistan deployment. The service was excellent, the food was great, a handful of veterans wearing military hats or shirts shared quiet meals with their families at other tables. It was an all around good experience.
For dinner we went to Golden Corral. On their web site the restaurant advertises its Veterans Day free meal, and says no ID is required. I thought that was a bad idea, but otherwise didn’t dwell on it. But when my wife and I arrived, I changed my mind real quick.
The restaurant’s parking lot was packed and a line snaked out the door. A few VFW members and high school ROTC cadets were outside talking to customers and handing out “I served” stickers to anyone who said they were a veteran. And I mean, all you had to do was claim to be a veteran to get a sticker. If you got one, you didn’t have to pay.
A few people in the line with “I served” stickers sure didn’t look like they were veterans. An overweight young man in front of us was wearing a t-shirt, pajama pants and house shoes. A VFW Vietnam vet asked him a few friendly questions about his service, just making conversation. I listened intently. The man’s answers were so quiet and slurred we could barely understand them. He claimed to be an Army Iraq and Afghanistan vet. Then the Vietnam vet talked about his own war, and laughingly mentioned that his unit had to deal with snakes, tigers and elephants. The supposed Iraq and Afghanistan Army veteran gave him a confused look and asked, “You were in Africa?”
My wife and I exchanged a look. The Vietnam vet was wearing a baseball cap with his unit patch and miniature medals on it, and also wore a vest covered in military patches. He had mentioned Vietnam several times. Maybe this guy in line in his PJs really was a veteran, and really was that clueless. But I fail to see how any military man could have misunderstood the Vietnam vet.
Then we got inside the restaurant. It was chaotic, loud and crowded. No problem with that. A waitress seated us at a table with a couple in their 60’s. Both wore “I served” stickers, and the woman wore a hat with a veterans’ organization logo on it. No problem with that either, I enjoy talking to older veterans.
But when we sat down, the woman ruined it by talking to us. Within minutes I learned that she had been “deep cover” for Army criminal investigations. And while she “had never actually enlisted in the military”, her work as an informant made her just like a veteran. Then she said she used to be in a volunteer state militia, and “that was just like being in the regular military”. As far as she was concerned, she was entitled to eat for free.
So within the first five minutes after being seated, I find myself across the table from a military poser. At least her husband was honest. All he claimed to be was an Army mechanic.
Then we asked our waitress when we were supposed to pay. We had been herded from the buffet line to a table, but hadn’t been asked to pay for my wife’s meal. The waitress said, “Oh, you were supposed to pay back there. But don’t worry about it, just put a sticker on. People have been in here all day lying about being the military to get free food, but at least you were honest. So don’t worry about it.”
My wife put on the sticker, but later I yanked it off. I wasn’t willing to risk having anyone think she was a poser.
We got up to leave. I went to a manager and told her we needed to pay for my wife’s meal, and said I thought a lot of people in the restaurant were never in the military. She was thankful for the honesty, and said, “You know, I figure about a quarter of the people in here today are lying to us. My ex was a Marine, and I can usually tell when someone’s lying about the military. But we’re not supposed to ask for IDs or anything.”
While she was talking to me, a “veteran” walked out of the restaurant after finishing his meal. He was wearing an Army combat uniform with Air Force boots, was missing all his patches, and had a beard. An absolute, obvious poser. But he had gotten his free food.
I tensed up. This poser was wearing a uniform that I wear with pride, that I fought in, that friends of mine were killed or wounded in. I don’t have PTSD and am not prone to angry outbursts, but I felt a sudden urge to inflict homicidal violence on him.
My wife grabbed my arm and told me to calm down. I’ve confronted a major, professional poser once before, despite my wife’s requests that I just walk away. But this time I let it go.
I left there furious, and told my wife we wouldn’t be back next year. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Golden Corral’s attempt at honoring veterans for their service. Real vets can go there and get a free meal, which is a small but valuable show of support.
The problem is that any dishonorable loser too cheap to pay $12 can stand beside real vets and receive a gift they don’t deserve. GC’s system almost encourages abuse. The employees were certainly aware they were being scammed, and as a veteran I could plainly see it. But it wasn’t my place to be the gate guard at their restaurant, and apparently the corporate ownership has made peace with the fact that they’re being ripped off by posers. I guess they decided their noble gesture was worth the massive ripoff .
Any program that gives a reward without enforcing a standard begs to be exploited. If the organizers of the NYC Marathon advertise “Free jackets will be given away to anyone who finishes the race, no questions asked”, they should expect hundreds of people without a drop of sweat on their ill-fitting jogging suits to show up and demand their free jacket. We as a nation should know that we have thousands/tens of thousands/hundreds of thousands/maybe even millions of pathetic vultures in our midst, eagerly awaiting a chance to scam well-meaning people out of anything of value.
In my experience, those vultures are always on the prowl. On Veterans Day, they thought nothing of stealing accomplishments of men and women who have struggled and sacrificed and sometimes bled for this country. All that mattered to them is that they got something for free. In this case it was a $12 meal. In other cases it’s unemployment benefits, food stamps, free housing or something more valuable.
I’m trying not to be too cynical about this. I know real veterans got what they were promised. But I can’t shake the sense that the entire event was cheapened by the liars and posers who showed up.
To the owners of Golden Corral, thank you for trying to do something good for us veterans. But you almost ruined it by allowing it to be taken advantage of by liars and thieves. Please change your policy and ask for some proof of service. The military teaches us that honors must be earned, so real vets won’t complain about it. Make people show an ID, or a DD-214, or a VA card, or a picture in uniform. Have the VFW members at the door question idiots like the bearded guy in the mismatched uniform. Put up a sign outside that says, “We encourage real veterans to savagely beat anyone they catch lying about military service”.
Maybe some posers will still get through. But at least they’ll have to make a damn effort to do it.
This picture was shared on the “Strike Hold” Facebook page today. It was taken at a Golden Corral Veterans Day meal yesterday. The man on the left is a real veteran and took the picture to make a point.
According to the FB page, this is the story of the conversation between the real vet and fake vet:
“So my buddy Brett saw this cool guy at Golden Corral.
Brett went up to him and thanked him for his service as dryly as possible, and then told Delta Ninja SF sniper that Brett wanted a picture with him.
After the pic, Brett said sarcastically that it was such an honor to meet a real life snake-eater.
Hi-speed replied, ‘Yeah, there are not many of us of left.’
Then Brett spat back, ‘There sure are on Veterans Day.'”
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 82 Comments
Tags: golden corral, stolen valor, veterans day