Timothy Michael Poe was an ideal “America’s Got Talent” contestant. The singer, 35, not only could belt out a great rendition of a Garth Brooks song, but he had the kind of story reality shows eat up.
In an episode that aired on NBC on June 5, Poe told the audience and judges that he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade while trying to protect his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
The injury, Poe said, broke his back and gave him a traumatic brain injury, causing a stutter. It wasn’t until a therapist at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio suggested singing in the shower might help his stutter, Poe said, that he turned to music.
“I don't know what to say to a hero like you,” said “America’s Got Talent” judge Howard Stern.
But almost as soon as the standing ovations Poe received had died away, his story began to fall apart. A lieutenant colonel for the Minnesota National Guard issued a statement saying that Poe’s records didn’t show he was injured by a grenade. His fellow service members began posting online that Poe left Afghanistan due to an ear infection, and that he’d broken his back in an earlier incident back in the United States. Some questioned his stutter, which disappeared completely when he spoke excitedly to “America’s Got Talent” host Nick Cannon after his performance, and pointed out that he was hardly new to singing, as he’d fronted a Minnesota band for years. And it was revealed that Poe had previously claimed medals he didn’t earn, and had provided the talent show with a photo of another soldier from the Department of Defense website when they asked for one of him.
Fans of the show may have been shocked, but Poe's discrepancies didn't faze Jonn Lilyea and Mark Seavey. The two men, both veterans, run the military blog This Ain’t Hell, and they’ve been on the phony soldier beat since 2008.
When the Poe story heated up, much of the breaking news was first reported by This Ain’t Hell, as its thousands of readers sent the editors tips and personal anecdotes about the singer.
First, a blog reader who’d met Poe at a golf tournament honoring veterans tipped them off that Poe’s story wasn’t quite adding up.
“She wrote us first thing in the morning (after the show aired) and said hey, you need to get on this,” Seavey told msnbc.com. Soon the blog had posted a blown-up photo of a poster from the tournament showing medals Poe wrongly claimed he earned, and as the story progressed, This Ain’t Hell consistently broke fresh angles on the story, thanks in part to their wide network of readers, as well as the editors’ own dogged research.
At one point, it was revealed that Poe had given the show a photo of another soldier taken in Afghanistan in 2006, when Poe himself was actually there briefly in 2009. A reader of This Ain’t Hell quickly posted a comment thoroughly dissecting the photo and explaining why it couldn’t have been taken in 2009.
“He was in A-stan in 2009 but the picture clearly shows the HMMWV in the patrol as being an M1114 without the Frag 5 kit (the Frag 5 became mandatory in 2007 when I was in Iraq),” the comment read. “He would have been riding in an M1151 which has a completely different configuration for the window on the door.” Few if any mainstream media outlets would have been able to delve into the military detail to that exacting level.
Poe, who was eliminated from the show June 26, was hardly the first to claim false honors and come into the sights of This Ain’t Hell, but he definitely earned them the most attention. “It had a lot to do with the fact that he tugged at (the public’s) heartstrings,” Lilyea said.
But others’ false claims may be even more outlandish. Seavey and Lilyea tell stories of men who Photoshopped their faces into military photos, who got tattoos of medals they didn’t earn, wore Army medals on an Air Force uniform, and who claimed service in Vietnam when they weren’t yet born when that conflict ended.
The blog focuses on varying issues that affect veterans, from post-traumatic stress to the defense budget, but false claims are becoming more and more a part of its coverage area.
“Having been in the military, we come out and everyone wants to tell their story,” Lilyea says. “And you just pick things out that just don’t sound right.” He estimates the blog receives as many as 10 tips a week about false claims, many of which take months to research.
Most of the fakers the blog has exposed do have some military experience, but for whatever reason feel a need to embellish it instead of letting a perfectly honorable, if not headline-making, military career speak for itself.
“To me, it just seems so foreign,” Seavey says of the psychology of those who claim false honors. “You are going to get caught. There is just no doubt.”
It’s obviously important to the men, who work closely together despite living in different states. Lilyea is now a government employee in West Virginia after a 20-year military career, and Seavey is an attorney and veteran based in Indianapolis who manages the American Legion blog The Burn Pit.
“(The fakers) present the public with a poor impression of soldiers,” Lilyea says. “If I can prove that they’re not part of our (military) community, then I’m doing my job.”